This Bethesda native found her calling covering conflict in Africa

Living dangerously

Bethesda native and award-winning journalist Christina Goldbaum found her calling covering conflict in Africa

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Christina Goldbaum in Kenya in 2016 covering the ivory burn, a demonstration to protest poaching. Photo by Emily Johnson

Early one morning in April 2015, Christina Goldbaum was pounding on locked metal doors at the mostly closed Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi. She was trying to find an airline with a flight that would take her to the Kenyan city of Garissa, where terrorists had killed more than 145 people and wounded dozens more at a local university.

After hearing sketchy news reports of the attack, she had driven three hours to the airport from the small town where she had been working on a documentary for a nongovernmental organization. As she drove, she frantically emailed an editor she knew at Agence France-Presse (AFP) and learned that the international news agency did not have another freelancer available to cover the mass shooting.

With the few flights to Garissa already full, Goldbaum was able to snag a spot on a four-seat charter flight booked by a South African news crew. When she arrived in Garissa, she got to work, shooting video while under curfews and dealing with regular power outages and unreliable internet access.

“It was so important that journalists be there on the ground to show that those killed were so much more than statistics,” says Goldbaum, now a reporter for The New York Times. “People hear about terrorist attacks and they don’t connect” to the victims.

While it’s common for American journalists to start their careers by covering local news, Goldbaum, now 27, found her journalistic footing overseas. The Bethesda native, who graduated in 2010 from St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Potomac, got her first reporting job at the Cape Times in Cape Town, South Africa, at the age of 22 after graduating from Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts. She then spent four years in Africa as a freelance foreign correspondent and field producer for outlets including AFP, The Atlantic and Foreign Policy, shooting her own photos and video as she covered stories ranging from political upheaval in Burundi to a massive truck bombing in the Somali capital of Mogadishu in October 2017 that killed more than 550 people and injured more than 300.

As a child, Goldbaum developed a craving to explore other cultures. Her father, a cardiologist, and her mother, a lawyer, made it a priority for her and older sister Katherine, now a child psychologist in Austin, Texas, to see the world. In high school, Goldbaum visited South Africa, Rwanda and Tanzania, writing a paper during her senior year on “Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect.”

“We were encouraged to travel and we did,” Goldbaum says. “I wanted to get to places to expand my comfort zone. These experiences are very different from an affluent suburban reality. I needed to challenge my value set.”

On the day the truck bomb exploded, Goldbaum was visiting a friend’s office in a shipping container while working in Mogadishu. The container shook as the explosion leveled a city block nearby. She spent days tracking down victims, their friends and families. “It was so awful,” she says. “Finding the human element to show our common thread was very important.”

Goldbaum won the Livingston Award for International Reporting—given by the University of Michigan to promising journalists under age 35—for her coverage of a 2017 massacre in Somalia, which killed 10 Somalis, including at least one child. Her three-month investigation implicated U.S. Special Forces in a mission based on poor intelligence. “The process is slow, but it’s critically important that those in power know that we’re holding them to account,” she says of the aftermath of the massacre.

Her coverage, which led to a congressional inquiry and an ongoing investigation by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, brought her back to the U.S., where she joined the Times metropolitan staff in 2018. She now covers transit and immigration issues.

Goldbaum, who lives in Brooklyn, hopes to return to working as a foreign correspondent in Africa and to maintain her ability to speak Swahili, which she studied while earning a political science degree at Tufts. Last June she returned to the Washington, D.C., area to speak at St. Andrew’s commencement at the Washington National Cathedral. Only nine years out of high school herself, Goldbaum says she encouraged the graduates to “take prudent risks” and see the world in all its complexity.

“It’s up to all of us to connect outside our bubble,” she says.

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