Thursday, August 30, 2007

An interesting week...

Admittedly, the last week has been a crazy one. Director calling a producer from a Zimbabwe prison and crew detained for 24 hours after day-long interrogations isn't exactly dream scenario for any project. Here's an excerpt from one of the press reports:
Internationally-acclaimed child activist Betty Makoni was arrested in Harare on Tuesday. Two other women - American filmmakers - were also arrested on the same day.

According to media reports, 15 state security agents descended on the home of Betty Makoni on 21 August 2007. They arrested her for allegedly bringing in foreigners (the two American women) to cover Zimbabwean issues without state accreditation.
The two women were actually documenting the experiences of Girl Child Network that enabled the organization to win a World Prize on Child Rights for Zimbabwe.
If you are a member of the media and would like to contact Michealene Risley, feel free to email michealene(at)freshwaterspigot(dot)com directly for inquiries or if you would like to schedule an interview.

The crew did come back with footage from filming at the end of 3 very difficult days.

Interview With Michealene Risley audio clip (on
Voice of America)
Listen to Interview With Betty Makoni audio clip

Monday, August 20, 2007

POSTCARDS FROM AFRICA - #8 of Michealene Risley's live-blogs from Zimbabwe

Ed. Note: Sincere apologies for the delay in posting this. These blogs were written during the production/filming of TAPESTRIES OF HOPE in Zimbabwe. Between sporadic electricity in Africa and getting to blogs back in California, we lost a couple of days. Afterwards, the crew was arrested and interrogated by the Zimbabwe Police, and the blogs were temporarily taken down out of concern for their safety.

A train approaches and I awake to its distant horn. The roosters' persistent crow prohibits me from further sleep. I give up and climb out from the bed. My mind begins to race so it is impossible to attempt to sleep again. It is 3:40am in Rusape, Zimbabwe.

Betty and I stayed up last night, sprawled out by the fire in the Lodge's community room. We talked of our husbands and kids and the difficulty of being away from them. She is a force of energy and commitment and I am humbled by her.

Yesterday was a day that has forever shifted my level of consciousness. The day started early at the market in Rusape. I ached to tape the activities but it was too dangerous. Many of the rural people support President Mugabe, even though they suffer greatly. So, they support Mugabe's ban of journalists and those documenting their way of life. Ru, the matron who oversees the Girl Child Empowerment Village, tells me a story about a man who pulled out a camera here at a filling station and was chased away. Camera smashing by the police is a common practice.

So, we just observe as we enter the market. Lauren, who is helping me to tell this story, is very tentative to the idea of bringing out the camera at all. But nonetheless, we both get out of the car without cameras. The market is a hub of activities as people are constantly moving and carrying food from local farms. There is far more food here than I have seen in Harare.

Our driver, Concelia, tells me that it is because the area is less populated and is in close proximity to the farms. Young women carry sugar cane and babies strapped to their backs at the same time. Ru purchases a variety of goods quickly and confidently. The back of the car is suddenly filled with fresh vegetables and sugar cane.

We arrive back quickly at the Mugabodo Lodge. I take a walk with the camera. Where we are staying it is much easier to use the camera. These areas of Rusapa do not want to have cameras recording anything that would be negative on the President, but in the residential areas it is okay.

Every person walking on the road stops to greet me. I wonder if it is my white skin or the camera but either way, I am reminded of the friendliness and hospitality of these people. There is something unique and interesting about the lack of any white people here.

Betty and our crew eventually get started to the empowerment village. It is a little later than we had planned. The traditional healers have arrived by bus and are milling around outside the main hut waiting for us. This room is called the "Princess Room". There is no electricity in this room, but a fire pit lies at the center. I am a bit dismayed that the fire is not going, as it is very cold here. The "Princess Room" is the hut where all greetings are made. It is the sacred place where little girls come to tell their stories to the princess. There is an old lady here, whose job is nothing but taking care of this small hut.

After introductions we move to the "Women as Role Models" museum of achievements hut. It is similar to the Princess hut but much larger. There is much formality in this culture and I have to remind myself of this, as we go through another round of introductions. I thank the healers for coming from so far away. The traditional healers dressed in their native dress begin a dance that enchants us all. We then begin the questioning.

As many of you know I came to Africa to explore the increased rape and sexual abuse here and the myths and traditions associated with this culture that have been detrimental to its eradication.

As we explored the issues, the conversation get complicated and heated. The local language here is Shona and in the midst of the debate Betty stopped translating. I struggled to decipher what was going on, with a few scattered comments from Betty. I become acutely aware of the dark looks I am getting from some of the traditional healers. A crazy, naïve thought goes through my head. I am suddenly concerned about a hex being placed on me. My imagination runs through various snippets I have heard about witch doctors here. I am suddenly sober.

