Wednesday, July 05, 2017

The frat boy, the liberal, and the actual existing Africans

A memoir is an opportunity for a writer to put his or her life on trial, but few follow through and condemn themselves too. Jeffrey Gettleman, this newspaper’s Pulitzer Prize-winning East Africa correspondent, fell in love with Africa while still a self-described frat boy; at Cornell he met his other great love, Courtenay, an alluring sorority girl. The twisted road that eventually allows him to unite these two conflicting passions takes the reader through a melodrama that squats uncomfortably between “Eat, Pray, Love” and “Heart of Darkness.”

Africa. That vast swell of nations, languages, landscapes and histories has always had a peculiar impact on foreigners, but Gettleman seems to have been hit harder than most. The continent is described as his “imaginary friend,” a place that his fraternity brothers cannot possibly understand: basically a high-five-happy Shangri-La where the people are poor but rarely resentful. 
...I have perceived in many works on Somalia by Western journalists some of the wild-eyed joy you see in photos of youths running with the bulls in Pamplona — a macho thrill that life there is supposed to be short and cheap, an almost sensual delight in, say, the “dark, unblinking eyes” and “chains of bullets.” “Love, Africa” follows in that tradition, but it does a useful thing too: It shows just how impervious that gaze is to the work of African writers, and how the call of the tribe — the media tribe — cuts through whatever good intentions are put before it.

By the end of the memoir, ensconced in comfort in Nairobi, Gettleman strikes a conflicted figure. He is still in love with Africa, though the postelection violence in Kenya as well as the Westgate Mall attack by Al Shabab have torn away some of his illusions. Both he and Courtenay have accepted the wisdom of their predecessors, ruefully recalling what a Zimbabwean farmer told them once at a truck stop near the South African border: “These people can survive on very little. They’re not like us whites. They don’t need a hamburger or an apple. They’ll be fine for a month with a slab of rancid donkey meat.”

After spending years living in Africa, after questioning the inequality he sees around him, and after conversing with numerous politicians, activists and ordinary men and women, Gettleman allows the embittered white farmer to get in a parting shot, which he and his wife seem to take as brutal honesty. This unintentionally amusing scene fits what is a bewildering memoir. The whole narrative reminds me of those books written by colonial adventurers such as Sir Richard Burton, aimed at readers interested in Africa mainly as a site for their dreams and nightmares.
Review by Nadifa Mohamed

the liberal, played by Elon Green

I've never read Gettleman. It should be shocking that he'd ever be hired by the NYT, shocking to defenders of reason and enlightenment. It should be shocking that the NYT defends Zionism. It took an outsider to point out the obvious, a change made possible only because she was given the opportunity to publish in the Times.

I'm tagging this under Freedom of Speech, because it ties so closely to recent posts on censorship and race, Nadifa Mohamed alongside Jordan Peele.

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