American war correspondent details his own love and life in Africa

JUDY WOODRUFF: We close tonight with two affectionate looks at Africa.

First, a journalist's love of the continent, family and his craft.

Jeffrey Brown begins with our latest addition to the NewsHour Bookshelf.

JEFFREY BROWN: As a 19-year-old college student, Jeffrey Gettleman traveled to East Africa and fell in love with a place. He also fell in love that year with a woman back home.

Their time together and apart, and his life and work covering a continent as a Pulitzer Prize-winning correspondent for The New York Times, make up the story told in "Love, Africa: A Memoir of Romance, War, and Survival."

Jeffrey Gettleman joins me now.

Welcome to you.

JEFFREY GETTLEMAN, Author, "Love, Africa: A Memoir of Romance, War, and Survival": Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: This is a place, a region that you have looked at for a long time in a certain voice, right, as journalist. But now you're presenting a different voice. What is this?

JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: Well, I feel very conflicted about my work sometimes in Africa, because, as journalists, we focus on conflict. We focus on argument and dispute.

JEFFREY BROWN: This is the way we hear about Africa most of the time.

JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: And this is true for all journalists.

But my job as a journalist in East Africa, I'm often steeped in these conflicts. But that wasn't why I came to East Africa in the first place. I came on a safari as a student and was blown away by the warmth, by the sense of connectedness between people, like, just a different way of life.

And so this book, to me, is a bit of an escape. You know, often, we get frustrated with what's happening in today's world. We feel sort of the woes of the world on our back. And I wanted to write a book that celebrated something that meant a lot to me.

JEFFREY BROWN: You were drawn to this place. It wasn't real obvious why.

JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: I think, thinking more deeply about what it was that really moved me, it was experiencing a part of the world that's very different from how I grew up in suburban Chicago, how most of us grew up, a lot poorer, a lot less developed.

But there was this spirit, this sense of warmth and openness among people. Even though I had so much more than the people I was around, I felt very little resentment. I felt very little bitterness. I felt welcome in a part of the world that couldn't be any more different from what I experienced.

JEFFREY BROWN: There is a kind of fraught situation of writing about Africa always, right, how to write about Africa. You have to deal with that, as a journalist and in this case.

JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: And I was trying to be honest about that in this book, because there's many books written by passing correspondents.

And the term in Africa is mzungu, which means white man, like gringo. I cover these conflicts, I go into a famine zone, I go into a part of South Sudan where people are killing each other, and they're stuck. Their houses have been burned. They have lost everything they have owned. They have lost loved ones.

They're sharing their misery with me, and I am dutifully recording it in my notebook, and then transmitting it to the world. And then I get on a plane and take off, and go back to my wife and kids and my comfortable life.

And that's morally problematic in some ways. But that's my role. We all have our roles. The aid workers have their roles in delivering aid. The militaries have their role in providing security. And, as a journalist, my role is to just try and gather as much material, and open a window to a different part of the world.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, in this book, there is the other part of the love story, which is your wife, who you now go home too.

But you're open about the problems of a marriage amid the life you are leading. She leaves behind a life as a lawyer to come and work with you.

JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: I think what we struggled with is what a lot of young people struggle with.

We were both really determined to pursue our careers. She was dead set on being a criminal defense attorney. I really wanted to be a journalist. We had to go where the jobs took us, and we did a lot of damage to our relationship.

And we didn't respect and honor what we suspected that we had, which was a very special bond. And there were years that we screwed it up, and we threw away a lot of time together.

JEFFREY BROWN: It's not giving away the ending to say that it worked out, right?

JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: Yes, we were lucky enough to finally sort of see which way is up.

And we have a wonderful life in Kenya. It's a great place to raise a family. We have two little boys that were born there.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you want to convey here that we either miss as viewer or watchers of the world, or that America itself misses, right, in its policy?

JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: Where do I begin?

OK, a couple quick things. One is, in a lot of these really bad situations, there is an undercurrent of hope, and of dignity, and of humanity, and community. For instance, I covered the Westgate Mall massacre, where some terrorists came into a crowded mall in Nairobi, and gunned down dozens of people.

They didn't kill more people, because there was a response by neighborhood police officers, who were much more lightly armed than these terrorists that had assault rifles. And these guys went streaming into this mall, under fire, with these cheap pistols, fighting against these terrorists.

They were taking shots, they were getting hit, they were getting wounded, and they kept going. These guys came in as basically volunteers, and saved a lot of lives.

So, even in this moment, that was there was still an element of humanity, and community, and pulling together at the right time. And I have seen that in war zones, and in battle zones, and in famine situations.

The one other thing I think is, a lot of the problems in Africa are because of things that happened outside of Africa, or because of American policy especially. And I wrote a bit in this book about the mistakes that the American government has made under different administrations.

It wasn't a Republican problem or a Democrat problem. It was kind of a lack of interest. And the results were famine, and chaos, and pirates. But some of that was because of specific decisions the American government had made that were bad decisions and led to a whole chain of events.

But in this part of the world, a lot of people aren't paying that close of attention. And so I felt that it was my responsibility to write a very personal book, an accessible book, a kind of escape, adventure story, but to do some educating.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, the book is "Love, Africa."

Jeffrey Gettleman, thank you very much.

JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Read Jeffrey Gettleman's reflections on closing The New York Times' East Africa bureau. His essay was published by The Times today.

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