News & Politics

Smiling Through African Horrors and Personal Trials

Emily Wax has brought readers the worst Africa has to offer: rape and genocide in Darfur, well widows in Somalia, Ugandan kids turned killers with AK-47s, and Lily, taught to dig a grave by a mother who was dying of AIDS.

Yet when asked what stories affected her most during four years as the Washington Post’s correspondent in Nairobi, she chose an uplifting one about women who rebelled against “the cleanser,” a man who forced them to have sex after their husbands died of AIDS.

It’s typical of Wax to find something positive amid the human wreckage even as she was facing her own crisis. Diagnosed with breast cancer last summer at age 32, she seems to have beat it—and she wrote a poignant, often funny feature about young women in her predicament. Now she heads to India for the Post.

“I’m looking forward to getting a burst of energy from the new environment,” she says.

Her growing up was split between Queens and New Jersey. At Rutgers University, she became enamored with writing for the school paper. Her parody about Bill Clinton coming to campus and eating “fat cat” triple burgers got picked up by the Newark Star-Ledger. It whetted a thirst for more bylines.

She begged for a job at the Trenton Times and wound up writing about a small-town New Jersey mayor who was sleeping with the tax collector while a hooker helped grease municipal contracts.

“Sopranos stuff before the Sopranos,” she says.

She earned a master’s degree from Columbia and applied for newspaper jobs. No takers. She was broke and “two minutes from going into the Peace Corps” when the phone rang.

“Want to be an intern?” asked Deb Heard, then the Post’s deputy Style editor.

“Does it pay?” Wax asked.

Wax interned in Style, covered crime in DC, then covered schools in Alexandria. Longtime Post education writer Jay Mathews recognized her talent and alerted editors. At 28 she became one of the youngest Post reporters to go to Africa.

“I had great material,” she says—genocide and rebellion, starvation and AIDS. Northwestern’s journalism school gave her its Courage in Journalism award in 2004.

“Emily put Darfur on the map,” says Post foreign editor Keith Richburg. “She has a great way of capturing detail, of getting subjects to let her into their lives. She’s a real star.”

Last spring in Senegal she became tired and noticed a lump in her breast. A checkup in Nairobi didn’t bring good news; she flew home and got the cancer diagnosis.

“It’s never great to have cancer,” she says. “You have to live with uncertainty. Now I’m doing great—though my hair is shockingly short.”

She’s looking forward to covering the diverse cultures of India. “Plus,” she says, “the shopping is really good.”