My Zimbabwean Sheroes: Jestina Mukoko
I believe everyone has at some point watched a movie in which all your muscles are bundled up in tension. You are not sure which way the pendulum is going to swing, will the hero/heroine escape unscathed or will he/she die. When I watched Troy, I had the same feeling. In fact right at the end I had a sick feeling in my gut because the hero did not make it to the end and he never got to live happily ever after with his new found love.
The story of the life of Zimbabwean activists has a similar trend. Fear of arrest, abduction, harassment, forced disappearance and even murder lives at the threshold of our minds. Who knows what to expect? Who knows what new story we will hear tomorrow about one of our own? Who knows which individual has been targeted next for ‘disciplining’ by state security agents?
Zimbabwean activists and human rights defenders fight for a transformed society. But we fight against strong winds, the kind whose magnitude is worse than tsunamis. Most Zimbabweans hide from these winds. They do not want to be accused of opposing the winds or being associated with individuals that oppose these winds. But there are women in Zimbabwe who do not care how strong these winds blow; women who stand firm, sacrificing their bodies as windshields to protect other women and Zimbabwean society as a whole.
Jestina Mukoko is one such woman.
When we were young, she was the face that we loved to see reading the 8 o’clock news in the evening. Watching the main news at night was a ritual in my house and back then it was the most boring hour of my life. As a newsreader at the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation, Jestina Mukoko brightened the screen with her pretty face and her husky voice and made that hour a whole lot easier to bear.
Widowed, a mother of one, a human rights activist and a journalist, Jestina is the executive director of the Zimbabwe Peace Project (ZPP), a non governmental organisation which records incidents of political violence and advocates peaceful resolution to conflict. She serves as a Board member for the Zimbabwe Election support Network another Zimbabwean organisation that advocates democratic elections in Zimbabwe.
Jestina Mukoko is bravery personified. Despite the horrendous experiences she has had as direct reprisals for her work, I find it purely amazing that she still finds the strength to continue her work in Zimbabwe.
Between January and September 2008, Jestina and the crew at ZPP catalogued thousands of incidences of violations murders, abductions, rapes, torture, and assaults. They also began a project documenting abuse of food aid by the government, forcing people to support Mugabe or starve to death, with women and children obviously being the most vulnerable.
On 3 December 2008, Jestina was abducted from her home in the early hours of the morning. She was dragged out of her house barefoot and in pyjamas. Her abductors, a group of 12 to 15 men, claimed to be policemen and were driving two unmarked cars. For days her whereabouts were unknown and the state claimed they did not have her in their custody. She had been designated to stand as the head of Ceremonies at the annual Auxillia Chimusoro Awards recognising those fighting against HIV/AIDS, which awards were held the night of the morning she was abducted.
When she resurfaced in police custody she was held on false allegations of banditry and attempting to sabotage the government. For these false charges she spent 6 months in remand prison, the conditions of which could only be described as inhuman and degrading. She was tortured endlessly, denied access to medical care and gravely neglected. Jestina was subjected to falanga, a method of torture popular with the security agents in Zimbabwe where they beat a person under the soles of their feet until the feet are tender. This method saves the security agents from being held responsible for torture in court because it does not leave visible marks of abuse.
Jestina was held in solitary confinement in the men’s section at Zimbabwe’s Chikurubi maximum security prison, housed under the same roof with the worst criminals this country has, yet she had not committed a single crime. During her period of disappearance, many women’s groups, churches and NGOs as well as international organisations and governments rallied behind her demanding her release. Her prosecution ended several months later, when the Supreme Court ordered a permanent stay of criminal proceedings against her, a decision the Court said was warranted for by the gravity of abuses she had suffered at the hands of the state security and police.
In March 2010, Jestina was recognised as one of the women of courage, an award given to 10 human rights defenders by the US State Department, recognising her exceptional courage and leadership in advancing the rights of women.
She also won the French Legion of Honor together with National Healing Co-Minister Sekai Holland for what French authorities called her outstanding virtues in serving Zimbabwe and others.
On 13 November 2011 a man in a Black Rhino, vehicles associated with state security agents in Zimbabwe followed Jestina in the central business district of Harare. She immediately raised the issue with her lawyers fearing another surveillance and possible abduction.
However, she continues to work at ZPP and is geared for another election in which she will name and shame perpetrators of violence against the women, men and children of Zimbabwe.
This article was first published on MaDube’s Reflections