By Luchina Fisher
Thursday, July 1, 2004
At a time when war violence monopolizes most foreign reporting, Emily Wax has managed to get stories on the front page of The Washington Post about African women's daily lives and historic cultural struggles.
(WOMENSENEWS)--If Emily Wax weren't a journalist, she would probably be a Peace Corp volunteer. Instead, she is a foreign correspondent for The Washington Post and one of the newspaper's rising stars.
Based in Nairobi, Kenya, for the past two years, Wax, 30, travels throughout Africa three weeks out of the month, writing about war, AIDS and women. Her stories have consistently landed on the front page even during a year when Iraq has dominated foreign news coverage. On June 30, for instance, Wax reported that Arab militiamen in Sudan were said to be using rape as weapon of ethnic cleansing.
"In the middle of the occupation of Iraq she can write a story about two women who met at a well and their relationship and that story goes on the front page," says her editor Philip Bennett, assistant managing editor for foreign news. "It's just a real testament to her skill and her ability to capture our interest and imagination with her writing."
For two years in a row, her stories have earned her entry into a select group of young journalists as a finalist for the prestigious Livingston Award for excellence by journalists under 35.
Wax has a special interest in the plight of women in Africa. "She has really brought to our attention the particular situation of women in Africa that had not been written about in a serious systematic way before," Bennett says.
"They are the story of the century," Wax says by e-mail from western Sudan, where she is covering the conflict between Arabs and Africans.
She writes about the ordinary lives of African women, who, for example, prefer to carry their babies on their hips and backs rather than in a Western baby carriage. She also writes about historic cultural struggles, such as women's battle against "the cleanser," the man who by custom was supposed to have sex with them after their husbands die.
One of her favorite stories was about a group of women in Goma, Congo. Hundreds of them stripped naked in front of a group of rebels, shouted, "If you are going to rape us, rape us now." The rebels backed down.
"It was really an empowering moment in a place where this sort of thing is never seen," she says.
African women are becoming more empowered because of AIDS, Wax believes. Some inheritance laws, for example, require a widow to marry her deceased husband's brother. But as women protest those laws, saying they threaten their health and safety, they are being re-written. Women are also stepping into leadership roles once filled by men who have died from AIDS.
"It's a wonderful moment to be a reporter here covering women," Wax says.
It's a moment she almost didn't have. Wax had been all set to join the Peace Corps, after applying and being accepted to a post in Morocco, when she started interning at The Washington Post in May 1999.
"A few weeks in that newsroom," she says, "and I fell in love. An editor told me, 'Why go in the Peace Corps when you can be a foreign correspondent one day?' And I was like, 'Yeah, right.'"
Wax could hardly believe she had made it to The Post. After graduating in 1995 from Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, with a degree in political science, she joined The Times in Trenton, N.J., as a staff writer. In 1997, she became editor of a weekly New York City newspaper, Manhattan Spirit and wrote freelance articles for Newsday. In her second year of the part-time master's program in journalism at Columbia University in New York City, she got an internship at The Post. After graduation, she was hired as an education reporter.
Covering schools in Northern Virginia, Wax made her mark writing about immigrant students, particularly Muslims and Latinos. She says her motivation as a journalist is to write about people or sub-cultures who rarely receive coverage. She produced a series of front-page stories about a high school in which Latinos made up the majority of the population but were underrepresented in student government, the homecoming court and the top academic classes.
Her friend Nancy Trejos, an education reporter at The Post, says Wax spent months at the school hanging out with the students.
"Emily is very good at talking to people and listening to them," she says. "She's very empathetic."
Bennett, the foreign editor, took note of Wax and her ability to empathize with her subjects and translate that into deeply moving stories.
"There is an emotional core to her best writing," he says, "that reaches out and jolts you as a reader. You feel like you are in the presence of the people she is describing." He tapped her for the foreign desk two years ago, assigning her to Africa and giving her wide latitude about what to cover.
The promotion brought together Wax's two interests: telling stories and working abroad. Growing up in Queens, she says she always wanted to visit India, Afghanistan, Russia and Mexico, the places her friends were from.
In Africa, she again spends hours with people getting them to open up and share with her.
"No one wants to feel like you are the county clerk coming to collect data on when they were raped or hungry or happy," says Wax. "I ask them questions I would ask a friend, like what they are eating for dinner or their plans for the weekend or if they really want their husbands to take a second wife. That one always makes people laugh."
"She just doesn't do it like a job," says Rita Wangari, a massage therapist in Nairobi who has known Wax for three years. "I feel that she cares too much."
Bennett says that when she travels to war zones he fears for her no more than for a male journalist.
"I don't think gender is a risk factor in assigning a foreign correspondent," he says. "As far as handling the danger, she is a very intrepid person."
Her friend Trejos, who traveled to Rwanda with her in April, agrees. "She is a smart, tough woman."
Even in Sudan, where Arab Muslim militias have killed tens of thousands of black Africans and driven a million more from their homes, Wax takes an unorthodox approach to covering the conflict. She had coffee with a group of young women around her age and learned that their mothers pressure them to buy skin-lightening cream, apparently to change their appearance to look more like their Arab assailants.
"Race is so important here. That to me said more about the conflict between Arabs and Africans than most discussions with political analysts," she says.
Luchina Fisher is a freelance writer and producer living in the New York area.
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