The arguments continue as the healers deny any responsibility for the widely held belief that men with AIDS should rape a virgin to cure their illness. It gets worse as we discuss the "avenging spirit" practice here. In tribes, if a man kills someone from another tribe, they must provide a girl child to replace the one killed. This is considered fair compensation. She is to bear children for that tribe until a boy child is born. Then she can go back to her tribe. The practice not only uses women as a commodity but increases the rape and sexual abuse in Zimbabwe.

The heated debate continues and Betty listens to all of the voices. She then whispered to me, "I am going to crush them" and stands up to speak. She is passionate and clear as she addresses their denial and platitudes and makes it clear that there are laws now in place and they will be jailed. She speaks a bit of English throughout and I struggle to understand her. As she sits down, I notice the traditional healers are very angry. Some of them walk out of the hut.

The last to speak is Mapako, second to Chief Makoni. Again, the passion and anger are apparent even through the language barrier. When he stops speaking, I glance at the healers. All of their heads are bowed and their eyes are cast to the floor. Betty whispers, "He has told them to learn how to tell the truth". The group gets up to go to the Greeting Hut. It is time for the meal. The traditional healers stick together in the corner of the room and the tension is high. After the meal, I leave to go see the girls. I leave Betty to this situation.

More to come…

Michealene Risley

POSTCARDS FROM AFRICA - #7 of Michealene Risley's live-blogs from Zimbabwe

Ed. Note: Sincere apologies for the delay in posting this. These blogs were written during the production/filming of TAPESTRIES OF HOPE in Zimbabwe. Between sporadic electricity in Africa and getting to blogs back in California, we lost a couple of days. Afterwards, the crew was arrested and interrogated by the Zimbabwe Police, and the blogs were temporarily taken down out of concern for their safety.

What strikes me the most about the young girls at the empowerment village is their tenacity. The poverty is readily apparent in their torn and worn-out clothing. There is only one girl with shoes. The underwear we have brought here from the US has been enthusiastically received. Each of the girls has a story surrounding rape, AIDS, or being orphaned. The youngest girl at this village in Rusape is now three years old.

After our first day of singing and blowing bubbles, the girls greet me enthusiastically. They laugh at my attempts to speak their language. They are kids who laugh and tease each other and are remarkably self-reliant. Each of the girls seem protective of each other, the little ones are always being held and taken care of. Once again I am humbled by their ability to handle their circumstances.

It is difficult not to want to take them all home, to ease their suffering and give them a better chance at life. When I hear the squeals of their laughter as they chase bubbles, it eases the heaviness of my heart.

I have fallen in love with the littlest one. Her name is Runyarara Makoni. GCN has given her Betty's surname as her own. She is a tiny, beautiful little one with a knowing light in her eyes and she is quite shy at first. After she is comfortable, she loses her shyness. Her head is shaven, as all the girls here. It is too costly to do anything else with their hair.

Runyarara was found abandoned in Rusape. She has been raped. Both her parents are dead. No one really knows how they died but most likely from AIDS or Malaria, or both. A man has come to the village to claim her as his own, but the staff and Betty believes he is her rapist and refuse to let him take her. She has not been tested for HIV as the test is costly.

The girls and I sat by the side of a hut while Lauren filmed us. The sun was setting in front of us and you could look out and see the breathtaking valley below the Chitsotso mountain. We all sang the song which the girls have created. It is a song that they have created to their rapists and abusers. As we sing they translate for me. The words go something like this:

A little baby
Why did you rape a baby?
Why did you rape her while she is so young?
Jail the rapist, arrest the rapist
Cut his penis
We don't want to be fondled
We don't want people fondling our breasts or our bodies.

As we wrap up the day singing this song, there is a little five year old named Tendai. She can move her hips and dance amazingly. Everyone shouts for her to get up and dance. Then all of us get up to dance. It is impossible not to feel a spark of hope that through the Girl Child Networks these girls will heal and have some happiness in life. Some of them are so inspired by Betty they want to join her crusade and continue to fight against these crimes. The spark of hope ignites in my heart and there laughter fans the flames. I still want to take them all home though…

Michealene Risley

POSTCARDS FROM AFRICA - #6 of Michealene Risley's live-blogs from Zimbabwe

Ed. Note: Sincere apologies for the delay in posting this. These blogs were written during the production/filming of TAPESTRIES OF HOPE in Zimbabwe. Between sporadic electricity in Africa and getting to blogs back in California, we lost a couple of days. Afterwards, the crew was arrested and interrogated by the Zimbabwe Police, and the blogs were temporarily taken down out of concern for their safety.

Sleep had eluded me in this barren beauty of a God-forsaken place. My mind rocks back and forth with the intensity of an animal caged. I am imprisoned, myself.

