Interview With Nicholas Kristof: Traveling and Tweeting Under ‘Half the Sky’

Travel Interviews: David Frey asks the author about his dream vacation, Twitter, travel to hellholes and the trip that changed his life

10.21.09 | 10:53 AM ET

Nicholas KristofPhoto by Fred R. Conrad

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof uses his press credentials to visit the parts of the globe few others want to see. His coverage of the genocide in Darfur put the crisis on the political radar and earned him a Pulitzer Prize. He and his wife Sheryl WuDunn, also a New York Times journalist, shared a Pulitzer for their coverage of China’s Tiananmen Square massacre.

The couple has collaborated on a new bestselling book, Half the Sky, which explores women’s rights in Africa and Asia. The book is a call to arms with a simple message: Unleashing women’s potential not only betters their lives; it is key to reducing global poverty.

I caught up with Kristof by email in his native Oregon, while he was on a tour promoting “Half the Sky.”

World Hum: The issues explored in “Half the Sky,” from sex slavery to violence against women to health, are often dire, but you and your wife temper that reality with a message of hope. How do you manage to stay optimistic?

Nicholas Kristof: I’ve encountered brutally depressing atrocities from Congo to Cambodia, but side by side with the worst of humanity I always seem to encounter the best. In a violence-filled nook of Congo, surrounded by war and rape, I found a Polish nun who was struggling singlehandedly to save orphans from warlords. At that moment I wanted to grow up to be a Polish nun. And when I return from the hellholes, I’m typically less depressed by the warlord types than inspired by the Polish nun types. In fact, what does depress me sometimes is when I come back to the United States and find many people uninterested in any cause larger than themselves.

You write that “outsiders can truly make a difference,” and your book is really a call to action. What can the average person do to help the cause of empowering women around the world?

Half the Sky cover - Nicholas KristofOur hope is that people will move from reading the book to getting involved; we wrote it as a DIY toolkit for a personal foreign aid program. So we’ve listed some great organizations in the back of the book, and we started a website,, that also lists such groups. We hope readers will consult the list and find an organization that speaks to them and dive in. That might mean writing checks, but ideally it’s more than that: going to meetings, writing letters, making an overseas trip to visit a project. For young people, that might mean a summer internship teaching English to brothel girls in Calcutta. And for procrastinators, we conclude the book by listing four steps that any reader can take in 10 minutes.

So how did a boy from a sheep and cherry farm in Oregon’s beautiful Willamette Valley end up making a living traveling around the roughest parts of the world?

Travel is, of course, addictive. I formed my habit when I was a student at Oxford. In theory, I was studying law, but mostly I was traveling around Asia and Africa, writing articles to pay for my trips. Issues of global poverty fascinated me in part because the stakes are so high: If we can just do the right thing and get policy right, millions of lives can be saved. And when we screw up, kids die. That makes you pretty passionate about doing everything you can to get it right.

Was there one trip that changed your life?

There were lots of trips that changed my life. My first trip to the developing world was a backpack through Morocco with an Oxford friend: We took the ferry from Spain and took a bus to a small town that seemed to have emerged from the Arabian Nights. It was so different and magical that I was hooked. Then there was a trip to Cambodia, reporting on child prostitution, where I found young girls who had been kidnapped and imprisoned in brothels. That shook me—it was so manifestly slavery—and led me to cover human trafficking much more intensively.

You recommend in your book that college students should spend a semester in the developing world rather than, say, Paris. Why?

The point of an education is to discover new worlds. I love Paris and Rome, but students will learn far more if they step into different worlds where life is rather more different—say, India, or Burundi, or Bolivia. It’s important to get out of our comfort zones, both because of what we learn about the rest of the world and also for the new perspective we gain on our own lives. The truth is that all of us have won the lottery of birth, but we’re more likely to realize that in Namibia than in Paris.

How important do you think it is for Americans to travel abroad?

It’s very important not only for individuals but also for the country as a whole. The U.S. has periodically made policy blunders because we tend not to appreciate the way our country is seen by foreigners; we often fail to understand the prism of suspicion through which any American action is perceived by foreigners. So I think if more Americans spent time traipsing the world, the United States would become a more cosmopolitan country and we would perhaps have wiser and more sensitive foreign policies.

Now that you’re promoting your book, you’re spending a lot of time traveling around the United States. What has that experience been like for you?

A few great things about traveling around the United States: You don’t encounter a lot of warlords, you rarely get malaria or intestinal worms, and airports aren’t strewn with the carcasses of crashed planes. I love traveling in the United States!

You spend a lot of time in undeveloped, troubled places. Do you ever travel for pleasure? Any favorite places?

My favorite vacations tend to involve backpacking—perhaps because it’s a way to escape phones and emails, reconnect with nature, and remind myself that we humans are just cogs in a much larger picture. When I grow up, I want to backpack from Mexico to Canada on the Pacific Crest Trail.

You make a lot of use of social media, like Twitter. What do you see as the value of Twitter for writers?

I use Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to spread the word about news items I care about. Lots of news doesn’t warrant a column but deserves a tweet. It’s part selfish marketing, but also a way to create a community of like-minded people.

Give me the Twitter version of “Half the Sky.” How would you boil the message down to 140 characters?

Invest in women and save the world.

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