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SpokenVizions Magazine Interviews
Betty Makoni – CNN Hero/Founder of Girl-Child Network Worldwide
By Tantra-Zawadi, Contributing Writer
Betty Makoni is a gender activist, Founder and Director of Girl Child Network (GCN) Zimbabwe and Chief Executive Officer of Girl Child Network World Wide, an organization that champions the rights of the girl child in Zimbabwe and the world over. She holds two Bachelor of Arts Degrees from the University of Zimbabwe and is a devoted wife and mother of three sons. She is also the host of the Muzvare Betty Makoni Show, a weekly radio show on zimonlineradio.com. Betty’s triumphant personal story and her consistent voice in matters pertaining to the safety and development of the girl child, has earned her world-wide recognition as CNN Hero.
We are delighted to welcome Betty Makoni to SpokenVizions Magazine! Betty is a woman of many talents; one of which is poetry! We are grateful to spend time with her talking about her passion for poetry and what inspires her.
SVM: Betty, it is truly an honor to have you here with us at SpokenVizions Magazine. You are an amazing woman with an incredible life story. Please share with our readers a little about your homeland, early influences and how they impacted you as a poet, leader and activist.
BM: It is always my pleasure to be in touch with you sister Tantra. Thank you so much for inviting me for this interview with SpokenVizions Magazine. I really feel that I belong.
I come from Chitungwiza, Zimbabwe. I was born in a family of eight children where three of them died during childhood. That was a real tragedy. I was also born into a family with domestic violence. At an early age, I noticed the adult women crying and it really touched my heart why they were being persecuted. We had a lot of absent fathers who spent time drinking with girlfriends and the like. As a child, I became what I call a rebel. The first spoken word I said to my mother was “report him, there is a police officer,” and in return, my mother said “shhh!” So you can actually see that as a child my words were suppressed and that really angered me. Later on when I was raped and she concealed it and when I watched my mother die, I felt anger even more. You know, losing a mother is almost like losing both parents because the week my mother was buried, my father was nowhere to be found. So, the way our family broke down gave me a reason to stand up. My neighborhood was made up of feminists that were broken down inside but no one saw this on the outside; it was all hidden in the cupboard. I rebelled against a system that did not want truth; a system that did not want to acknowledge that men and women don’t always click.
What also influenced me was my first job as a child street vendor. When you went out to sell, you shouted out words like “tomatoes and onions,” which you developed into a song. It became so musical and as a child, I developed my own audience. In terms of being a poet, I was very much influenced to burst out in short stanzas of rhythmic language that developed an inner feeling that I had something to say. I just wanted to burst out and that’s when I realized I was a poet.
The struggle I had as a child; being a mother instead of a girl, shifted me into my own style of leadership that began with my siblings. My siblings started to see that I really loved school, so they started following. When I came to work at the school, I became very responsible and developed trust with myself and those around me. All that time, from age six on the street, to age thirteen working at a school and having to chase after a bus and then on to university, there was no adult to tell me what to do. My own life was very much shaped by me, Betty Makoni. Leadership, in my opinion, is very much shaped by experience rather than theory. Leadership is lived. You live as a leader and later on in life you practice and apply every aspect that is realistic to your daily life.
Activism encompasses everything: Leadership that you develop, being a poet and being someone who is expressive. It is being someone who knows that when I am angry, I don’t take out a knife; I take out a pen and paper and write it down. I call my husband and my son and once I read my poem out loud, I am reading out the problem. My life was shaped by everything that I saw and experienced as a child. Rape is actually something that people don’t often talk about, but it is quite rampant in our families and neighborhoods. As I developed into a young laborer at school, it was not so much child abuse, but it was more like child labor had unleashed my own potential. That aspect of my life was the most painful because I was deprived of my childhood, but all the same, it was an opportunity for me to be thirty as opposed to thirteen. As I go towards a global level to lead and start new initiatives, you can actually see that I am not in that same corner where I started as a child.
SVM: Please tell us a little about your organization, Girl-Child Network and what moved you to create it?
BM: The original GN started in 1998 in a classroom where I noticed girls were not coming to school. I had been deployed to teach in a neighborhood where I had grown up. So I was quite familiar with the challenges that girls go through. It started like a movement in a classroom and then it erupted to other schools, villages, compounds, farms and the whole African continent. I was forced into exile when my life was threatened in Zimbabwe. I set up a satellite in Botswana and after going through a leadership transition and trying to see how I could possibly leave Zimbabwe, my husband got a job as an engineer in England.
I actually went into a self imposed isolation. I got away from activism to start a new life. That’s when the idea to start GCN Worldwide came as a response to calls from women all over the world who wanted to be a part of the experience. Since I was now living in the United Kingdom and not in Africa, I thought, why not create something world-wide. GCN is now in Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe and Uganda.
