Zimbabwe's Heroes

November 9, 2009

Magodonga Mahlangu and Jenni Williams of WOZA

Zimbabwe gets a lot of bad press, but not many are aware of some of the amazing people making a difference there every day. These are people, who usually at great personal risk, fight for human rights, civil liberties, justice, equality and a better Zimbabwe for all. So here’s a shout out to some personal heroes of mine and I hope you are equally inspired.  (Feel free to share stories about other amazing human rights heroes in Zim or southern Africa in general in the comment section.)

Betty Makoni
Betty is a teacher who got tired of hearing about the relentless sexual abuse of young girls and decided to do something about it. She started the Girl Child Network in Zimbabwe to provide a safe place, healing and support for young girls surviving sexual assault. Many of the girls were victimized because of a belief that sex with a virgin cures AIDS. As a result of her efforts, Betty has been targeted by security forces in Zimbabwe and forced to flee the country for her safety. A documentary film tells the story of Betty and the girls she helps. Betty has also been nominated as CNN’s Hero of the Year. You can vote for Betty on CNN’s web site until November 19th. Vote early and often!

Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA)
The women of WOZA take to the streets of Harare and Bulawayo in non-violent protest of social conditions in Zimbabwe, knowing every time they go out they are more likely to be beaten by the police than not. They sing songs and spread a message of love as they call for the equitable distribution of food aid, restoration of the education system and peace. For their efforts, they have been beaten, jailed and subjected to abductions and attempted abductions. In spite of this, they do not stop and continue to pressure the government to improve the quality of life for all Zimbabweans. Their efforts may not be respected by the Zimbabwe government, but the international community continues to award and support their work. Most recently, Magodonga Mahlangu and WOZA were recognized by the RFK Center for Justice & Human Rights as the 2009 Human Rights Laureate. Help keep the ladies of WOZA safe by demanding justice from the Zimbabwe government.

Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR)
If you are ever sent to prison in Zimbabwe, these are the people you want to call. The relentless efforts of ZLHR, human rights defenders themselves, have enabled civil society to continue to function in Zimbabwe by getting other human rights defenders out of prison. Their client roster is a who’s who of social justice champions in Zimbabwe. But ZLHR also works to help everyone in Zimbabwe by defending as many indigent clients as they can and publishing a newspaper to inform citizens of their rights and what is happening in the government. ZLHR is often targeted for abuse by the Zimbabwe government, but praised internationally for their work. The organization was recently honored by the American Bar Association for their human rights work.

(ZLHR isn’t the only game in town when it comes to human rights lawyers, by the way. There are too many amazing examples to list, but another who was also just recognized for her work is Beatrice Mtetwa, who received the Ludovic-Trarieux International Human Rights Prize. She is only the second African to be so honored-the other was Nelson Mandela. Let’s hear it for the lawyers!)

Jestina Mukoko
Jestina is the executive director of the Zimbabwe Peace Project. The Peace Project works to document incidents of violence committed against the people of Zimbabwe. Last December, Jestina was abducted and tortured by state agents, falsely charged by the government, then fought and won a court battle to have those charges dismissed. After prevailing in court, Jestina turned right around and continued her efforts to hold the government of Zimbabwe accountable by filing a civil suit against those persons responsible for her abduction and torture. You go girl!

Comrade Fatso
It’s not often that the work of a spoken word poet/hip hop musician is taught to students at universities, but this guy’s stuff should be studied. The passion, power and beauty of his art more than merits the accolades. “Our word is our weapon” and Comrade Fatso fires volley after volley at the Zimbabwe government, calling attention to the plight of his fellow citizens and demanding social justice. His albums have been banned in Zimbabwe and he has been arrested multiple times. His work to lead a new generation of Zimbabweans in reclaiming their communities makes you want to clap your hands as much as his music makes you want to move your feet.

David Coltart
It’s pretty rare that I would consider a politician a hero, and I thought long and hard before including Minister Coltart on this list. But his efforts to revive and repair the education system over the past 8 months deserves a shout out. Mr. Coltart isn’t afraid to call out the problems he faces, to discuss the true state of the collapse of the education system, to work with teachers and unions to fill classrooms and negotiate the hazardous waters of Zimbabwe’s government channels to get things done. He was also the only one to refuse a new Mercedes when he was sworn in as Minister of Education, calling out his fellow MDC government officials for accepting theirs when the MDC had campaigned on a platform of helping Zimbabwe, not helping themselves. Cheers for not being a hypocrite!