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.

8/19/07
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

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