Last night in the comfort of a bed, I vacillated between feeling grateful and ashamed. How was I lucky enough to be born in a place where the very basics of survival come easy? Why me? Why not someone else?

I am grateful that my life has been less about these hardships, these difficulties that my parents faced. Both of my parents have scars from the Great Depression. My father started selling newspapers on the street corners at five years old. There were nine children in his house, every penny counted. My mother's father died in a gas explosion at Chrysler Corporation. Her mother became a widow with three children and no job. So I understand and grew up with some understanding of hardship and suffering. But nothing compares to the suffering I see here.

My feelings of personal shame run deeper. That shame has to do with the country I was born in: America. It is my country, and my next-door neighbors', and the people who live across the street from us. We have a serious disease that is more ravaging than the illness and poverty I see here: apathy. I despair, even in Zimbabwe, of the world's opinion of us. The voices of Zimbabweans are strangled by persecution and poverty. Our voices are forgotten behind a fascination and celebrity adulation, by drug-induced athletes who are poor role models and our ever elusive thirst to make money and buy things.

I cannot comprehend why the world continues to fight against the equality of women and making personal choices about our bodies. In America, the majority supports the right to choose - yet, a small portion of people continue to force their opinions on us all. Their arrogance makes them blind.

A woman yesterday in Harare took her newborn, placed it in a plastic bag and put it in the garbage to die. When arrested, she was asked why she killed her child. She said that it was impossible to feed the child. The Magistrate is sending her for a mental evaluation and he will not address the complexity of the issues; in this way, his response is very American. Issues are not black and white but with many shades of grey. The woman did not want her child to suffer from starvation - I understand that. What a horrible decision to have to consider at all!

We can send spaceships into space and have Rovers land on Mars but we can't stop the rape and sexual abuse of women on this planet. And because I mention this, someone will insist that I am a feminist, like the word is a slur and the request is unimaginable. I am confused.

We were in Chitungwiza yesterday. I saw this precious little five year old. She came in the Girl Child Network white van with "Mr. Rescue". That is the nickname his fellow GCN people call him. The girl was tentative. She had a light brown dress and limped noticeably as she walked towards us from the car. If you look into her eyes, you could not help but feel the pain. She had these knowing brown eyes that were shell-shocked. Her stepfather had raped her. She is being tested for HIV and has genital warts on her vagina that are so bad that it has forced her to limp. I wanted to weep and hold her in my arms and take her home with me. I wanted to promise her the world was going to change, that we adults were smart and that we could stop these acts and educate people so that this never happens again. I had to stop the words from tumbling from my mouth unheeded. I can't promise what I cannot deliver.

"Practice what you preach", I tell my boys. So, I stayed silent and held my grief.

Michealene Risley

POSTCARDS FROM AFRICA - #5 of Michealene Risley's live-blogs from Zimbabwe

Ed. Note: Sincere apologies for the delay in posting this. These blogs were written during the production/filming of TAPESTRIES OF HOPE in Zimbabwe. Between sporadic electricity in Africa and getting to blogs back in California, we lost a couple of days. Afterwards, the crew was arrested and interrogated by the Zimbabwe Police, and the blogs were temporarily taken down out of concern for their safety.

We drove two hours from Harare yesterday to the rural town of Rusapa. The land is as incredibly rich and beautiful as the souls of the Zimbabwean people. We drove by rolling hills and spots of trees. There were patches of the hills that had been scorched by fire. Spring has just begun here, so there is still much brown along the countryside. There was a Zebra munching grass in a reserve along the way. We were one of three cars on the road, the whole two hours. There seems a forced isolation to these people caused by the hardships of their country.

Betty pointed out that much of the land we drove past was at one time all thriving crops. In fact, much of the area we are driving through was farmland a few years ago. In neighboring towns, the lack of food and petrol was severe. We stopped to buy 36 loaves of bread for the girls, but there was nothing else to buy in the stores. When staple foods arrive, long lines form quickly. We were lucky to have gotten there as the delivery arrived. A couple of buses were broken down along the route. People were milling about outside of the stranded vehicles. The stranded riders either start walking from a broken down vehicle or hope that another bus will come along. Many times they are stranded overnight. Automobile and bus parts are in short supply here. Betty has a couple of vehicles that remain in a shop waiting for parts. They have been there for two years.

Zimbabwe's current population is about 13 million people. Betty's tribe, the Makoni's, are the largest tribe of Zimbabwe. Their land stretches from Macheke to the Osborne Dam. Betty had to get permission to have us come to the village. We are the first white people to be allowed to come to the village in 6 months. She is also a princess here, and she is revered. Back when GCN started, she worked out a deal with Chief Makoni to create a girls empowerment village on the land. At that time she had 10 girls clubs already established.

