To be fair to my wife, Courtenay, it was scorching that day. And as we trudged along, filthy and exhausted (our typical condition), surrounded by rebels waging a guerrilla war in one of the hottest places on earth, Ogaden Desert in Ethiopia, we realized we had run out of water.
“Don’t be a wimp,” Courtenay hissed. “Do something.”
“Like what?” I croaked.
She stopped walking and her forehead creased, which is always a bad sign, like a horse’s ears going back.
“I don’t know!” she screamed. “But get me some [expletive] water!”
Getting chewed out by your wife, in front of several hundred dumbstruck, armed men, while on assignment, covering a war, isn’t something you typically read about in the International pages of The New York Times.
Or what about knifing through the Congolese rain forest on the back of a motorcycle, enveloped by giant trees bending over the path, smelling all the decaying leaves and rich, loamy soil, and then suddenly emerging into a sun-flooded grove full of thousands of white butterflies, wrapping the tree trunks, flickering in the air like falling snow, sticking to the shirtless backs of the men working in the grove, who were essentially wearing lab coats of delicate white insects?
These moments, among the brightest memories of my decade-plus as The Times’s correspondent in East Africa (which came to an end this week), never made it into a news story. Neither did the broader experience of plunging into this world with my spouse, Courtenay Morris, a lawyer who spent years as a Times videographer. All that happens between couples anywhere else happened out here: the quiet moments of tenderness, the rivalry, the partnership, the sharing of beauty, and yes, also the hatred — so many days Courtenay may have still loved me, but she definitely didn’t like me.
In 20 years of journalism, I’ve gotten comfortable in my role as the observer. I know how to use my job as a shield. Much of what I covered in Africa — children starving to death, right in front of me, or people bleeding to death, right in front of me — would have paralyzed me had I not compartmentalized and switched so quickly into the more detached journalism mode.
But as the years passed, I grew less comfortable being comfortable. A friend of mine once said: You should be nervous at least once a week in your job or it’s time to do something else. After investing so much of our lives telling others’ stories, the point comes when some of us reporters ask: Am I allowed to tell my story?
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying journalists are any more interesting than anyone else. But I’ve often felt that my experience chasing the story was as interesting as the story itself, but within the confines of a traditional news article, it was difficult to convey the full power of those experiences.
So I went for it. Last month I published “Love, Africa: A Memoir of Romance, War, and Survival,” my attempt to illuminate the warring roles many of us play: spouse, parent, worker, curious traveler, person striving to grow up, with Africa as the backdrop. I tried to write from the point of view (alien to much journalism) of a three-dimensional human being moving through a beautiful but troubled world, dragging along his own baggage, literal and metaphoric, trying to connect with the people he was writing about for this newspaper and at the same time honoring the primary relationship in his life.
There was so much to unlearn. Newspaper writing is tight, skipping from detail to detail, avoiding contradictions. But, this doesn’t work when you’re writing a book. Instead, you need to open up, draw out scenes, write about complicated feelings. Otherwise, there are no characters to hold on to. And what happens when that character is you and the co-star your wife? Isn’t that a little too much information, as they say?
Perhaps. But for me, there was no separating my love for this part of the world from my love for my wife. At the end of the day, those were the two forces that made me feel less alone in the world.