About a month ago, she was on every body’s lips. For she was poised to win the CNN Hero of the Year Award in recognition of her work through the charity she founded, the Girl Child Network, to direct public attention to the widespread sexual abuse of young girls in Zimbabwe. She had also played a major role in garnering public contribution towards Taremeredzwa Nomatter Mapungwana’s operation to remove a tumour that had disfigured her face and had just about made eating and breathing impossible. For many of us, Betty Makoni or Muzvare Betty Makoni as she is popularly known despite being a married woman (Muzvare means “Miss” but it is still proper for her to use the title as Makoni is her maiden name) represented Zimbabwe’s most noble values.
My admiration for her predates these recent campaigns. Like her, I am a firm believer in the empowerment of women through education. I share the sentiments she expressed once in an interview that the content of some popular music, which depicts girls merely as sex objects is fuelling a culture of abuse. In fact, it was through her work that I was inspired to write the forthcoming Zizi reRima (alternatively titled Shavi Rechikadzi). I included her on my list of Zimbabwean heroes.
The Taremeredzwa campaign struck me as ushering a new era in Zimbabwean philanthropy. It signified to me that as an African nation, we had decided to make a difference without the paternalistic guidance of Western donor agencies. It attested to that Obama catchword-Yes, we can! After this, it seemed as if there is nothing that we cannot do.
This week, this new vision is falling apart. Just as at the Tower of Babel, we have woken up and found ourselves speaking languages incomprehensible to each other. It is as if some higher power, having seen that "Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech."
Well that is just one way of looking at the recent developments; the allegations doing the rounds that Muzvare Betty Makoni may not be quite the selfless champion of young girl’s rights we all thought she was. OK, maybe selfless is not quite the word to describe a woman who displays pictures of herself in the company of world celebrities, but the fact remains that Makoni had become established as a Zimbabwean icon. Not since the days of Mai Musodzi have we seen a Zimbabwean woman become widely noted as our answer to the likes of Florence Nightingale, Mary Seacole and others. (Amai Sally Mugabe, unfortunately, is too associated with an unpopular political regime and will be remembered more sending money to Ghana than her work with orphans.)
Now, Muzvare Betty Makoni is being accused of being responsible for financial irregularities within both the Girl Child Network and the Taremeredzwa Campaign. Some of the accusations come from Zimbabwe, where it has been said that she may have a case to answer regarding the use of donor funds. Then, there are allegations that some of the girls she helped would like to change their statements about alleged rape, statements which may overturn many convictions. It is further alleged that some of the centres that were supposed to house the girls do not exist or have been abandoned. There are also bizarre stories involving witchcraft and tame C.I.O. agents used to intimidate people who questioned the modus operandum of the Girl Child Network and financial irregularities.
Are any of these stories true? I have been hearing them for a long time, but I have to say at this stage that I cannot answer that one. Nor have I asked Makoni or any of the people who worked with her, including those making some of these allegations to confirm or deny them. I gather that the police in the United Kingdom have been approached, so it may be soon that we hear the facts.
Right now, I am more concerned at the damage that these allegations have begun to impact on what had begun to emerge as Zimbabwean charity. The Taremeredzwa Campaign had shown that we Zimbabweans do not need some glib Western NGO to show initiative and perseverance and that we can achieve visible results. Some time ago, when the End Poverty Campaign was all the rage in the United Kingdom, Metro newspaper featured an article in which an expert said that it was Africans living abroad who made a more meaningful contribution to the Motherland than all those aid agencies. Not to take away anything from Oxfam, The Red Cross etc, but Africans are more aware of the problems back home and what would make a real difference and what wouldn’t. African generosity to one’s own community is not guided by the vagaries of international politics.
Now, that surging confidence is dealt a deadly blow. Who wants to support a campaign when the fear that in a matter of weeks they will be reading about how those spearheaded the campaign made the money disappear as “expenses” or organised workshops in plush hotels with it, or that they may have exaggerated a little on the extent of the problem that needed those funds?
Whether the allegations are true or not, this should have been a major concern for Makoni as a pioneer philanthropist. Whether it is or not, I feel she has not done enough to show it. She should realise that if her name and the work she is doing are in disrepute, it will be a smear on the whole of Zimbabwe. That is not fair, I agree, but that is how this world works.
Responding by “exposing” some of those who have written about the allegations as agents of the Mugabe regime is not a very wise move. Every body knows that Makoni survived this long in Zimbabwe by not getting involved in politics. It is even rumoured that she is a beneficiary of the farm invasions. Nothing sinister in that, yes, but it throws water out of any claims of bad blood with the Mugabe regime. Blaming Mugabe for everything has become a tired old record; it doesn’t seem to be working for Peter Thatchell who points a finger at the beating he had a few years ago by the despot’s bodyguards for the fact that he won’t be standing for Parliament. We had all forgotten about that beating. In fact, we had all forgotten about him.
Posting alleged messages from Taremedzerwa on facebook is not going to help either, even if a dozen sycophants click the "like" button or dutifully leave a comment. It is asking too much of your average Zimba's credulity. If the young lady has something to say, why doesn't she do it herself? The fact that some of the rumours circulating include allegations of intimidation and bullying on the part of Makoni do not help at all. Tare should make her own statements, but so too should Makoni.
Here’s a possible statement I would have issued if I had been Makoni’s PR guy.
“Ms Makoni is deeply upset by the allegations circulating which question the work that she has been doing over the last few years. She is concerned that such allegations, which she denies emphatically, could have an impact on that work as they will undoubtedly shake some of the confidence that members of the public have placed in her and in the Girl Child Network.
At this stage, Ms Makoni feels that she may have overlooked the stringent charity and banking laws of this country and has initiated steps to acquaint herself with them and to restructure the Girl Child Network accordingly. She hopes that members of the public will consider the fact that she has only started operating in this country for a few months, and while there could have been more diligence on the part of not just herself but other members of staff more directly involved with the funds, Ms Makoni stresses that there was never any transaction conducted in bad faith. Even now, the matter is being resolved internally, although she will welcome any enquiry by the Charities Commission or even the police.”
Magnanimous enough to make people stop and think before joining what may become a lynch mob. I am one of those still hoping that all these stories will be found to be untrue. There is much more at stake than just one personality. There is the whole idea of how we Zimbabweans can transform our society. That is too important to leave to sensationalism, wild speculation and denial.