The Journalist

Award-winning reporter Sandra Nyaira says she’d be reduced to selling tomatoes on the street if she returned.

The Journalist

Award-winning reporter Sandra Nyaira says she’d be reduced to selling tomatoes on the street if she returned.

It’s the bustle of the newsroom that she misses the most.

As the political editor of the Daily News in Zimbabwe, Sandra Nyaira spent most days tackling hot-button news stories with fellow journalists in an environment that she recalls “felt alive with energy”.

Six years later, she does most of her reporting from her home in the United Kingdom. While earning a masters degree in international journalism from the City University in London in 2002, Zimbabwean authorities shuttered the Daily News along with other independent newspapers in the country.

“It’s very different working outside of Zimbabwe in that you don’t get the newsroom experience,” she said. “Now I write stories from my bedroom and I don’t speak to anyone else. When I was at the Daily News, we would all sit around and discuss story ideas or brainstorm how to tackle a particular piece.”

At 22, she took her first reporting job with a government-owned paper and then moved on to the state-run Zimbabwe Inter-Africa News Agency, where she won four national awards as well as a Reuters’ award. In 1999, the Daily News editor in chief hired her and she went on to become Zimbabwe’s first woman political editor.

Her career continued its upward trajectory when, at 27, she won the International Women’s Media Foundation Courage in Journalism Award. But everything changed later that year when she lost her job at the Daily News and struggled to make ends meet as a foreign reporter in the UK.

Determined to succeed despite her changed circumstances, she slowly established herself as a respected freelance journalist. In the past few years alone, her work has appeared in the Sunday Times, the Guardian, the British Journalism Review and elsewhere but she spends most of her time writing for the Association of Zimbabwean Journalists, an organisation which she helped found, and working as a correspondent for Studio 7, a radio service on the US-government funded Voice of America in Washington DC.

“I prefer reporting from Zimbabwe and writing for my own people,” she said. “I guess it is good to write for an international audience, but not everyone who reads my stories is interested in Zimbabwe. When I was writing for my own people, they would want to know what is happening in their old backyards.”

She said that she, along with many other Zimbabwean journalists working abroad, would return to their home country to report if that was an option.

“Everyone I knew who is part of the Zimbabwe journalism community here wants to go back,” she said. “The main reason we’re not in Zimbabwe right now is that we have no jobs to go home to. The newspapers where we worked were closed down so it did not make any sense to go back when you were not going to have a job.”

Leaving home did not come without its personal costs.

“My whole family is back in Zimbabwe – my siblings, my mother and father,” she said. “I have two nephews who have been born since I’ve been gone – one just turned two and the other one will be two in October. It is hard. I try to get the little ones to say something on the phone because I can hear their voices in the background. I just want to be with them.”

But returning home would not only leave her without a career but would also find her without an income to help support the loved ones who she has left behind.

“I could have returned to sell tomatoes on the streets,” she noted ruefully. “If I wasn’t here working, I wouldn’t be able to buy anything for my family. It’s a catch-22.”

With no signs of the political and economic environment improving any time soon, Nyaira will head to Washington DC in the fall to do a media fellowship.

Should the situation for reporters change, she said she would eagerly return to Zimbabwe.

“If they repeal the draconian media laws that have prohibited journalists from doing their work, many newspapers would be formed,” she said. “So many people are waiting to invest in their own country. When I go back home someday, I’m going to start my own project, my own TV station.”

Jennifer Koons is an IWPR reporter in London.

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