As we drove up, I saw a number of huts set up somewhat of a circle. The kids of circle my four year old would draw. They huts were all painted a bright boy blue. Betty said she made the decision to paint the huts a color that had always been associated with boys. She wanted to take back the color for girls.
"Blue is the color of the sky, and girls should know that anything is possible because there are no limits in the sky".

As I sat on the stone steps waiting for everyone to gather, I looked out over the mountain. It was stunning. I think God must have been born in this spot. The empowerment village sits on the mountain of Chitsotso, which means Fire Wood. It is breathtaking with its panoramic view.

We went in to the "greeting hut", which is circular with a fire pit in the middle. There was a feeling of sacredness in this place. A marble shelf held offerings and carvings. A woven basket was there as well, as when someone puts an offering in the basket it is thought to multiply. The girls all came in to pay their homage to
"Princess Betty". One of the tribal elders came to ensure that all people present paid their respects to Betty.

On this day as well, there was a workshop being done with journalists from various parts of Africa. The Girl Child Network set the workshop up to sensitize journalists to the particular struggles of these young girls, and explain how to write and report about it in away to educate the public about what exactly the GCN does.

We stopped in the workshop a bit and introduced ourselves. There was a woman, Petra… from the African University here as well. She had lots of questions for Betty and needed some private time so I wandered around with a camera in hand. The girls were curious and I began to videotape them and then play it back. They were delighted.

A meal was prepared and served to us in the "greeting hut". The food was delicious. I am not much of a risk-taker on international trips, but the local greenery called Covo was rich with flavor, color, and taste of spinach. It is quite good.

Afterwards both the journalists and are team listen as the courageous girls stand up to tell their personal stories. Betty is a brilliant marketer. She understands that if her voice is going to be heard she needs to get others to help spread the word. There is so much widespread abuse that it is almost impossible to comprehend. It is the father who pays his wife to keep quiet as he rapes their 6 year old. It is the girl that is orphaned and ends up in the sexual slavery market to survive. Betty rescues all of these girls. Truly remarkable and tireless. I watch her field phone calls and requests of help on her cell phone by the minute. She is many people's only hope. I do not know how she does it. GCN is struggling to survive and she is the director, chief fundraiser and social worker.

There are so many cultural and traditional issues here with regards to gender. Not only is there the battle to examine and destroy the myths but also much of these beliefs are deeply entrenched in the culture. It will take a lot of time.

In this particular culture there are issues of the Traditional healers counseling men with aids that if they have sex with a virgin, they will cure AIDS. Many here believe that the blood of a menstruating female can bring them luck and riches. There is a long held belief here that once you marry, you wife's sisters are fair game for sex. They are part of your family. Part of this has to do with the practice of Polygamy. There seems no barrier between wives and sisters and incest in not truly understood by many. In fact, I have never heard the word here. Obviously there is a lot of work to do.

Today will be an interesting day. The Makoni tribe has called Traditional Healers to come sit with us. Even more interesting is that Chief Makoni believes that "virginity testing" can stop AIDS from happening. He is in favor of Virginity Testing. The process goes like this. A girl is told to strip, her legs are spread and they determine she is virgin by inserting a finger a portion of the way into the vagina to ensure that the hymen is still intact. Another way they do this is to look at the vagina and see if the hymen is pink. If it is not, there are many consequences.

It is hard to imagine that this practice happens anywhere in the world today. Many of these issues that I am exploring happen in the rural areas of this country. They traditional practices rarely happen in the big cities. However, rape is rampant both in large cities and the outlying areas. Betty is bombarded with requests for help. I am trying to talk to her about having her staff help out more, because she is on call 24 hours a day. The NGO's here are not much help with what she is focused on. She needs help!

More to come...

Michealene Risley

Sunday, August 19, 2007

POSTCARDS FROM AFRICA - #4 of Michealene Risley's live-blogs from Zimbabwe

Ed. Note: Sincere apologies for the delay in posting this. These blogs were written during the production/filming of TAPESTRIES OF HOPE in Zimbabwe. Between sporadic electricity in Africa and getting to blogs back in California, we lost a couple of days. Afterwards, the crew was arrested and interrogated by the Zimbabwe Police, and the blogs were temporarily taken down out of concern for their safety.

Yesterday was our first day in Zimbabwe. We were picked up by our driver Johannes. He is a slender, happy guy with a big heart. He has worked for Betty and GCN since the beginning. I have taken to nicknaming him Johannesberg, like the city. He laughs at me. He took us to meet with Betty at the Girl Child Network Headquarters. As we drove along in the car, I started shooting some of the local scenery from the backseat. At one point, we stopped on the side of the road so that we could get something from the trunk. I noticed that a small red car in front of us was now reversing back to where we had parked.

