I visit Africa at least two or three times a month these days with Jeffrey Gettleman, the New York Times' East Africa bureau chief.
Last month, he took me to Mombasa, Kenya, where we greeted the Fania—the Ukrainian freighter toting tanks and other heavy weapons nabbed by Somali pirates—as it crawled into port. In another piece, we surveyed the town of Faradje, Congo, abandoned by both the Congolese National Army and U.N. peacekeepers to the murderous Lord's Resistance Army. Gettleman and his fearless stringers in Somalia have educated me about the difficulties of nation-building on the bedrock of chaos, and just this week, he gave me a compact tour of Kenya's insurmountable problems: impending starvation, governmental corruption, and ethnic bloodshed.
He mostly covers ugly news—massacres, depravation, rape, riots, suicide bombings, mutilations—the sort of topics that make your breakfast congeal and then reflux. In the hands of a lesser writer, this would be a ghoul's beat, the newspaper equivalent to an installment in the Friday the 13thseries. But the Gettleman method is to play it straight and direct, easy on the cynicism, and without a hint of any world weariness. Reading the transcription of his interview with Sugule Ali, spokesman for the pirates who commandeered the Fania, reveals an outstanding police reporter at work. In some ways, it rivals the actual story Gettleman ended up writing.
Last summer he reported on the killing of Tanzanian albinos, whose body parts are harvested because they're believed to possess magical powers. He uses language so simple it could be hard-covered and sold as parable:
The men sawed off Vumilia's legs above the knee and ran away with the stumps. …
Yusuph Malogo, who lives nearby, fears he may be next. He is also an albino and works by himself on a rice farm. He now carries a loud, silver whistle to blow for help. "I'm on the run," he said. …
One patient, Nasolo Kambi, sat on his bed, recovering from a recent round of chemotherapy for skin cancer. His arms were splattered with dark brown splotches, like ink stains on white paper.
As a reporter, Gettleman can't editorialize or finger the worry beads, which makes him the paper's anti-Kristof. Instead of reducing Africa's conflicts to hellzapoppin' horror show or composing uplifting chords that put smileys on the faces of the suffering, Gettleman dons the big pants of the reliable narrator and puts the dead into deadpan.
As a Times correspondent, Gettleman has covered Afghanistan, Yemen, and Egypt. In the spring of 2004, he and photographer Lynsey Addario were taken hostage by insurgents in Fallujah for several hours. He credits their safe release to 1) hiding his passport in her pants, where he correctly surmised their abductors wouldn't look and 2) pretending to be Greek.
"I felt that life was cheap, and I wasn't exempt," Gettleman told an audience of his kidnapping in October 2004. "I was expecting to be shot immediately, and I wasn't scared; I had gone beyond that point, and I had lost all control. I was just hoping it wouldn't hurt."
My enthusiasm for Gettleman's work should take nothing away from other excellent Times reporters in Africa, such as Lydia Polgreen, Celia W. Dugger, and Barry Bearak, or other reporters laboring in harm's way. I just have a weakness for reporters who have a knack for mining exotica without getting all exotic about it. In "Mai Mai Fighters Third Piece in Congo's Violent Puzzle" from November, Gettleman describes a militia leader's stinky magic potion of mashed-up leaves and water that gives him the power to fight. Gettleman writes, "With their guns, leaf headdresses and special potions that many fighters believe make bullets bounce off them, they are a surreal—but still deadly—dimension to Congo's civil wars."
Not every Gettleman story answers the question of how bad Africa can get. In today's Times (March 4), he covers some good news bubbling out of eastern Congo. Last November, he reported about how the rebel war had forced wildlife ranger Jean-Marie Serundori and his fellow rangers to flee a mountain gorilla reserve. The reserve is "one of the most contested, blood-soaked pieces of turf in one of the most contested, blood-soaked corners of Africa," Gettleman wrote. (See his video report.)
Now the rangers can monitor the apes again because the Congolese and Rwandan armies worked together to rout the rebels. In typically understated fashion, Gettleman writes, "The two former enemy armies fought side by side without massacring each other."
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