SVM: Your story is a powerful one. Anyone who has the honor of listening to you speak at one of your engagements, knows the influence of your words. How do you bring it all together and how does poetry help you in public speaking?
BM: Most of what I speak about is about me and an extension of society touching the life of that girl. When you look at somebody like me (and I’ve never seen a professional counselor in my life), I use my whole experience to shape what I am going to say to a child, to a friend, to a husband. I’ve learned that speaking is a powerful art and a powerful tool. Crafting words around a vision is art. I also have this picture in my mind that whoever is listening to me has the ability to actually see me behind my words. When I am speaking, I unleash everything from my whole body and it becomes very electrical. Most of the time that I speak I share from my heart instead of reading from a script. Every word comes to me in an ordinary way. That’s why people identify with what I say. In terms of poetry, it flows out of me from the heart, the heat and the soul.
SVM: What part does poetry play in your role as healer, mentor and leader in GCN? Do the girls write about their feelings and experiences? How does this make them feel?
BM: I started celebrating girls who graduated from our girls’ empowerment clubs. I wrote a poem entitled “Be the Leader that Others Follow.” I was asserting girls’ aspirations to lead in their everyday ability to do what they wanted. I started reading poetry and it became very contagious. Many of them then started writing their own poems. Poetry has given my leadership a rhythm that is quite logical. We are coming from a patriarchal system into a feminist world. In that world, you have to have the rhythm, the song, the drum and everything that brings morale. The type of leadership I have created has brought in just that. For the girls to see someone like me standing up and reciting a poem they learn to emulate and I become their role model.
As a healer, whether in a small hut or in a big kitchen, we sit by a fire that warms us and we really start to see each other through the warmth. That’s when I see the healing powers through the music and poetry and one by one standing up. In the homes these girls come from, rarely do they have an opportunity to stand up and speak. This has given me a unique way of healing. One day when we were speaking and reciting poetry, it was near midnight and every girl in the room started crying and breaking down until we came into our own silence. When we met the next day, we felt relieved, like freed slaves, like the chains had been taken off. That is how poetry shapes my life as a healer and a mentor. A lot of girls started going on stage, reciting poems, getting applause and confidence in speaking to the hearts of people with a rhythm that hits them in their hearts. My poem “Be the Leader that Others Follow,” has become like our national anthem – the GCN anthem. We also designed a pledge that is very poetic. Before they start on anything in the girls’ empowerment club, they recite the poem.
We developed a whole system of having journals and some of the girls wrote quite impressive poems. We also have some very good Shona poets as well that use poetry to speak to their parents. Poetry has boosted the girls’ morale and their confidence to speak out. We developed a system where girls have begun a life journal of poems like I personally did. Every poem that I wrote marked a turning point in my development as a leader. The girls feel highly uplifted both mentally and spiritually. They feel in charge. It is almost a treasure; something they did with their own hands, minds and passions. Girls feel a sense of attachment, belonging and conquering. I think music and poetry go together. Every time I recite a poem, I am very secure in what I am saying and poetry has a way that makes me go straight to what I want to say in my own way.
SVM: What influence has poetry had in your early days as an activist and founder of Girl-Child Network Worldwide?
BM: I’ve seen the crafting of the words, the verses and consonants that put me into a life of verse, into a feeling in a particular moment. I’ve gone on to see beyond a flow of words. I’ve come to see my whole system transformed. Poetry has been like my kit. We all need a kit. If you are a doctor you need a kit; so to an activist, poetry is the kit. I have come to fix a lot of things through the use of poetic language. It helps me with my activism, shapes me and gives me energy. I say it as it is. If it is love, if it is condemning a rapist, if I am dealing with a little girl, I portray it in such a way that people also feel compassion. As I am emerging myself as a leader on a global level, it also connects me with my grass roots. If you want to engage anyone, poetry brings people in.
SVM: Do you remember the first poem you ever wrote? Why did you write it and what impact did it have on you?