“Johannes,” I said. “Look at this car.”

I wasn’t expecting for the car to get a ticket, but it was certainly a dangerous thing to do on a busy road. He looked and quickly said, “Ah! It is my wife.”

Since we had already parked and Johannes had went to talk to his wife., I took out the camera onto the sidewalk. I started capturing cars and trucks on the camera as they zoomed buy overloaded with people. The gasoline crisis is so bad that people were stuffing themselves like Sardines in the back of every available vehicle.

After a few minutes, I went to Johannes to introduce myself to his wife. He quickly asked me for a business card and got one. I passed this onto the woman driver and grabbed her hand to introduce myself. She was not smiling back. I was surprised. Johannesburg is such a gregarious man that I could not imagine him married to this woman. She nodded at me, as she fingered my business card between her hands.

Tipping her head in the air as if dismissing me she said “maybe we will see you at the Girl Child Network.” When we got back in the car, Johannes said, “That was the Central Intelligence Office (CIO) in Zimbabwe. That is the equivalent of your FBI/CIA.” “What?” I asked incredously. “And you gave them my card…?”

Besides our introduction to the CIO, the day was incredible. I will share more of that later on. I can say that between the five-year-old who was limping because of genital herpes that she got from her step-father, and the grandmother who sat on the cement with seven starving grandchildren and nowhere to sleep, I will never be the same again. I scrambled through my bag to find anything to give her. Money does not help, as there is no food to buy. I found some beef jerky to give her and the kids. I don’t think I will every eat beef jerky again and not see her face.

As I mentioned earlier, the gasoline crisis is already bad. There are only two working filling stations in Harare. There are large groups of people at intersections that wait for buses; sometimes the transport comes, sometimes it does not. Many people have to walk for miles to get home or they wait in the dark for hours in hopes that a bus will come.

The food shortage is bad as well. There are lines everywhere when certain foods come in: sugar, oil, and bread - basic necessities. The grocery stores are empty. The government is arresting those who hoard goods. The Herald, a Zimbabwe newspaper, reported that one man was arrested yesterday for hoarding food. Those people caught selling goods on the black market are fined and sometimes arrested. The lines look familiar to me only through the photos I have seen of the depression in America. It is sad.

As much as there are difficult times here in Zimbabwe, it is a beautiful country. Though there as many people fleeing in desperation, there are those who love Zimbabwe and refuse to leave. Their love for this country shows on their face and through their stubborn refusal to leave. This is the part of Zimbabwe that I have fallen in love with. It is the kind of character that emanates from Betty as she risks her life to save families at risk in a country where there is nowhere to turn or escape. People like Betty should be the kind of people we celebrate in the world, the kind that survive by helping others.

More tomorrow...

Michealene Risley

POSTCARDS FROM AFRICA - #3 of Michealene Risley's live-blogs from Zimbabwe

Ed. Note: Sincere apologies for the delay in posting this. These blogs were written during the production/filming of TAPESTRIES OF HOPE in Zimbabwe. Between sporadic electricity in Africa and getting to blogs back in California, we lost a couple of days. Afterwards, the crew was arrested and interrogated by the Zimbabwe Police, and the blogs were temporarily taken down out of concern for their safety.

Johannesburg Airport was a wild cornucopia of bright colors and an assortment of people from all over the world. This airport is one of the major hubs on the continent; there was an electric, contagious energy about it. A woman’s voice with a British accent continued talking intermittently on the loudspeakers. “Frankfurt passengers Rigell please report to your departure gate, Paris flight arriving at Gate 75”. The sounds, the languages, and the colors of the native dress were almost overwhelming.

Headscarves, native drums, books on Nelson Mandela were everywhere. A collective pride echoed through the terminals. You could not walk ten feet within the airport without an employee that was ready to help you. The airport staff wore these vests over their clothing, with a faint glow from the yellow reflection tape; the kind of vests we might see on traffic workers in the United States.

Everywhere I walked, people actively asked where you were going. Two women had just come back from a Safari in Zimbabwe. They had hand-carved walking canes, with the signature of their maker, Jobu, at the end of the stick. There were lion teeth marks, as well! Both women lifted the sticks to show me the teeth marks. Apparently, the lions liked to chew on the sticks when people would take their walks. I could not imagine how that actually worked, but nonetheless it fueled my imagination.

One tall young man asked me if I was to go hunting in Zimbabwe. No, I nodded, surprised that I could consider this option. I asked, “What would they do with the carcass after it is shot?” He shrugged, “I do not know, but after you shoot the lion, you take a picture.”

