In a country that actively silences journalists, Edinah Masanga set out on a dangerous mission to reveal the real face of child marriage.
I was prepared to die seeing to it that we collected their stories.
I began my career as a journalist at the height of repressive laws against press freedoms in Zimbabwe. My time in the newsroom showed me that in this profession you must balance doing your job with staying out of prison and even staying alive.
I remember a particularly harrowing experience that happened in 2013 when I was working as a freelance journalist in Zimbabwe. I was on a mission to gather visual evidence of girls who have ended up in the belly of a beast called child marriage. To do this, I collaborated with an international human rights organization, and they agreed to send a delegation from America* to film a documentary on issues of child marriage and rape amongst orphaned children.
There were issues right from the start. Getting Gavin* and his crew of filmmakers into my country was a calculated move. Their entry could not raise any suspicion or indicate any connection to me. I was already a vocal critic of the government, and as a journalist I was already on the radar of the Central Intelligence Organisation. And so, the delegation purposefully did not fly into Harare, the capital city. Instead, they landed in a smaller airport. There, they were picked up by a safari tour company, and I met them on the highway in the thickness of the Zimbabwean forest.
We were headed to a small rural village in the southeastern part of the country.
Naturally, as with any repressive regime, we had to seek permission to use cameras in public places, as well as to go into the villages. I met with three local government men to seek their permission.
They spoke arrogantly and inquired why 'white people' from America wanted to take pictures of the villages. It was a precarious period, just before an election, and I could not reveal that we wanted to film Zimbabwe’s child marriage scourge. Public officials are fully aware of the problem, but do nothing to bring perpetrators to justice.
When I entered the office to approach the officers about permission to film, they probed and probed into our reasons for visiting villages instead of viewing local tourist attractions.
I had to think fast.
“Erm, may I speak with you in private, sir?” I said to one of the agents who asked most of the questions and thus seemed to be the one in charge.
“Yes, sure,” he agreed.
We went outside, leaving my team of filmmakers inside. I told the officer, “I was a little shy to say this…but one of them, the tall one, is my boyfriend. He really just wants to see how people live in these parts of the world.”
I spoke with a wry look on my face, feigning shyness, like the shy African girlfriend of an American man.
The officer giggled and his brow softened. He changed his tone, “Oh, oh I see, you should have said that.”
His giggle was very telling; he had been taken by surprise, but at the same time he was charmed.
“How come you searched so far? Couldn't you find someone here at home?” he asked, seemingly genuinely curious. The conversation was moving in the right direction—distracting the official from our fact-finding mission about child marriages.
I told the man I was after a better life in the developed world, and he seemed to understand that. In the meantime, I texted Gavin: I'm now your girlfriend if asked.
Gavin turned around to look at me through the dusty windows of the office we were in, and I winked slightly at him so he would realize what I had done. When I got back into the room he moved closer to me and said, “Maybe we should do some shopping first, honey.”
“Yes,” I said, all the while experiencing tremors of fear inside me. If we got caught out, we would all be arrested. Gavin and his crew would most likely be deported. But me? There was no telling if I would ever be seen again. The thought of never seeing my family again was unbearable. But I knew the work had to be done. There is a culture of silence regarding abuse in Zimbabwe. I wanted girls voices to be heard beyond the villages. Further than the system that shuts them up. And I was prepared to die seeing to it that we collected their stories.
The authorities were satisfied that we were not bent on finding ill in the villages, so we got the permission to proceed with our journey.
While filming, we had to be very careful. We constantly erased the memory drives of the cameras after uploading the material onto encrypted pocket hard drives. We hid those in holes, beneath the earth. We would leave ordinary looking signs to guide us to the locations on our way back.
When we were done filming, we bought lots of tomatoes and vegetables in the village and hid our drives in the produce so that if we were stopped and searched, something that happens frequently when you are moving with a foreign delegation, they would not find anything 'incriminating' on us.
I drove on the way back. Sometimes the police can be lenient when it’s a woman at the wheel. Often, they will just wave you to pass without stopping at the police roadblocks.
We ate at fast food restaurants, and I gave cues to my delegation to stop and look amazed at the sights around us. We needed to solidify the charmed boyfriend routine that we were playing out.
We survived three days of cat and mouse with the authorities. I was the shy girlfriend and Gavin was the doting boyfriend. When he was “kissing my cheek”, he was really whispering information in my ears. They never figured it out, despite the fact that we were in many situations where they scrutinized us.
At the end of our time together, I stood outside the airport and watched the plane take off carrying Gavin and his crew. Their camera’s memory cards carried the story of the plight of girls in Zimbabwe. The film was a success, and many projects were implemented to support the girls who participated.
In the end, I planned and executed this journey with courage and resolve to tell the stories of girls. And I made the choice to go to great lengths to survive while doing it. I felt I needed to get the stories out into the world because sometimes we sit in our offices and write statistics, turning survivors of rape into numbers and graphs, removing the face from the story. As a journalist, I know how powerful information can be. The people who make policies that affect the developing world need to hear these voices. I can try to describe the pain of going through such a harrowing experience but I cannot put a soul into it. Only a survivor can. So, I had no choice but to go on this dangerous mission. And I lived to keep the fight alive.
I am not here to tell you how to hide from dictators, but I can tell you that during those three days, hiding my mission in plain sight helped me to achieve it. It can be done. As journalists and storytellers, we need to find ways to circumvent censorship so that we can continue to tell the stories that need to be told.
*Details have been changed to protect identities.
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