Courageous Jestina Mukoko reflects on horrid abduction, says ‘they broke my body but not my spirit’

By Edinah Masanga

 

Jestina Mukoko

Jestina Mukoko flanked by Secretary Hillary Clinton & First Lady Michelle Obama

Jestina Mukoko’s name reverberated around the world when she was abducted on December 3 in 2008. A broadcaster turned human rights activist, Mukoko was abducted in the thick of dawn by Mugabe’s henchmen and held incommunicado for 21 days. After that, she was sent to maximum prison for 68 days on trumped up charges meant to derail her work with the Zimbabwe Peace Project. Her book, The Abduction and Trial of Jestina Mukoko, is a reflection and curation of her horrible experience at the hands of the Zimbabwean state agents. On March 10, 2010, she received the International Women of Courage Award from the US Department of State in Washington D.C. She was presented this award by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and First Lady Michelle Obama.

I think what has made you a symbol of courage is what you were put through and survived. I want to know, in that moment when you were abducted, what went through your mind, did you start having feelings of regret and begin saying oh what have I done?

You know because of the work that I was doing at the time, which I have continued doing, I was aware of what transpires when someone is abducted because we have people who were telling us stories about what they went through. But some of them did not have a good ending because after an abduction they would just find a body or it would be a non-ending disappearance. So, for me being there I did not think I was going to come out alive at all. I was threatened with extinction. Those were the actual words of this man.

He said, you can go extinct and we will bury you around this building and no one will ever know, and I had no doubt that could happen to me…

…and then the next day I hear people digging outside the building and what crosses my mind is, I think that must be my grave.

You know there are times when you feel you are at a loss but I think what I’m happy about is I have a strong spirit. And, well, they broke my body but they did not break my spirit.

That’s so powerful.

When my brother saw me (when I was released) he could not recognize me and I got really worried, why is he failing to recognize that I am his sister? Because at that moment I felt relieved that I was now out. You know the spirit gives you a reason to go on. And I was like I have so much to share with him but he was speaking with someone on the phone and he said, that is not my sister and someone will pay for this.  And that hit me because I was so excited to see him and then all of a sudden, he is on the phone telling someone that yes there is someone I’m seeing coming out but it’s not my sister. It was painful. But what I know is that my spirit came out very strong. And for some reason, I’m not sure if it is by chance but there was a Gideon new testament bible in the room where they kept me and that kept me going, Edinah.  I would just read out of that book and it gave me inspiration.

I remember I was in Nairobi and people were asking me about you. In that moment, I realized that what you now mean and represent is so much bigger than yourself. You have cast a global light on enforced disappearances in Zimbabwe because I think before you people just used to disappear and then they would never be found. Do you sometimes reflect on that?

I do reflect on that and all the time I just feel that the lord has been kind to me by having all these people around me when I then followed how the world was moved by my disappearance.

Some people would be afraid to talk about it, but then I said with all these people on my side I can’t disappoint. I need to talk about this problem so that as a country we get rid of this problem. I’m very disappointed that in 2015 we got another enforced disappearance with Itai Dzamara and up to now he is still disappeared. And if we go back to 2012 there is a man called Paul Chizuze, up to now he has not been found, he is still disappeared.

I feel you were spared for a reason. Because not only did you come out, you survived to tell the story. How was it like, writing your book, to re-live this period. Because I wrote a memoir of my life and there were certain chapters that I just couldn’t write, I would find myself back in those dark places all over again. Did you go through that kind of feeling while writing this book?

Edinah it was a difficult process. The idea of writing a book I started on it in 2010 when I had gone to Colby College in the US on a fellowship. I had been offered an opportunity to come away from the frontline and get some respite after the ordeal. And this is when we were talking about what project I would work on while I was there and so I then decided on working on the book. But to tell you the truth it was not easy to sit on a computer and type from when all this started. In most instances, I would not be able to go through fifty words because I would become so distraught like nobody’s business. They even tried to have me speak to someone, have it recorded and then probably get someone who would act like a ghost writer but still, that did not work because I felt like the product of having someone do it for me lacked my soul. So I put aside everything and then in 2013 I got targeted again by the state, and I then got an opportunity to go for a fellowship at the university of York in the UK, and there was this amazing woman who was the creative artist for the university at the Applied Human Rights Centre, I think when she started talking to me somehow she moved the writing block that I had. And from then on I saw myself getting motivated to work on the book. I would wake up at 3 am or 4 am in the morning. From that time I would write every day maybe 1500 words but this did not mean that the situation was now better.