After almost two days of traveling, we finally boarded the last plane for Harare. The plane was small and somewhat empty. I immediately noticed the difference in the atmosphere on the plane as we prepared for landing. As we descended, I looked out the window of the plane and noticed barely any lights; no skyline, not even a sunset. Compared to the tall skyscrapers and the “scene” of Johannesburg, this was quite a shift. It felt like we had just left Downtown Oz, and slid into a bad B-movie. I could physically feel the change as well.

My assistant Lauren and I looked at each other a bit nervously. When we departed the plane, again there were many airport employees in yellow traffic vests, but no one was smiling. Each of them lined up against the wall - suspicion their only form of greeting. At this point, I began to question my own sanity. Of course, I would not go to a country that was not safe...I thought.

When I went through immigration the woman asked me “whom are you visiting.” I quietly said “Betty.” The worker looked up, “Betty Who?” I said “Betty Makoni,” hesitantly, not sure if that response would land me in jail. She said, “The one that does the Girl Child Network?” “Yes” I nodded solemnly. She nodded and let me through.

After discovering one bag of luggage was missing we filed a claim, and immediately went out to meet Betty. She had her hair curled up, looking quite glamorous, and beside her was her husband, Ivan. Ivan loaded the luggage in their car. Like England, we left the airport driving on the left side of the road, something that always takes getting use to. The streets were deserted. Betty said, “It is like a graveyard here; no one is about because of the fear. It was more than deserted; there was a palpable damper in the air.

Betty reiterated that we are safe. She has constant protection with her, probably the best in the country. “I have been under surveillance from the government for at least three years”, she said. I anxiously look back over my shoulder.

Investigative reporter, I am not.

More soon...

Michealene Risley

POSTCARDS FROM AFRICA - #2 of Michealene Risley's live-blogs from Zimbabwe

Ed. Note: Sincere apologies for the delay in posting this. These blogs were written during the production/filming of TAPESTRIES OF HOPE in Zimbabwe. Between sporadic electricity in Africa and getting to blogs back in California, we lost a couple of days. Afterwards, the crew was arrested and interrogated by the Zimbabwe Police, and the blogs were temporarily taken down out of concern for their safety.

I am often asked about how I got involved with Betty Makoni. As I sit here, I laugh about it because I had never intended on going to Africa. Not because it isn’t a beautiful continent. On the contrary, I’ve dreamed of going on a Safari, before all of the animals disappear and to actually see the beauty of this great continent. But, after two serious bouts of parasites, one in the Phillipines and one in the West Indies, I had decided to stay closer to home.

Last year in late September, photographer, writer, and friend, Paola Gianturco and I met for a luncheon at the Global Fund for Women in San Francisco. I believe they were honoring Lorraine Jobs for her work and support of the fund. As we had lunch, Paola told me the amazing story of this group of young rape victims and the feisty, courageous lady named Betty Makoni, who had become their protector. I was shocked by the number of rapes and abuse in Africa and of the myth that raping a virgin could cure a man of AIDS. I was horrified that this ignorance was destroying so many children and families. Many times, fathers will rape their daughters in desperation. I thought for a few minutes about what an inspirational story it would be. Yes. But, no way was I going to go to Africa to film it. That was the end of that.

A few months later, as a part of the book tour for my co-authored book “This Is Not The Life I Ordered”, we spoke at a UCSF gender studies luncheon. At this event, I happened to sit next to Amy Levine, head of the program, and her sister Gloria Simoneaux.

After the lunch, Gloria asked if we could have lunch; she seemed to need to speak with me and was persistent. When we finally met, she showed me the incredible work she was doing over in Africa. She had been using art as therapy for kids, creating schools, and making a huge difference. Once again, the plight of the girls in Africa came up and I politely dismissed it. I have three boys that I love deeply and I did not want to take any unnecessary risks.

In late March, I received a call from Paola again (damn her! :-) ) Betty was going to be speaking in San Francisco for IDEX and Paola invited me to attend. I was anxious to hear Betty speak, so Paola and I planned to meet at the event and have dinner afterwards.

To better prepare myself for the event, I went on-line and did some research on Betty and the Girl Child Network. I also called IDEX to see if there was a way to meet Betty face-to-face. Now you might think that I had already decided to do the film at this point but instead, I really was just so fascinated by the courage of this woman that I had to meet her. I didn’t imagine that it would actually happen.

I believe that there are no accidents in life. At least I have come to see that in my own. In less than a week, I found myself sitting across from Betty at breakfast with the help of Sara Dotlich at IDEX. Betty was every bit as compelling and passionate as Paola had described. That night, I heard her speak and found myself quietly crying. It was then I started to have that conversation in my head, “She is incredible, but I am not going to Africa. Maybe I can send someone there, and I can start work from back in the States. I have to…” it was then that I heard a deep soul-filled laugh. I looked around, there was no one standing there. I got quiet…and finally got the message.

