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Tyee Books

'The Biggest Story in the World'

Stephanie Nolen on AIDS, Africans, hope and gin.

By Bryan Zandberg 3 May 2007 |

Bryan Zandberg is the assistant editor of The Tyee.

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Twenty-eight million Africans infected with HIV.
  • 28: Stories of AIDS in Africa
  • Stephanie Nolen
  • Knopf Canada (2007)

After a 36-hour flight from South Africa with her seven-month-old baby, and three days into a whirlwind tour of Canada, Stephanie Nolen still possesses energy aplenty to talk about "the biggest story in the world."

When I spoke to her last week, Nolen had just wrapped up a call-in radio show in Toronto where she took questions from "people who don't have the most enlightened view of AIDS in Africa."

"That's who the book is for," she said of the callers, wishing aloud she'd called the most ignorant ones "big wankers" on-air.

To many Canadians, Nolen is the blunt and deeply compassionate Africa correspondent for The Globe and Mail. Her new book 28: Stories of AIDS in Africa, was published last month by Knopf Canada.

Nolen's journey to Africa actually began in the Middle East. She landed in the West Bank as a young student under a mountain of debt from a Master's at the London School of Economics. Quickly mastering Arabic, she freelanced her way to a job with the Globe through her coverage of regional conflicts, including the fall of the Taliban, the 1996 war in Lebanon and the onset of the war in Iraq.

"It's kind of a Darwinian thing," she says of the conflicts, "if you don't actually get killed you become a foreign correspondent."

It was back in Canada, where she was working as an arts and life reporter for the Globe in Toronto ("which I frankly really hated," she laughs), that Nolen first caught on to a disturbing current in sub-Saharan Africa. Any opportunity she could find -- meaning her vacations -- she would leave her "wine and wallpaper" beat and catch flights to AIDS-ravaged nations like Malawi and Tanzania.

Eventually she convinced the Globe's editors to let her set up in Johannesburg, South Africa, and began publishing regular dispatches that set out to show Canadians just how unlike the other "African problems" HIV really was and is.

28 is a convincing continuation of that work. Here Nolen concerns herself with two things: humanizing an often paralyzing issue and exposing the workings of the deadly virus. To do that, she deftly recounts the stories of 28 people who have been touched in one way or another by HIV/AIDS: one story for each one million people infected. It's a moving read and a landmark text for anyone willing to look the disaster square in the face.

Here's some of what she had to say to The Tyee.

How did you select the people who tell their stories in the book?

"I did it two ways. One is I made a list of all the things that I thought people needed to know to really understand this issue. What political, economic, medical social information did you [the reader] need, and then I went looking for people whose personal stories would help to understand that. A little like the pill your mother hides in the raspberry jam when you're a kid....

"The other half is I made another list of people who [pauses]. My partner Meril said to me one time when I came home from Swaziland (and Swaziland has the worst infection rate in the world, it's about 43 per cent) and I came home and he says 'You know you go to Swaziland to write about AIDS and you still come home exhilarated.'

"And he said, 'People say to you all the time, "How do you do this job? It must be so depressing." But you're not depressed.'

"And he said, 'It's the people you spend time with.'

"And I thought, 'That's actually really important.' If I can spend time and introduce readers of the book to the kind of extraordinary people that I am privileged enough to spend time with all the time and now call friends, we might all get past thinking about this as a numbingly depressing issue."

Why is AIDS not just one more disaster in Africa? What makes it different?

"I think that we think 'Oh, AIDS: Bad.' But when we think of Africa, we think, 'Drought: bad; war: bad; famine: bad.' Right? It's one more bad thing in a place full of bad things.

"What I came to understand was that in fact AIDS underlies so many of these things. Yes there were epidemics of tuberculosis and malaria but they wouldn't be half as bad if everyone didn't already have a shattered immune system from HIV, and they wouldn't be half as bad if there were doctors or nurses or pharmacists to work in the hospitals, but they've all been killed by HIV. And the country has no tax base to respond because its economy has been crippled by HIV. That society is reeling and can't organize itself to respond because a whole generation of parents and young adults, who would not only be productive workers but who would also be building families, have disappeared because of HIV."

What do you think of the AIDS coverage on the major networks?

"I don't see the networks so it's really hard for me to answer that because we don't have a TV....

"I can tell you based on the fact that in the four years that I've been reporting on this story I have found myself in the company of other journalists exactly once. I have the sense that it still not exactly dominating our airwaves."

So you don't hang out with journalists often?

"I hang out with them when I'm back in Jo'burg, but when I'm reporting, the stories I do, I'm usually the only reporter on the story.

"The 10th anniversary of the Rwanda genocide I found myself in a good old fashioned -- can I use this term? -- media clusterfuck. But that's the only time that that's ever happened since I've been there.

