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Thanksgiving reflections on my incarceration in Zimbabwe


Thanksgiving is a time of reflection, and for me it always brings me back to my incarceration in Zimbabwe last year. Every day I am more thankful for my life, my family and for having had some assistance in getting out of Zimbabwe. For this, I am thankful-and reprint last years blog.

We have a rat in our wall this morning. A rat in our wall is very rare, and I wake up from the sound of his gnawing at something religiously. I wonder if he will ever get to the bottom of whatever he is chewing -- and find nothing left to gnaw! My brain has been in a perpetual state of gnawing since my arrest and deportation from Zimbabwe during the filming of my feature-length documentary, Tapestries of Hope.

This is the first time that I have used my pen to write an original thought since my arrest. I will never take for granted the power of free-thinking or the ability to speak of my experience without fear of repercussions, torture or death. I type these words with a great deal of reverence, responsibility and respect. I borrow from Edward Bulwer-Lytton:

Beneath the rule of men entirely great,
The pen is mightier than the sword. Behold
The arch-enchanters wand! -- itself a nothing!
But taking sorcery from the master-hand
To paralyse the Cæsars, and to strike
The loud earth breathless! -- Take away the sword
States can be saved without it!

After arrest by about 15 secret service agents, three days of interrogation and incarceration interspersed with a night in a windowless 5x5 prison cell, and being escorted to a plane for deportation - I am grateful to be walking again on United States soil. In fact, I kissed the carpet at San Francisco airport when we landed (It needs to be cleaned, guys!)

I recently traveled to Africa to tell the story of the rape and abuse of young girls in Zimbabwe. I had planned to explore the myths behind the cultural belief that when a man rapes a virgin (the younger the better), he will cure his AIDS. Not only is this absurd notion false, but it has spread the deadly virus to younger children rapidly. Betty Makoni, a child rights activist and my friend had formed the Girl Child Network several years back. The focus of GCN is to create awareness, assist these girls and create and empower change. She is a beacon of hope amongst the continued ravaging of young girls and infants in that country.

Even after our incarceration and interrogation, we have managed to bring back enough videotape footage to tell the story. That is another reason that I am grateful. We managed to capture footage of a Zimbabwe doctor who volunteers with the GCN and tells us about the rape of a one-day-old. It is beyond comprehension to know that this is going on in Zimbabwe and other parts of Africa. This infant's case is certainly not isolated. I can't bear to think about how much pain and carnage her body went through from this horrendous act. She died from the trauma.

Since our departure Betty has been interrogated, jailed and forced to report every day to the Harare Police Headquarters to answer repetitive and ignorant questions from an office army of drones.

The questions have been going like this:

"Why are you doing this?

"Why do you only work with girls?" (The rape and abuse of boys in Zimbabwe is much less of a problem than girls -- much less so than the U.S. problem with the rape and abuse of young boys)

"You are using the girls as a cover to form a political party!"

"Your friends from America are Central Intelligence Agency Officers!"

"You have caused a lot of trouble -- it is time for you to be behind bars!"

True, it is time for someone to be behind bars -- but that is not Betty Makoni. She is a gutsy, inspirational leader who fights for change every second of her life. I am humbled by her tenacity and courage in the face of insurmountable odds. In her focus to increase awareness and help victims, she is bombarded by requests for assistance 24 hours a day. As we traveled in rural areas, I saw the text messages come to her cell phone. I witnessed the people coming to her in a fuel-less gas station desperate for help. A sea of faces crying out: "My daughter... a young neighbor... I am... being raped... sexually molested... I need help." She does not say no. Indeed, she is their only hope.

When I spoke with Betty yesterday, she had just come from being incarcerated. This time they arrested her with well known Zimbabwe talk show host Mai Chisamba, for allegedly contravening the Child Protection and Adoption act. Although they released Mai Chisamba, Betty remained in custody yesterday. The allegations were about the talk show hosts broadcasts a few months back that included rape victims telling their stories. The girl's faces were blurred but the argument was that some could be identified by their voices.

I was supposed to meet Mai Chisamba when I was in Zimbabwe. Betty and Mai have been good friends for some time. Our dinner was to take place on Tuesday the 21st of August. It was the first day of our interrogation, however. By the time we were released, we ended up going to the wrong meeting place and missed Mai. When we tracked her down she was already going to bed. I was disappointed but knew that we would make time later in the week to meet with her. Of course that never happened.

Now Mai Chisamba will be used to testify as a state witness against Betty. Apparently, Betty needs to be silenced. Betty was resigned to her friend's predicament and had no negative words for Mai Chisamba. "She is my friend, an old lady and she is scared. They have her on a tight rope." It is Betty's empathy for people and her own survival story that make her so effective and loved by the Zimbabwe people. Why so much recent grief for all her good work? Look to the papers to see who is doing the raping and you will have a better understanding of the insurmountable odds she must face.

On the phone she was exhausted and disheartened. Her voice cracking as she said, "Women and girls should be let to do their work and not to be victimized again. There is nothing, absolutely nothing political in what we do, and yet we are forced to stop because of false allegations."

Betty must report every morning at 8 a.m. to the downtown police station. She was planning on traveling to the United States on Monday, September 3rd, but for now the trip is canceled. She had planned the trip for the Global Fund for Women and to meet up with photojournalist Paola Guinturco for the tour of her book, Women Who Light the Dark.

It is an incredible book about women all over the globe who use their imagination and passion to create change. The first chapter in the book is Betty Makoni's story. It is through Paola that I became aware of Betty's work and eventually met her in San Francisco. Paola herself is a dedicated force for women's issues and a talented photojournalist.

Now forced to stay in Zimbabwe and miss the launch of the book, Betty is frustrated. Before we hang up Betty says to me: "We need the whole of Africa to know that this should not be allowed. Politics should not stand in the way of helping children." I agree. I think the whole world should know that children are not to be used as pawns for regimes and governments' control. The physical and mental health and welfare of children is everyone's concern.

I am about to retire the keyboard for morning. I can hear my kids yelling. The house is a disaster. It seems so trivial compared to what is going on in Zimbabwe. The rat has moved in the wall, closer to where I sit. I kick the wall to get him to stop making noise.

The gnawing stops for a moment, and then continues...

Happy thanksgiving.

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