The woman who took on Mugabe

Of all the terrible things that have happened to Jenni Williams over the past six years — and there have been many — there is one incident that stands out from the rest.

It was October 2008. She had been arrested by Zimbabwean police after taking part in a peaceful protest outside a government complex. The marchers were asking for food aid, in a population where three-quarters of the population is starving under Robert Mugabe’s oppressive regime. Bundled into a police van, Williams and a colleague were taken to prison and denied bail.

She was in jail for three weeks. On one ”particularly bad day” Williams recalls being forced by the guards to sit for hours in the burning sunshine. ”I am of light skin, they knew I was going to get very badly sunburnt, and we were just made to sit there for some form of punishment,” she says. ”And when we tried to object, they started accusing myself and my colleague of being lesbians because she had been beaten and I was rubbing her back.

”So it was a very bad day, and our lawyer had not been able to come to give us any update on our appeal process and I just thought: I don’t know how we’re going to get through this.”

At 47, Jenni Williams has experienced more brutality than most of us will face in a lifetime. She is the founder of the underground activist movement Women of Zimbabwe Arise (Woza), an organisation that, since 2003, has been mobilising Zimbabwean women to demonstrate in defence of their political, economic and social rights. In a fragmented country where women are marginalised by patriarchy, downtrodden by severe financial hardship (official inflation runs at 7 000%) and weakened by the acute lack of food or clothing for themselves and their children, Williams faces an almost insurmountable daily struggle simply to keep going.

Under Mugabe’s dictatorship, the threat of state-sanctioned violence is ever-present. Despite being a movement dedicated to peaceful protest, Woza’s 70 000 members are routinely arrested, beaten and intimidated.

As an outspoken critic of the current Zimbabwean regime, Williams is one of the most troublesome thorns in Mugabe’s side. In a region where anti-government protesters have an uncomfortable habit of disappearing or turning up dead, her day-to-day existence is hazardous: although her main residence is in Bulawayo, south-west Zimbabwe, she moves in and out of safe houses and never stays more than six months in one place. She has been arrested 33 times.

Once she was abducted by police for 24 hours and driven 45km outside the city to an unknown destination. ”They were telling me they were going to murder me and bury me and no one would ever know,” says Williams. ”Luckily for me, we ended up in a police station and some of the police officers were very sympathetic. There was no food there but one of those police officers came and whispered into the window of our cell: ‘I’m bringing you food from your house. I know you are hungry.’ So sometimes in life when you suspect the absolute worst thing, God sends you an angel.”

She says, when I ask her if she ever loses hope in humanity, that this is her answer: finding goodness where you least expect it. Even at her lowest point in that prison yard, forced to sit for hours in the sunshine, her skin burning and her spirits shattered, something happened to salvage her hopes and keep her going. ”My colleagues came and told me that Barack Obama had won and was going to be the next president of America and it was — ” She breaks off, then emits a loud squeal of delight: ”YES! And that made the pain not so bad.”

In person, Jenni Williams looks as strong as she sounds. She has a broad face, substantial shoulders and thick, powerful arms. Her hair is braided in tight plaits that snake across her skull. She is mixed race — her mechanic father, who was absent for most of her upbringing, was black. Her mother Margaret is the daughter of an IRA man who emigrated to what was then Rhodesia from County Armagh. He became a gold prospector and married a local woman from the Matabele tribe.

Williams readily admits that dissidence runs in the family: ”It’s an incredible mix of this Irish and this Matabelean nation, which is a fighting nation. My grandmother was once arrested during the early 80s because the Mugabe regime said she had arms caches. That’s the melting pot that I come from.”

At first the combination of her looks and her history can make Williams seem a slightly forbidding presence, but as soon as you talk to her you realise that she has an internal composure that gives her a tender, almost maternal quality. She comes across as a protector rather than an aggressor. When she talks, it is in a bubbling stream of flat Zimbabwean vowels spliced with laughter. She smiles a lot.

We meet on one of her infrequent visits to the UK — she is deliberately vague about her movements in case the Zimbabwean authorities attempt to stop her, but she has the backing of Amnesty International and this time has been able to move around relatively freely.

”We [Woza] get scared like anyone else,” she says. ”But I think what gives us the commitment to continue to do the things we do is that we speak 100% the truth, and we speak it from the moral authority that we are the mothers of the nation, and if your mother cannot speak out on your behalf then you have no one that will speak for you. So that is why we are committed to doing this: because we want a better future for our children.”

The horrible irony for Williams is that being the mother of a troubled nation means she finds it increasingly difficult to be the mother of her own family. Her husband Michael, an electrician, and her three adult children — one daughter, Natalie (28) from her first marriage, and two sons, Christopher (24) and Richard (22) — all live in the UK. It would be too dangerous for them to stay in Zimbabwe.

When Woza organised its first Valentine’s Day march in 2003 (14 February, with its connotations of love and understanding, is a crucial date for the organisation, which promotes strategic nonviolence), Christopher, then 18, was arrested for handing out roses. Although the Zimbabwean Constitution grants the right to peaceful protest, the authorities argue that it cannot be carried out in the streets without prior notification.

”I couldn’t do anything,” says Williams now, twisting her hands on the table in front of her. ”It was just deeply frustrating for me to be a mother and see that my child had now gotten arrested for something that I was doing, and I was helpless. And so with Christopher’s arrest, my mother-in-law [who lives in the UK] got a little bit worried and said: ‘Look, please can we have the kids?’

”Also, because of my activism there were threats that they would be taken and put in the youth militia, where they train these kids to be violent, so I had no other option but to allow my two sons, who were still living in the house, to come and be in the UK. My daughter is much older; she had already left home.

