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CNN Hero Betty Makoni @ South Hills

Betty Makoni, founder of the Girl Child Network

The official story: On Thursday, September 22, 2011, the Hollywood Theater in Dormont will host  CNN 2009 Hero Betty Makoni at a screening of the documentary, Tapestries of Hope.  This award-winning film by Michealene Cristini Risley exposes the myth, widely held in Africa, that raping a virgin cures a man of HIV.  In the voices of survivors, it also details the struggles and triumphs behind the creation of the Girl Child Network (GCN).  Makoni, a survivor of rape at age six and orphaned by domestic violence at age nine, established GCN for abused girls in Zimbabwe.  Now, as Chief Executive Officer of Girl Child Network World Wide, she is championing the rights of the girl child the world over.  Since 1999, she has built four Girls Empowerment Villages that employ a unique model offering shelter, healing, and education to sexually abused girls. Makoni has been recognized by the United Nations Red Ribbon program and Amnesty International. She holds two degrees from the University of Zimbabwe.

The unofficial story: The filmmaker, herself a victim of child sexual abuse, is my cousin.  I never knew anything about the abuse, but now understand why I rarely heard from Michealene after college.  She had moved to California from the suburbs of Detroit, Michigan, where we both grew up.

We weren’t close, but our families would get together for big parties and picnics; I remember we would run off and play with the other girls our age.  We weren’t even sure how we were “cousins,” but our mothers had the same last name, and our grandmothers came from the same town in Italy where they worked at a sanitarium in the 1930s.  My ‘Ma’ and ‘Auntie Palma’, both newly married, came to Detroit in the 1950s from a town south of Rome (Ceccano).  Once in America, nearby immigrants from the same town tend to adopt each other as family, so she and I never questioned the family connection.

Linda Ambroso and her cousin, film producer Michealene Cristini Risley

But we did lose our personal connection. Through my mother I learned Michealene was married and living in Northern California.   Once, in the mid-1990s, I saw her and two of her little boys in Florida by the pool at the condominium where our mothers wintered.   We engaged in superficial cocktail chatter, and I learned about her film and marketing career.   (She used to work with Steven Spielberg, and launched the first maternity line for Adidas.)  Then, in December 2007, my husband invited me to a work trip to San Francisco.  I asked Ma to get Auntie Palma’s number, so that I could call Michealene.

We met at a commuter train station in the Silicon Valley, one that was co-located with a bookstore. The store had a display with a book Michealene had just co-authored with other women, This is Not the Life I Ordered. Thrilled (but I confess at the same time a bit jealous), I grabbed a copy and made her sign it for me.  The book cover celebrated women who triumphed despite trauma they would not have chosen for themselves.  One of the women was a Congressional staffer on a trip to Guyana; she was shot in the compound of Jim Jones, the cult leader who poisoned his followers. After healing, she was elected to Congress herself.

I was curious about the adversity Michealene had overcome, and then she told me about the abuse.  Instead of retreating into herself, she wanted to make the most of her life.  So she wrote the book, and also made a loosely biographical film, Flashcards, that is used in California high schools to teach students about the secretive world of childhood sexual abuse.  (It is so named because she did math facts in her head to distract herself as she was being abused.)

Then she told me she was finishing a documentary on how men in Africa rape even the tiniest of girls because traditional healers tell them this will cure their AIDS.  She told me how she met Makoni, and how she was jailed while making the film.  (A journalist on Facebook helped her and her assistant flee the country with their footage.) After exchanges of other revelations, she promised to inform me of the film’s release date, and to stay in touch.

The February 2011 e-mail said, “I am coming to Carnegie Mellon for the TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) conference:  Can I stay with you?”  That set off a flurry of activity that led to Michealene’s appearance at two screenings of the film at the University of Pittsburgh (one by the School of Law, and a joint screening by the Ford Institute for Human Security and Johnson Institute for Responsible Leadership). My church, Christ United Methodist Church in Bethel Park, also showed the film through its Nyadire Connection, a network of churches that supports a hospital in Nyadire, Zimbabwe.

Local reaction to the March 2011 screenings was strong and led to quick action.  Mt Lebanon resident, Kathy Surma, is embarking on a sustainable initiative to teach the girls how to sew reusable sanitary napkins with locally available supplies and patterns from the internet.  She told me “I felt I had to do something. I couldn’t just watch the film and leave.” (Before seeing the film, I never knew girls in Africa often miss school due to lack of sanitary supplies and underwear.)

Click image to see Tapestries of Hope trailer

Others, myself included, started a grass-roots group to organize a fundraiser for Girl Child Network.  One of the attendees at the Christ United Methodist screening is a board member of the Hollywood Theater; the theater was immediately booked for a date during the week Ms Makoni would be at the University of Pittsburgh for an international human rights conference.  (That conference, entitled, “Silent No More:  Rape as a Weapon of Political Violence”, is free and open to the public upon pre-registration.)  Local volunteers and sponsors quickly lined up.

The event on September 22, 2011 will include a pre-screening reception with Ms. Makoni and a post-screening Q&A.   Area restaurants have donated refreshments; many local organizations (including Wise Women E-journal) are providing organizational and financial support.  All funds raised from the $20 per person ticket sales (you can purchase tickets on-line here ) are going directly to help these courageous girls through the Girl Child Network.

My cousin’s film is powerful.  Its strength comes from not backing away from the worst of our stories, but telling them, making them part of the healing,  and making them mean something for good.



Linda Tanzini Ambroso lives with her family in Pittsburgh’s South Hills and  is a consultant on education, security and government relations issues.