I looked up at the sky and said, “Okay, Okay, I get it. I’m going! You don’t have to hit me with a two by four.”

Michealene Risley

POSTCARDS FROM AFRICA - #1 of Michealene Risley's live-blogs from Zimbabwe

Ed. Note: Sincere apologies for the delay in posting this. These blogs were written during the production/filming of TAPESTRIES OF HOPE in Zimbabwe. Between sporadic electricity in Africa and getting to blogs back in California, we lost a couple of days. Afterwards, the crew was arrested and interrogated by the Zimbabwe Police, and the blogs were temporarily taken down out of concern for their safety.

On Saturday, my family and I drove through Northern California amidst rolling hills and redwood trees. Along the way, we stopped for breakfast. As we ate, my husband gently reprimanded our youngest son for leaving his food untouched. He was concentrating on the whip cream in his hot chocolate. My husband said, “Do you know how many starving kids there are in Africa?”

I was in mid-swig of some warm questionable substance and almost spewed it out across the table. It was not because the statement wasn’t true, but because my mother use to say those exact same words to me! Not only do we become our parents (herein lies the stunning thought) but we still have the same issues: one being STARVING CHILDREN.

We seem to find the money to fight nations over oil and to go after terrorists and yet world hunger continues. Perhaps if we created a world that better protected children and supplied them with their basic necessities, they might grow up to be better human beings and wars would not occur. But, this is wishful thinking.

As I write, we fly to New York, then on to Johannesburg, South Africa. I can’t believe we have made it thus far! Preparing for the trip physically is much easier than the mental preparation. Every day there is a new story out of Zimbabwe about President Mugabe. The political situation, how inflation is over 4000%; the country is in crisis, that much is clear. The Western newspapers report that electricity is sporadic and the grocery stores are empty. Zimbabweans are fleeing the country to other regions of the continent.

A good friend of mine’s husband asked the question, “If life in Zimbabwe is so tough, how are people surviving day to day?” It is a good question- one that I cannot answer until I get there and see the situation with my own eyes. I am most anxious to see.

I am less anxious to see children suffer from the ravages of hunger and disease. To see children struggle from a chaos not of their own creation or their premature push into adulthood because there are no adults left standing.

Yesterday I asked my three young sons, “What one thing would you wish for if you could have anything you want?” The older two shouted over each other, “Playstation! WII!”. The younger one, our 4 year old, waited and repeated what the older boys has said, taking their lead. I reached down into a bag from Target and said, “I asked the girls in Africa the same question, do you know what they said?” All three boys shook their heads questionably. I pulled out a pair of underwear. “This was their greatest wish”.

At first my kids did not get it. Then I saw the light hit their eyes and the astonishment that these girls in Africa had so little!

So my hope for today is twofold. One, that we get through customs in Johannesburg and they let us keep the underwear to give out to the girls. Two, that when my children grow up and their children are wasting food at the table, the closest thing they could say is “Years ago, people starved in some parts of the world but that’s not so anymore. Since I don’t like you to waste food though, next time no whip cream!”

Michealene Risley

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

"I AM DAILY ROBBED OF MY INNOCENT GIRLS" by Betty Makoni in memory of little girls who died as a result of rape

Death, death like Brutal Brutus
Remember the historical bloody murder
So cruel and so unkind
Uncaring and no courtesy
You come like a robber by the night
To rob me of my passion, my lifeline
My girls my little innocent girls
I am daily robbed of my innocent girls

Two of them I remember clinging to breath
Faith the little baby girl from Rusape rural
Watched her taken from the freezing cold
Just wrapped round with torn rags
By the arms grandma held her
She wept endlessly, flows and flows of tears
I cuddled her into my own hands
Into the car we drove to the graveyard
There thousands of other little girls heard me make them prayers
If no life dignity , then last body viewing your last dignity Feyi
I saluted you my innocent girl, Faith
I am daily robbed of my innocent girls

From Norton, mid July 2004 broke news of one Norton girl
He raped her, brutally murdered her
He wanted her genital organs for ritual purposes
Such beauty, innocence swamped into a coffin
What loss, grief, death, murder, brutal murder
The worst murder, rapist he is
Some let my little girls live on after rape, the first murder
This one raped, extracted bodily parts, murdered her
Reason not pronounced for this is brutal murder
Pain, panic, my little girls perish just so
Oh my own little girls, my innocent little girls my own life
I am daily robbed of my innocent girls

Wish they were all here to sing, “Betty Makoni----“
Like you they initially murdered me
Memory from Chivhu murdered , infected with the deadly virus
Died, too scared to break silence, too intimidated
Simply said, “ Girl Child Network should continue”
Spirit lingers on my little girls, so brave so strong
Endured it all, injured you were, reason not pronounced
Male dominance, overpowering the most vulnerable
I am robbed of my little innocent girls