"Actually, I'm sorry I'm lying that's not true. The Zimbabwe presidential elections: the last time Mugabe let any of us foreign journalists into the country, there was a few of us. There was a handful, probably fewer than there are at the B.C. legislature on a busy day."

I've read you're one of only three Western journalists in the world wholly dedicated to the covering the AIDS story. Is that true?

"You know what, that's not even true. The other two have left."

What kind of person wants to be a foreign correspondent? You spend your whole life in war zones.

"If I think about what we have in common (the foreign correspondents I hang out with in Jo'burg), we're sort of acerbic, cynical, bitter people who don't do well in [pauses]. Well, you couldn't put any of us back in our newsrooms anymore I don't think.

"But also [we're] people with an interest in the world and people with a willingness to go through some often adversarial conditions to get a story. But I believe those are stories that are worth telling, and that it's worth what it takes to go and get them. And we'd all rather spend our time getting screwed around by a corrupt Zimbabwean customs official than we would sitting in a newsroom in Canada.

"What does that tell you about our social skills? Limited."

I was reading a piece you wrote for Ms. magazine about gang rape survivors in the Congo and found I was so horrified by the details that I didn't want to read any more. Knowing your audience must experience this all the time, how do you negotiate writing things that could turn your readers away?

"That's a good question. You know what I think? I just tell the story and I take the chance that they may or may not go away.

I don't know whether this is a streak of masochism in my personality or what it is but my feeling is that I would always rather know than not."

What's the most hopeful story in the fight against AIDS in Africa right now?

"I think we're all pretty surprised at how successful male circumcision has proved in preventing transmission of the virus, that's good news.

"There's a lot less shame and a lot less fear [about admitting one has the virus] than when I first started. There's still plenty, but there's less. That's one of the things that's going to make a difference. The more normalized this becomes it's incredibly important....

"I guess maybe the most hopeful story, and this is sort of occurring to me as I talk, is the social movements that have emerged in response to HIV, and they have become some of the most powerful movements in their countries. It's people with AIDS who challenge their governments or pharmaceutical companies, or their own communities. They've organized a really powerful coalition, and I think that's a really great thing."

Why is the stigma diminishing?

"Treatment. When treatment came it wasn't a fatal illness anymore. When a few people saw people who had been at death's door get better, get up and walk again, then it made it a little less scary for a few more people to come out. And when a few more people came out -- and you actually knew somebody who was living with AIDS -- then it became easier for you to tell your family."

First-stage anti-retrovirals have become increasingly available; however, the second and third stages of drug therapy are still protected by patents and are too expensive for a massive deployment in Africa. How is the fight going to change that?

"Incredibly badly and I'm really glad that you brought that up. There's been all kinds of attention for totally understandable reasons about rushing people on to first-line treatment. Sooner or later people get resistant to those drugs, like the staphylococcus becomes resistant to an antibiotic.

"If you live in Vancouver, you can turn around tomorrow and go down to the pharmacy and get second-line drugs, third-line drugs, fifth-line drugs: there's a lot of drugs. Right now in Africa in terms of drugs you can afford.... When I started covering this story, first-line drugs costs about $10,000 [per person] a year. Today they cost about 120. That's put into the realm of affordability for governments all across the continent. Fantastic. What happens three or four years from now when those people are resistant to those drugs and they need second or third-line drugs and those drugs cost five and 12 times more? They're not accessible in any way; what is going to happen to their people? There's really no plan and I think that's an incredibly critical issue."

Are there things women will tell you they won't tell a male journalist?

"You know I'll never know that for sure; I don't have a control group. I suspect so. I suspect that the long conversations that I have about sexual violence are different with me than they would be with men. I also have no illusions about the fact that sisterhood goes so far. I think that the economic difference between me and the people I interview is probably a vastly greater gulf than the gender one is."


"Yeah, I'm an alien for these people; I arrive all shiny and white and well-fed and clean-clothed, and I don't think they know who the hell I am or what I'm doing there. And it's the saving grace of my job -- and I'm incredibly fortunate -- they're nice enough not to tell me to fuck off. They almost always answer my questions. I'm not sure I would be so generous."

Has the line between personal and professional changed for you since you started this assignment?

"I live in the middle of it. It's not only my job, it's my friends who are infected. We go to funerals on the weekends. You can't live in a city where one in three people have HIV and have a... you're not going to leave the office at five o'clock, right?

"But I don't know a lot of journalists who rigorously maintain that division."

So how do you cope with things like that, with things like funerals on the weekend?


The gym?

"GIN. As in gin-and-tonic and lemon with a few ice cubes. It's the same thing, right? Of course it's hard but it's happening, I know the pandemic is happening and I would far rather be there and be living in the reality of it than be living in Toronto and having the extent of my involvement be the fact that I bought the Product Red cell phone."

How sustainable is this for you?

"You mean how much gin can a girl drink? [laughs]

"I imagine I'll stay for awhile. I don't feel done."