Track Changes: Jeffrey Gettleman’s “Loss of Fertile Land Fuels ‘Looming Crisis’ in Africa” #NYTWeShouldTalk

By: Cecelia Lynch, University of California, Irvine

Now that Jeffrey Gettleman has published a memoir about his tenure as the New York Times’s East Africa correspondent that is widely viewed as problematic by East Africans (see our review by prominent journalist Uduak Amimo HERE), those of us who have long been troubled by the tropes in his reporting are finding we are not alone. The Twitter hashtags #someonetellNYT and #someonetellGettleman, coined by Kenyans, prompted the following, among other tweets: “#someonetellGettleman to keep off Kenyan issues, u’ve waited for a war for so long and it’s not forthcoming.” Written in March 2013, this message could also have been tweeted several other times at least, and is only one of the complaints that Kenyans (and some of us across the Atlantic) share. Ultimately, however, this raises questions not just for Gettleman, but for The New York Times and similar “establishment” papers that send reporters like him off to assignment in places that apparently The Times, as well as their reporters, still view in overly essentialist and neocolonial ways.

In one of what we assume was his last pieces for the Times, “Loss of Fertile Land Fuels ‘Looming Crisis’ in Africa” (prominently featured top of the fold, page 1 in the Sunday, July 30, 2017 edition, with a two-page continuing spread on pp. 1 and 11; in other words, a very major featured article by The Times), Gettleman shows that his basic orientation did not change during his 11-year sojourn as East Africa Bureau Chief for The New York Times. He expects conflict, knows and still has learned far too little about Kenya’s – let alone Africa’s – colonial past, treats Africans themselves as still exotic and somehow lesser beings (replicating offensive stereotypes) and sees “solutions” as technical and generally “western” in orientation and provenance. These tropes and critical knowledge gaps each come through yet again in his piece on land and “looming crisis.”

In the first paragraph, Gettleman sets the scene – Kenyan elders (we learn almost nothing about them), are surveying the destruction of their farm. Of course, the destruction is something that besets “Africa,” in Gettleman’s telling, in ways that warn of constant conflict: “It was as if some huge force had barreled into the village and swept away all the life. … Swarms of herders from another county had invaded, attacking any farm or cattle ranch in their path, big or small, stealing livestock, ransacking homes and shooting people with high-powered assault rifles.”

Huge forces, “swarms” of herders, with powerful weapons – he immediately establishes a lethal mix of irrational forces, military assault power and an external “swarm” of alleged outsiders, but really, people who are also Kenyans.

The reason for this lethal mix, for Gettleman, is simple. “Kenya has a land problem. Africa itself has a land problem.” The move is immediate, from Kenya to all of Africa. Yes, there are problems. But why is there “a” (or several) land problem(s)? He keeps coming back to the idea of Africans’ overpopulating their continent: “population swells,” “high birthrates and lengthening life spans,” “more siblings competing for their share of the family farm,” people “squeezed” onto land. Climate change and environmental destruction do also come in for blame (topics we continue to cover at the CIHA Blog), but generally in tandem with over-population: “a changing climate,” “land degradation,” and “overuse” with no time to allow land to lie fallow. It is interesting that he perhaps unconsciously acknowledges that there are differences within Africa, when he states that more Kenyans (70%) make their living from agriculture than citizens of other countries on the continent.

Those Kenyans who are on the move, herding animals as their livelihood, become the culprits and primary causes of the violence (later identified ethnically, as the Samburu), as they push others aside to use whatever land they can find for grazing. After establishing the herders’ culpability in the first half of the piece, Gettleman finally quotes one herder, who (apparently surprising the reporter) matter-of-factly states that, while he knows it is wrong to take another’s land, there is a drought and he needs land for his livestock.

Gettleman also notes that “private investors are tramping in as well,” and that both multinational companies and locals see land on the continent as valuable. He makes it seem, however, as though this is a recent occurrence, rather than part and parcel of a long and still-recent colonial past, when the British privatized much of the most fertile land in the country, encouraging its takeover by white settlers. Creating what became known as the “white highlands,” land in these areas of central Kenya and the Rift Valley either continues to be occupied by white Kenyans who stayed on after independence, or was sold to Kenyan government officials (despite charges that land taken from Kenyans should not be sold back to Kenyans), many of whom used it to advance their own political patronage systems.  Gettleman’s subsequent interviews with white settlers, whose voices ultimately define what he sees as the problem, are indicative of this historical amnesia.

Settlers interviewed include Maria Dodds, Warren Evans, Anne Powys, and Kuki Gallmann (identified as “one of Kenya’s celebrities,” Gettleman does not say for whom, although he acknowledges that she was born in Italy; he also does not say that her memoir is about fulfilling the dreams of a well-to-do white westerner regarding a romanticized Africa).