Totally robbed, just remnants and girls’ memories
Daily raped, used, abused, overused
Daily cornered, sexually harassed, suffocated
Reason not pronounced, just brutal rape and murder
As if we only the desires men hunger for
So many infected and affected by AIDS
They think they are a cure for AIDS
How dare I let go robbers, rapists of my little innocent girls
Next time you rob, you rape one of them
If not death then curse you for life
My sword up, my dagger up
Communities swords up, their daggers up
Up forever by our front doors
To stop this robbery, brutal murder of my innocent girls
Sick and tired of this daily robbery of my innocent girls

One day we assemble my little girls
Raped, half murdered from all walks of life
With tears flowing down our cheeks
We want justice, compensation and compassion
Wear your black in memory of Faith, Memory, Isabel and them all
For they died, fighting, struggling
March we will do to the fathers of this country
Every bail should be reversed
Raped, half murdered by rapists, murderers
Show them our tattered torn genital organs
What brutality, cruelty, for murder is rape
Rape is murder, oh no murder is rape
I am daily robbed of my innocent little girls

Way home, way to school
Tie them innocent souls to your hands
Tell them Betty Makoni witnesses so many rape cases of minors daily, hourly
She mourns, weeps even more and more
This is death of my passion, robbed of my constituency
Armour of my activism, my little girls, my little innocent girls
I am very bitter, angered, evoked
For I am robbed of my little innocent girls

(This poem was written by Betty Makoni – Director of Girl Child Network in memory of little girls who died as a result of rape)

Thursday, August 2, 2007

The Tapestries of Hope “Future” Pendant

Fresh Water Spigot’s non-profit organization, FreshWater Haven, has teamed up with jewelry designer Janelle Gibson to bring support and awareness to the lives of Betty Makoni and the young girls of the Girl Child Network. Janelle Gibson has been an advocate for supporting women all over the world through her “Pendant Project” and has dedicated one of her pieces to Freshwater Haven’s work with the Girl Child Network.

This sterling silver pendant is square shape and is titled “FUTURE”. Each square is approximately 1 ¾ long by ¾ inch wide, and strung on either a black or brown leather cord.

All profits from the purchase of this necklace “FUTURE” will go directly towards creating additional awareness and support to the Girl Child Network. Please give yourself or a loved one a gift that helps stop the rape and abuse of girls in Zimbabwe. Each necklace comes with a card containing information about the documentary “Tapestries of Hope”, Betty Makoni, and the Girl Child Network.

FLASHCARDS trailer...

Before Tapestries of Hope, there was FLASHCARDS. It is a short film focused on the effects of abuse on a young girl and her family. FLASHCARDS received several awards and was screened at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival. It was produced and directed by Michealene Risley. Here's the trailer:

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

MISS YOU LITTLE GIRL FROM ALL OF US LITTLE GIRLS - poem by Betty Makoni in memory of Isabel Makusha

There are so many deaths
So many murders round the world
There are so many robbers, rapists around us
So, so many kidnappers, hooligans, murderers all around us
Never have I seen kidnapper, robber, murderer, rapist in one
Such brutal brutality, cruel cruelty
Our dedication to you little girls, we little girls miss you
Isabel you endured murder, rape, suffocation

Know you all the strongest women round the world
None endured thus like little Isabel
What strong a woman, what real role model
What great inspiration, admiration we have
Who so strong a woman withstands being murdered, raped
Who so strong a woman endures so much pain
Who amongst us has felt rape, murder just all brutality?
You had it all and so strong you endured it all
Miss you little Isabella for you are courage itself

Come, yee girls, a new era is born
War against rapists rages on
We are rolling, the spirit lingers on
We are twisted by the arm, we will resist
We are alert, fearless
We are confident, more empowered
This societal evil soon thing of the past

Finally our letter to you little angel of courage
“Dear Isabel
We know you safely rested having endured pain and trauma
You the girl of such great strength and power
You launched a girls’ campaign through death
Your picture right in our Empowerment Village, Rusape
Who said you are dead and gone
You here to inspire us, battle against rapists
We will never tire, keep us no peace with rapists

Next time we meet the battle will be over
What a bye bye from all little girls
Who read, heard and played with you
What a bye bye, from us all little girls so shaken by grief
He killed innocence and ignited guilt
By that live he no more and mark our words
Goodbye little angel, you fly high
Bye bye forever, we know we awakened
Never the same ever will happen to us all
Our love and care and miss you
From all of us little girls who miss and love you

Miss you little girl, from all of us little girls

(This poem was written by Betty Makoni – Director of Girl Child Network in memory of Isabel Makusha who was brutally murdered)

Photos from Africa