I think when I was in the UK I could feel my perpetrators breathing

And I remember one night I actually dreamt that I had been abducted again and only got a relief when I woke up in the morning and recognized that no this room is not where I stay at home, I’m away from home.  I got up and switched on the light to confirm that I was not in Zimbabwe and it was only then that I was able to sleep again because I had the confidence that I was away from perpetrators. But that’s what writing this book did to me. The applied human rights section then got someone who would speak to me on a regular basis, a man of the cloth from the Methodist church who originally came from South Africa. So, he would, maybe twice or once a week, talk to me about where my thoughts were. He helped me a lot to walk this road of writing the book.

Do you live up to something? I am a Maya Angelou devout but I’m also a Christian but I believe that we need to be inspired by other humans or actions that we can see and I absolutely love Maya Angelou. Do you have such philosophies or people that you look up to?

I am also a Christian, I was brought up a Christian and I thank my mother for that. That’s how I managed to survive. You know how it is with our mothers they will sing and pray when they are happy, they will sing and pray when they are sad. And I had these songs that I grew up hearing my mother sing when she was happy and when she was sad, and I imagined those songs were being sung to me at that time.

I am also particularly moved by Joyce Meyer and I get a lot of inspiration from her write-ups which are also in line with the Christian life and strengthen me.

I am feeling so much emotion right now. One of the things I struggle with, doing this work that I do, is to remove myself, to separate the person from the work. I feel so emotional to be able to talk to you in person because it’s one thing to hear these things or read them in a book and another to listen to you recount everything. What do you want to say to women?

You know I’m still attending therapy sessions because I still recognize that, I think it was last year when the book was released, I’m still getting emotional. Then friends of mine suggested that I needed to be speaking to someone on a regular basis. And you know I was speaking to my therapist this morning –  I’ve just come from the US where I was talking to students at four liberal arts colleges and I think it was the last talk at the fourth college where someone asked me whether there are women perpetrators as well. She was asking in terms of the torture. You know I remembered this woman. I couldn’t hold back my tears Edinah. Because it was like I saw her doing her thing all over again. As I was being taken around the house where I was being kept, I was in blindfolds and I remember one time the woman was walking ahead of me and I was blindfolded and not even aware of where I was stepping onto and she was walking so fast I couldn’t keep up with her and someone said, don’t you think you need to hold her hand, and she just retorted, ngaatevere (let her follow). I was so scared to move my feet because I wasn’t sure ndiri kunotsika pai (where would my feet land). Ndiri kunotsika mumoto here (am I going to step into a fire or what). What am I stepping onto? I didn’t know. This woman was so cruel it was unbelievable.

You know what, you reminded me when I spoke to Professor Narnia Bohler-Muller from South Africa and she said while I mentor other women I also have to protect my space. Do you think we have been conditioned to hate each other or the system has made us blind to our own oppression?

I think for that one she was too overzealous because I’m convinced that all of them knew that I did not deserve to be there.  What they were working against was the work that I do at the Zimbabwe Peace Project. And for someone to then act like that, it just beat my mind and I couldn’t hold my tears when this woman asked are there any women perpetrators. I said I think they are actually worse than men.

I remember that I wrote an article in which I argued that just because women are oppressed we cannot absolve them of their own faults completely, they sometimes take part in these terrible things that they must take responsibility for. But what would you tell women like me, I feel like I am the coward, I ran away from Zimbabwe and I’m now living here in Sweden. Some people say we belong to the so-called coward generation that has run away instead of fighting it out. What would you say to women like me?

I think that’s a difficult call Edinah that you are asking me to do. I think those are difficult questions, questions related to someone’s safety and someone’s comfort are very personal. What applies to you might not apply to me and the way that I see things might not be the way that you see things so I cannot prescribe that every woman or every Zimbabwean must be at home. I know I have been asked, Jestina why do you keep going back to Zimbabwe?

I know! I ask the same question too. It has become so personal to me, what happens to you, what happens to people like you. Such that I think maybe you need to be in a place where we can be sure that you are completely safe. Have you ever thought about leaving Zimbabwe?

