Of all those who have been hurt and died terrible deaths in the Time of Robert Mugabe as prime thug in Zimbabwe, none have been hurt more than the women. They have been beaten, imprisoned, raped and starved; They have watched the bulldozing of their shacks; and they have watched the slow, terrible deaths of their children from malnutrition and untreated disease.
Maybe one of the worst of the hurts suffered by the women is the fear that they will die ahead of their young children, leaving them to die alone of starvation.
Such a tale was told in Washington this week by two of Zimbabwe’s most remarkable women. A mother of three went out to forage for food but collapsed and died. The starving children found some fertilizer she had hidden against the day when she could get some corn to plant. The children thought the fertilizer pellets were grain and made porridge with them. All three were poisoned and died.
Yet Magadonga Mahlangu and Jenni Williams, principles in the nonviolent, grassroots movement WOZA, talked not about privation and murder, but hope. Hope for enough food; hope for an end to violence to themselves; hope for their children; and hope for a free, productive and stable homeland.
Although both women have each been arrested more than 30 times, imprisoned and held without bail for a long period (“on remand,” in the English common law language of the tattered Zimbabwe legal system), they remain optimistic. In hell, they dream of heaven.
WOZA, which stands for Women of Zimbabwe Arise, but is also an Ndebele word meaning “come forward,” was formed in 2002 as a non-violent, non-political group, committed to the protection of women and their families by teaching them to protest for their human rights and by teaching them some basic skills, such as how to avoid violence and rape, whether it is domestic or state-sponsored.
Both Mahlangu and Williams are from the nation’s second city, Bulawayo, in Matabeland, where the predominant people are the Ndebele, an offshoot of the Zulus of South Africa. Mugabe may have reason enough to hate the women because of their activism, but the Ndebele have known his loathing since the first days of his rule in the early 1980s, when he sent his best troops, known as the Fifth Brigade, to effect a genocidal massacre that is believed to have cost as many as 25,000 Ndebele their lives. Mugabe is a Shona, the largest tribal grouping in Zimbabwe–which is slightly smaller than Texas–and the traditional rivals of the Ndebele.
Mahlangu is a pure-bred Ndebele, with a regal bearing that belies her long suffering at the hands of the police and military in Zimbabwe. Williams is of mixed race–with European as well as African ancestry–and therefore easily accused by the state paranoiacs of treason and crimes against the state. She says she is the subject of racial slurs from the police and security forces. They accuse her of being “white, English and a colonialist” even though she has the same coloring as President Barack Obama.
Although the two women have been frequently arrested and detained without trial, they have never been convicted. The charges most leveled are for threatening public order. Mostly, they have been held in police cells. Once one of them was taken to a men’s prison, where the arresting officer warned her that she needed a strong stomach. When she got there she found 500 men without sanitation, adequate water or food. Some had died, and others were dying of dysentery and starvation.
The women were brought to Washington on a low-key visit, organized by the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights to receive its human rights award for 2009, presented to Mahlangu. Williams accepted for the women of Zimbabwe. The prize money, $30,000, will go to a violence and rape prevention program.
Extraordinarily, WOZA is not looking for money. Instead, they want the world community to bombard the police commissioner and the judiciary with faxes and e-mails to protest what Williams calls “persecution by prosecution.” WOZA, now 60,000-strong, can be found on the Web at www.wozazimbabwe.org.
Both women go on trial again Dec. 7. “If they know the world is watching, it helps,” says Mahlangu.
Besides human rights, the women have one other hope. They want to see Obama in person, even if it is across a crowded room.–For the Hearst-New York Times syndicate