BM: As a girl I read mostly Shona poems but I also read a lot of English poems written by Zimbabwean authors. I must say that the way that Shakespeare’s poems were written also influenced me to a great extent. The first poem that I wrote was “THIS IS THE JOB I ALWAYS WANTED TO DO,” but my very first poems were in Shona and over time, many have been lost. Writing those early poems felt like I was putting a signature on what I am passionate about. Being poetic in repeating words and making them rhyme, was a confirmation and reaffirmation. I wrote this poem in response to people who discouraged my work. The poem is meant to be my own personal signature that is written in my heart. So, when you see me working for girls, it is the job I have always wanted to do. Whenever I feel discouraged, I recite this poem:
THIS IS THE JOB I ALWAYS WANTED TO DO
Here I am and here is the job
The job I have always wanted to do
To do with all passion and compassion
Combat feeling that I am totally there
There on the job I have always wanted to do
No coercion, persuasion, manipulation
No job description, no job specification
Specific though to support empowerment of girls
Girls empowered, future women reach potential
Potential to hover, conquer
Soldier on, Struggle on
Not for the love of money, but for the love of girls
Groomed, empowered girls, fruits of my labour
I toil and labour just upon a glimpse of my girls
This is addiction, no watch whatsoever on my wrist
No need, no need for all time is work time
No amount of cash can pay for this
Not even silver, gold nor diamonds
This job I have always wanted to do
The inner part of my passion, so gracious, goodness
The job I have always wanted to do
Trials and tribulations, ups and downs
Bygones for they are to test mantle
Persecutions known deeds of thy times
Spirit, soul, servitude, sanity so on and so forth
Sailed so smoothly fruits of thy labour
No interview to demonstrate
Either commitment or competence
Inner interview, confirmed thus
Called one self for it and now stuck to it
Promised inner self I would do it
Here then I am now
Right on the job of my life, love and passion
Like river love for it flows on and on and on
No amount of stress will burn this passion out
It is deeper, inner, greater, bigger, stronger and so forth
I live it, feel it, eat it , sit it, fight it, look it, tumble it
Sleep with it, greet it, dance it, and work it
This is the job I have always wanted to do
When they spoil the broth, when they do vice versa
I bleed with grief, I feel loss, death of my passion
I become crazy, fallen apart
Cracked, crushed, crooked, cheated, deceived, finished
When they do it good, I rejoin, remake, re-smile, revitalize
More strength, more power, more vision
For the job I have always wanted to do
My job, my passion, my spirit, my soul, me myself
One system, one blood
One me, my job, I dream it, I walk the talk, I feel it, love it
Nwa-a I kiss it!!
Here is the job I like to do
This is the job I have always wanted to do
Hazviperi Betty Makoni, founder and Director of Girl Child Network
2004 – all rights reserved
SVM: You are a very busy woman and a much sought after global speaker. How do you carve out time to write and nourish your creative side when you are on the road?
BM: Even when I am busy, I try to make time for writing. I make that one hour a day, but mostly when something happens, the poem starts running in my head. You are right to write the right! I have found meaning in the way poetry calms me and allows me to creatively show anger. Whenever I am busy, that is when the poems come. Each time a poem is there, I try very hard to shape it into writing. I rarely find time to nourish my creative side. I don’t make a particular time. Sometimes I am sitting with my family and sometimes I am traveling.
SVM: Congratulations on the success of your weekly radio show, The Muzvare Betty Makoni Show on zimonlineradio.com. Please tell us a little about the show.
BM: I started the show in 2010 after I was invited to be a presenter by DJ Simba. He felt that I inspired him so much. He invited me to come back and has since taught me about the technology of broadcasting. I feel that with my world connections (even if I am not a big celebrity), I still wanted to do something where people could hear our voices and interact. My show is mostly about empowerment programs for women and girls. We talk about issues that we don’t ordinarily talk about like HIV/AIDS, and we also talk about relationships, cancer, etc. Those issues are not covered by media as much as beauty pageants or perfume. We are trying to rearrange that scenario where there is not only the “sexualization” of girls, but skills about technology. The show is growing. The idea is to make it like an Oprah Winfrey talk show where everyone comes to share and where they can empower women and girls from all nationalities and religious backgrounds. I have had the experience of interviewing some great poets and authors on the show as well. What I really love to do mostly is to have a forum where we think big and where we don’t dwell on things like cosmetics and small things; where we rely upon info that comes from us that we can transform into knowledge.
SVM: What’s next for Betty Makoni, the writer? Are any books in the works?
BM: Yes, books are definitely coming! Mama Joanne Pritchard is my auto-biographer and has done a fantastic job. Soon it will be out and available to audiences around the world. We are hoping for maybe mid-2012. I have gone through the draft and am very happy with the outcome.
SVM: How can our readers learn more about you and Girl-Child Network Worldwide? Would you like to share anything else with us?
BM: Readers can go to our website www.girlchildnetworldworldwide.org and will see our links to various programs and support. My personal website is www.bettymakoni.org. I really believe that in being a poet, in every word that is spoken, is every word valued. As long as we speak out as powerful poets, we can bring out the positive side of places like Zimbabwe. I am going to continue to influence children in their writing and ways they can contribute.
SVM: Thank you so much for stopping by SpokenVizions Magazine, and we wish you continued success. Go Betty!
BM: That’s really, really so touching. I have enjoyed responding to these questions. Keep up the good work. We are all supported by our stories that are being taken and shared widely. Thank you so much.