Not at this stage. I would say that in 2013 there were people who talked to me to think seriously about leaving the country but I think having been brought up by a single parent – she is now 86 – at the time if I had left the country because there were all these charges over my head I think they would have concluded that I was guilty that’s why I had fled the country. I think at the moment what weighs me down about deciding to leave is that I want to be close to my mother. I’m the only surviving girl and I believe that she is my responsibility.

I think that also goes back to who you are. The selflessness that you have. I believe that the decisions we make, the lives we live, always go back to who we are at the core of our being. I am very grateful for you agreeing to do this interview today because reading is not enough to feel the passion in your voice, to know who really Jestina Mukoko is.

I have also got a stubborn streak in me. My son said mummy I was so afraid because you are so stubborn they were eventually going to kill you. And I think this stubborn nature in me just told me that Jestina you are not going to be forced to move by anyone because you are an equal Zimbabwean and you need to be taking your decisions in your own way. So if I’m going to leave this country I’m going to leave because I want to leave but I don’t want to leave because I’m being pushed by someone.

I’m so emotional. I’m living your story as you speak. I’m normally better at removing myself from the story but it’s not possible not to feel the emotion in this moving recounting of your experience. And I think every person in the world needs to feel what I’m feeling right now because I think actions that lead to justice are informed by emotions.

What I want to say Edinah is my book is just a mirror of many more victims of enforced disappearances. So when people read it they need to look beyond Jestina Mukoko because there is a whole lot of people who are facing injustice and this book really just mirrors all their experiences. I think I just want to encourage people to read this book especially this time as Zimbabwe is heading towards an election. I’m basically really resolved of the fact that I need to get the message out to the government to say not again will there be another person facing enforced disappearance.

And, in your conversation you sent me earlier by email, you spoke about the US Secretary of State Madam Hillary Clinton.

Yes, the International Women of Courage Award.

I would want to say in terms of the award it wasn’t really (about) the courage that Jestina Mukoko demonstrated but the courage that continues to be demonstrated by men and women who work with the Zimbabwe Peace Project because, without them, I don’t think I would have been elevated to that level.

Having grown up in the dusty streets of Mambo in Gweru, I never even imagined that I would be in the company of a US Secretary of State on one side and a US First Lady on the other side. It was an emotional and humbling experience and I just felt that you know, the lord has been kind to me.

I would want the headline of this story to point to the book because I really want people to read this book. Because the story of Zimbabwe is a story of dictatorship and this is a story of one woman challenging it at the core of it.

And then Edinah, as someone who has gone through detention centers in Zimbabwe, my concern really is that the detention centers that we have are not gender sensitive.

Explain what you mean by that.

When I was taken into police custody I was taken to Matapi police station in Mbare which was declared unfit for human habitation a long time ago. There are no bathing facilities and the govt does not offer food to people who are detained so if you don’t have anyone out there bringing you food you will not eat. And if they are going to keep you for forty-eight hours they will keep you for forty-eight without food without bathing. We are women and we go through that monthly time and you can imagine if for more than two days you are going through that time and can’t bathe or eat.

Eish. And I think the conditions of the prisons are a strong reflection on how this current government does not care about its people. 

I know WOZA (Women Arise Zimbabwe) has taken a challenge to the highest court and as a result improvements have been effected at Harare central station, but I think the challenge is bigger than that, that we have all these other facilities throughout the country where the conditions are so inhumane. These places need to be transformed so that they become gender sensitive.

Now that I am studying International Law I know that even if a person has been arrested for committing a crime, there are human rights obligations that the government still has towards that person.

When I was held incommunicado I would use the bathroom on my own but I also think that they need to provide sanitary ware where everyone can access it on their own because it’s so difficult in our culture for a woman to announce that I have got my periods.

It’s such an invasion of privacy.

It took a bit of time for me to force myself to talk about it, to say I need this and that, and when it came, it was brought by a man. And for me, that was so torturous because I was like this man is going home knowing that I’m having my periods right now. So, these are small things that we don’t think about often, but I think they are very important in terms of someone maintaining their sanity.

That’s what Chimamanda Adichie said, sometimes it’s the little things that matter the most. I think we need to highlight this issue – we know this government doesn’t care but we must document these things and history will judge them harshly. The world is also watching. 

Jestina Mukoko thank you very much for doing this interview, you have contributed to my vision of curating women’s stories on the internet – creating our own corner in this vast space and occupying it authoritatively.

#AllWomenAreRoleModels