It is not only the herders who are apparently multiplying faster than the land can sustain, creating what Gettleman even calls a “two-headed problem” of overpopulation and environmental degradation (heightening the suggestion of not-entirely-human anomaly of the situation of people and land). The implication is that non-white Africans in general embody the reproductive problem. Clearly, the whites interviewed by Gettleman are not to blame for either the population squeeze or the overuse of land. Whites, in this telling, are the conservationists, the ones who use land responsibly: “The problem is too many people, too many cattle and too little planning,” Gettleman quotes Iain Douglas-Hamilton, a wildlife activist in northern Kenya.

Overall, Gettleman’s portrayal is astonishing; sadly, it is not unusual. Why astonishing? The white families who still own a majority of Kenyan ranches today, even if they are not the richest Kenyans in the country, were part of a colonial enterprise that simply took land from Kenyans, creating an entirely new – and unjust – system of property rights, and who stayed on after independence, becoming Kenyan nationals to safeguard their holdings. Even if they have the best of intentions today, they are the beneficiaries of gross injustices. But Gettleman frames this history in terms of how “some Kenyans see … land problems as a black-white issue because most of the biggest ranches and wildlife conservancies are owned by a handful of families of European descent.,” noting that these (“some”) Kenyans often use the word “mzungu,” or white foreigner, in describing the situation. While Gettleman should be credited with noting that the herders are not necessarily targeting whites, the problem is how he gives voice to this minority, while reducing the rest of Kenyans to an (overly-petulant?) “some.” Moreover, he then pivots to compare Kenya to Zimbabwe, where land owned by whites was repatriated by the government and redistributed to connections of the president, Robert Mugabe. He follows this comparison with the statement, “In many cases, the farms were run into the ground,” implying that the same could well happen if whites no longer control them in Kenya.

Several black Kenyan agricultural workers who work on the ranches get brief mentions from Gettleman. One woman, whose husband was killed on the property of a white rancher by a herder, is now “penniless,” although Gettleman says nothing about whether he thinks the rancher has any obligations regarding her continued welfare – he seems not to have thought of the responsibility of landowners for those who live and work the property. Another worker on the land is quoted as saying the situation is “bad, bad, bad, bad,” but, like the other black Kenyans, he is not allowed to provide any additional analysis or expertise. Likewise, Gettleman very briefly mentions the “pressures” to buy land from “small landholders,” but does not address the complex power relations between national authorities and international companies, both of which are responsible for the misuse, misappropriation, and environmental degradation that too often occurs.

Ann Powys, one of the ranchers, at one point made an important acknowledgement that was buried in Gettleman’s piece, reflecting that “It’s a bit grandiose to think we can continue to live like this when thousands of people out there don’t have any land.” But the potential solutions proffered by Gettleman to address “the looming crisis” return primarily to the implication that non-white Africans overpopulate and whites and foreigners come up with solutions: “scientists say solutions are within reach.”  Who are these scientists and what do they say? First, they target that pesky overpopulation; we learn that governments are pushing condoms. Second, the idea of “spreading new types of grass seed by airplane.” But seed developed by whom, for what purpose, when many kinds of indigenous seeds are becoming extinct? Again, the solutions come from the outside. Gettleman very briefly quotes Odenda Lumumba, the Kenyan NGO representative from the Land Alliance of Kenya, who provides the catchy phrase of “looming crisis,” but we learn nothing else about what the Land Alliance does or its identification of the problems or solutions, which, according to its website, concern both colonial wrongs and post-colonial mismanagement. He could have cited Eileen Wakesho’s interesting work on talking to councils of Elders regarding women’s land rights; he could have also looked up Dr. Patricia Kameri-Mbote or Dr. Collins Odote at the University of Nairobi’s School of Law, among other experts, but we do not read about Kenyans’ authoritative knowledge in the piece.

Uduak Amimo noted the absence of African peers in Gettleman’s network in her review of his book posted on Monday. Similar issues populate this piece. Clearly, the fact that a foreign correspondent is based in a country such as Kenya over a period of years does not mean that s/he becomes an “expert” in the social, political, economic or cultural fabric of that place, or matures in the capacity to understand it and convey its stories to others. To do so would include seeking and fostering sources of expertise that would not begin from the assumptions prevalent in western and international imaginaries. We at the CIHA Blog challenge The New York Times to do better in reflecting on the paper’s and correspondents’ own biases, and in training correspondents to do a better job in moving beyond them.


Featured Image Source: Michael Kamber for The New York Times