”It’s not easy for me to live apart from them. But we are very, very busy leading this organisation. I already work 14 to 15-hour days. There’s no way right now I can be a mother to my children because I’m too occupied being a mother to the nation.”

Does she feel guilty about the choice she has made, about placing the political over the personal? ”No, I don’t because I know and they know and we all understand and discuss these issues and they know why we’re doing it. So it’s not a matter of guilt. I miss them terribly. I miss my husband terribly. But I know it’s for them I’m doing it, and they know that, too.”

Much of her life has been spent taking care of other people — at the age of 16 she dropped out of school to help her single mother care for her six siblings. And, like the Woza members, 70% of whom have not completed secondary education, she has experienced at first hand the vicious hardships of a Zimbabwean upbringing: in 1994, her eldest brother died of HIV/Aids, and because of her mixed heritage she has experienced racism from both sides of the ethnic divide.

”In some ways, my blood has been too black to be beautiful,” she says sadly. ”In other ways, my skin has been too white to be right. And yeah, it’s been a problem … My first marriage failed because, at the wedding ceremony, my ex-husband’s mother and father arrived at the wedding and the reality that I was mixed race hit them when they saw my mother and they saw my brothers, who are much darker than me, and they just couldn’t take it and they left the ceremony. They hounded my husband with all this stuff about the son of Ham and all this racist rhetoric, and: ‘You’re going to have black children’ and our marriage failed as a result of that.

”And now under Mugabe, quite often police officers who do not know me, who do not know my background, will make all sorts of racist [anti-white] comments to me and so I’ve also had that … So it hasn’t been easy.”

But perhaps it was this sense of never quite belonging, of having to prove herself in the face of adversity, that gave Williams the sheer single-mindedness she has needed to pursue what she believes is right in a land where the idea of justice is, at best, illusory. ”Seeing my mother want something better for me and seeing her sacrifices [as] a single mother raising seven children — it motivated me a lot … It was her as a role model and the fact I had seen so much discrimination that made me want to become a human rights defender.”

In what she refers to as ”my previous life”, Williams ran her own public relations company. From 1994 to 2002 the business was so successful that it won a sizeable contract to do all the communications for the Zimbabwean Farmers’ Union. This brought Williams directly into conflict with the government — Mugabe’s controversial policy of land reform enables white farmers to be forced off their properties in order to ”redistribute” wealth. ”It was very hot and heavy and I was under threat,” says Williams. ”The police kept visiting the offices. It was just impossible. It ended up losing me my company.” Enraged by the injustice of what happened, Williams became politically active. A year later, Woza was formed.

Its grassroots members, many of whom come to the organisation from church groups, are the ordinary women of Zimbabwe who would otherwise remain voiceless — the seamstresses, the vegetable sellers and hairdressers. Williams leads regular street demonstrations, during which the protesters sing gospel songs and carry brooms, embodying their desire to sweep the government clean. It is a terrifying process: ”Sometimes when we are singing, we are extremely discordant because, you know, your mouth is dry, you’re scared and you’re watching out the whole time for the police.”

Dispiritingly, Williams says that there has been no noticeable improvement in conditions since the power-sharing agreement brokered in September between Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the opposition. ”We had huge expectations that it would have … but we have not noticed any change. In fact, in some ways we can say the pressure on us has increased because post the signing of this deal, I then found myself back in prison. And after having made bail — and it was a huge legal battle — we then found that we were restricted to a 40km radius, and that has never happened before.

”Since Morgan Tsvangirai was sworn in, there is more food on the shelves, but our members certainly cannot afford to buy that food. There’s 94% unemployment, and the 6% that’s left over probably cannot even afford to pay for their bus transport into work.

”Our members, what are they going to do? They can’t afford the school fees. They’re desperate for their children to get educated. The decision is: do I feed this child right now or do I buy chalk so they can go to school? And that’s a horrible choice that parents are being forced to make in Zimbabwe. So daily life is just horrific.”

In prison, conditions are even worse. ”It’s a living nightmare,” says Williams. ”It’s a death sentence.” At mealtimes food is so scarce that the portions are measured out in teaspoons. After Williams’s three-week incarceration last October, a female prisoner begged her to leave behind her underwear. ”They said: ‘We have not seen a pair of panties for two or three years while we’ve been in prison.’ And, I mean, someone can be stripped of their dignity, but if you’re a woman you really want to be able to have a pair of panties — it’s something basic.”

She has a vivid memory of being taken to a men’s prison and seeing hundreds of skeletal inmates in the courtyard. ”These were men who were — what’s the word — you can’t say crouching because that implies a bigger body space — people were so thin that they looked like spiders, when they close themselves up and you can’t see any limbs. They were like ghosts: rows and rows of ghosts.”

Although she would never admit to it, it is clear that the prospect of being sent back there fills Williams with dread. The trial relating to her October arrest on charges of disturbing the peace is still ongoing — at the time of going to press, Williams and her co-leader Magodonga Mahlangu were due to appear in front of the Bulawayo magistrate’s court on 30 April.

Meanwhile, the daily struggle continues. Williams refuses to dwell on the negative, and perhaps this is a necessary technique of self-preservation: how else would she be able to carry on fighting, with such good-humoured courage and tenacity, in the face of such intimidation and danger?

Before she leaves, I tell her that I know no one who possesses the necessary strength to do what she does. ”I know lots!” she shrieks happily, shrugging herself into a huge padded black coat. ”I know all the Woza members. We are constantly arrested, hundreds of us, and we make each other strong, defend our rights and help each other cope. So I am in extremely good company.”

She zips up her coat and gives me a warm hug. Then she walks away, back to fight the battles that no one else dares to face. –

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