He dreamed of Africa” ran the headline above Fiametta Rocco’s review in The Economist of Love, Africa, A Memoir of Romance, War and Survival by Jeffrey Gettleman. But Gettleman, who was brought up in a Chicago suburb, had no such dream until after 1990, when at the age of 19 he signed up for a safari across Africa, from Kenya by road down to Malawi.
Now well into his forties, he has been the New York Times East Africa Bureau Chief for the last 11 years, fulfilling what became his passion: understanding Africa and sharing that understanding with the world. Prior to his first trip, he writes in his memoir, “I held that same vague patchwork of images in my head that many people hold, of suffering, disease, deprivation and poverty.”
He found a special guide to Africa though, a young man who introduced him to the full Africa, the best of Africa.
That guide was Dan Eldon, my late son, whom Gettleman writes about so movingly in his book. So, now I have revealed my connection to the Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, please allow me to call him Jeff, a man whom I have known right from when that then scruffy young student stayed at my house around the time of his initial trip to Africa.
As for Dan, he arrived in Nairobi in 1977, at the age of seven, when the IT firm for which I had been working in London appointed me to be its general manager for Kenya.
Prior to that call I was as unenlightened about the multiple realities of Africa as was Jeff when he first set foot here. But like with him, our family soon became thoroughly integrated into Africa.
This month Jeff’s stint with the New York Times here comes to an end, as he is being transferred to Delhi to cover that part of the world for his paper. We will sorely miss this now “veteran” journalist, with his sharp eyes, his sensitive listening and analytical skills, and his gift of eloquent communication, always lyrical, often humorous.
Jeff was one of the organisers of the recent showing of The Journey is the Destination, the feature film of my son’s life, at the International School of Kenya. When Jeff spoke at the event he shared with us that when he told his parents he was planning to drive across hundreds of miles of Africa (the subject of the first half of the film) they were far from amused. “Who will the chaperone be?” they asked, and he had to answer that it was a college drop-out just a year older than him — my son. Somehow though, reluctantly, they gave him their blessing, and so his love affair with Africa was launched.
Let me now turn to Jeff’s book, with a firm instruction to please read it. From cover to cover. Because of how he has us accompany him on his dramatic assignments, around Africa and elsewhere, more often than not as a dare-devil war correspondent. (After all, it is conflict and violence that editors want to see.) And because of how he weaves into his narrative his own personal evolution from an immature, unexposed and rather selfish young fellow to the professional journalist and family man he eventually became — aspects he could never reveal in his articles for the paper.
At times, we read, he greatly disappointed himself, deeply regretting how he had behaved — not least in the turbulent early years of his relationship with the wonderful Courtenay, a lawyer who sacrificed opportunities in her own career to support Jeff’s passion for Africa and became his wife and mother of their children.
The memoir also serves as a tribute to her strength in handling his early indiscretions and his long absences on perilous assignments.
As for me, I glow with pride over how Jeff writes about the role played by my son in inspiring him to make his life in Africa for all these years.
Thank you Jeff from me; thank you from all the readers of your New York Times articles and from those who read your memoirs, and thank you from the people of Africa whom you portray with such humanity.