Stephanie Nolen: letting Africans speak

By Sarah Metherall

How the Globe correspondent put Africa on the front page.

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Left: Nolen in her first year at King’s (1989) Right: Nolen in the field

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By Sarah Metherall

Once a self-described “rabble-rousing student activist” who listened to the grunge music of the early 90s, Stephanie Nolen has transformed herself into an award-winning foreign correspondent for the Globe and Mail.

Nolen is a lone voice in Canadian newspapers reporting on Africa. She is chief of the Globe’s Africa bureau. She has won two National Newspaper Awards for international reporting, first in 2003 for covering Stephen Lewis and his campaign against AIDS and then the next year for reporting on the aftermath of the genocide in Rwanda. As impressive as these accomplishments are, they’re not the most remarkable things Stephanie Nolen has done.

What’s most remarkable is that she put Africa on the front page. Africa wasn’t getting covered and Nolen saw the continent was being destroyed by the AIDS pandemic. In 2003 Nolen convinced her editors to move her to Johannesburg. Four years later, Africa is prominent in the Globe and the AIDS pandemic is no longer a story about numbers; it’s a story about people.

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Nolen studied journalism at the University of King’s College in Halifax. Michael Cobden, the former director of the journalism school, isn’t surprised by her accomplishments.

“It was clear to me right from the beginning that she had everything one needs to be a great journalist,” Cobden says, “She had a desire to change the world, to make the world a better place, a desire to use journalism to expose people who were using their position of power in a corrupt way.”

At King’s, Nolen was a passionate student whose thinking was a little unconventional for the new 90s.

“She was a lefty,” Cobden says.

King’s students were generally conservative at that time, he says. They weren’t into the world issues that Nolen was, such as saving the environment. This, he says, sometimes caused conflict between her and other students.

Kyle Shaw, who was president of the students’ union when Nolen was the external vice president, says Nolen was a determined person who wasn’t afraid to tell people what she thought.

“Steph could have a bit of a porcupine edge to some of her interactions with people at King’s. She’s uncompromising. She would never look for a chance to back out of a heated discussion.”

Kathryn Morris, a friend of Nolen’s since university, worked with her on the student newspaper The Watch. She says this determination made Nolen a convincing person.

“She was very good at getting people to do things that they might not initially want to do — just through the pure force of her enthusiasm.”

As a student, her interest in Africa had yet to develop, but a flip through old issues of The Watch reveals a similarity between the articles she writes today and those of 15 years ago. Nolen has always been an activist for social justice, drawn to stories that others didn’t see. In 1990, she covered an anti-gay demonstration that claimed homosexuality was a disease that could be cured. In 2004, she told the story of a Rwandan woman living with the repercussions of being raped by hundreds of men during the infamous genocide.

Stephen Kimber, a professor at King’s who taught Nolen newspaper reporting, says her ability to seek out these kinds of stories was something that came naturally to her.

“She’s always had this kind of passion for human rights, this passion for the under-reported or under-considered. She liked to do stories that nobody else did.”

Nolen graduated from King’s in 1993. She then went to intern at the Globe. She left that summer to pursue a master’s degree in development economics at the London School of Economics.

After finishing school in London, Nolen headed to the Middle East without a job and without a track record. Her goal was to freelance. While there, she learned Arabic. In December of 1995 Nolen’s name appeared in The Independent On Sunday. She would soon be freelancing regularly for Newsweek, The Independent, The Australian and the Globe. She told Toronto Life “It was a freaking miracle that I wasn’t killed. It was dumb luck — I did everything wrong. I had no money. I drove around at night. I went into the middle of fighting, and finished an interview with Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, Israel’s most wanted man, 15 minutes before Israeli rockets hit his office. I started to learn what to do in order not to die.”

In 1998, Nolen returned to Canada. She briefly worked for Maclean’s magazine, before moving back to the Globe. In 2002 she published two books. The first was Shakespeare’s Face, the story of an Ontario family who possesses possibly the only portrait of William Shakespeare made during his lifetime. The second, Promised the Moon, was the story of a group of female astronauts selected by NASA in 1959 and trained for the space race, before the mission was abruptly cancelled in 1961.

In 2003, Nolen’s international reporting made headlines again. Not only did she win the NNA in 2003, she received the Amnesty International Media Award for her story on child soldiers in Uganda.

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Soon Nolen was lobbying the Globe to send her to Africa full-time. Why? To cover what she told Intercultures magazine “was the biggest story in the world and again, almost totally uncovered” — the AIDS pandemic.

Edward Greenspon ,editor-in-chief of the Globe and Mail, explained the new Africa bureau to the paper’s readers. In his September 2003 column announcing the launch of bureau, he wrote:

“Upon her return, I congratulated her on the articles. She said that if I would send her to Africa full-time, she could replicate the feat every week. Initially, I was skeptical. Africa is not high on the list of strategically important places, and my patience is thin for the politically correct reporting that Africa seems to inspire.”

But Nolen, no doubt through the same determination and passion she showed as a student, convinced Greenspon that Africa mattered. So on Sept. 12, 2003, 32-year-old Nolen spent her first night in her Johannesburg home. That next day she became chief of the Globe‘s first Africa bureau since 1989, when the Harare bureau closed.

Nolen has become a respected journalist in the business and, much more challenging, she’s won the admiration of the media-critical academics who specialize in Africa.

David Black, a political science professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax whose research includes human rights and South Africa’s foreign policies, says Nolen offers a different perspective on Africa.

“She takes these very overwhelming and aggregated statistics to the level of individuals. It just changes the frame and humanizes, and it helps us to understand what this means and why we should care.”

Last April, Nolen launched her third book, 28. It’s a collection of 28 short stories about AIDS — one story for every million Africans living with HIV/AIDS.

Michael Valpy, a journalist at the Globe and a former Africa correspondent, says the 28 stories are a good example of her superb story-telling skills and how she gets stories that no one else can.

“Everyone who’s worked in Africa or with AIDS knows that the AIDS pandemic has traveled the truck routes. If it was me there, I would have written ‘blah blah blah, the AIDS pandemic travels the truck route, blah blah blah,’ but Stephanie talks a truck driver into taking her across Central Africa and asks him about the prostitutes he picks up and his sex habits.”

Valpy adds that reporting on Africa is full of obstacles.

“Doing any story is about 10 per cent actually doing the story and 90 per cent figuring how to get there and setting up the interviews. The logistics to going to places is really really difficult, plus the fact that it is frequently a conflict zone.”

But Nolen trudges through the deep brush and goes to some of the most remote places in the world — even while pregnant.

“She had e-mailed me to say that being pregnant in Northern Uganda gave a whole new definition to morning sickness,” Valpy says.

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Paula Donovan, along with Stephen Lewis, is co-director of AIDS-Free World — an international advocacy organization that focuses on lobbying for global support of HIV/AIDS. She says Nolen is the type of person everyone wants writing about their issue.

“She’s made HIV/AIDS a topic of discussion at breakfast tables around the country, but she’s also had a tremendous impact in the way reporting on AIDS is done.”

Donovan says that part of Nolen’s strength is that she’s not just a reporter; she’s an investigative reporter.

“She doesn’t just tell the stories, she analyzes them and she considers it her responsibility to have command of all the intricate issues related to HIV/AIDS, whether they’re medical or social or economic.”

Nolen has put Africa on the front page. Nolen has raised the awareness of HIV/AIDS. And Nolen has made people act.

Siphiwe Hlophe’s story is the first in 28. She runs the HIV/AIDS organization Swaziland for Positive Living (SWAPOL). Since 28 came out in North America, its impact on her organization has been huge. Many people have contacted SWAPOL saying they read about her in the book and they want to help. Twenty-one orphans are being supported by readers of 28.

Nolen’s reporting has raised the awareness of AIDS in Africa in the West, but Hlophe says that HIV/AIDS reporting by Swaziland media is still negative.

Hlophe is an example not just of the impact Nolen has had, but how Nolen tells personal stories better than anyone else. Before Nolen, Hlophe had been interviewed by many journalists from the western media.

“Stephanie is different. She talks to you as if you’re just having a conversation. Other journalists act like they own you and you have to tell them what they want to know.”

Whether she likes it or not, at 36, Nolen is a story. She’s changed the way Africa is covered. Valpy notes that when Stephen Lewis said her name at a lecture, the room broke into applause. She’s an iconic figure for young journalists breaking into the field. Her inbox fills up daily with a half-dozen requests from students wanting to talk to her. All this makes Nolen a celebrity. And like most celebrities, Nolen is busy — too busy, she says, to be interviewed for this story. On top of being an accomplished journalist and an author, Nolen is also the mother of a one-year-old teething baby boy.

It’s not surprising that Nolen has put Africa on the front page. After all, this is a woman who told Greenspon that she first became interested in international reporting “watching the Iranian Revolution when I was eight.”