By Barbara Wood
Special to the Almanac
Michealene Cristini Risley seems to be a typical Woodside mom -- she has coached her three sons' soccer and basketball teams, works from home while juggling the boys activities and play dates, and she loves to garden, write and hang out with her investment banker husband and her best friends.
It's that work, though, that sets her apart.
In 2007, leaving her 4-, 10-, and 11-year-old sons and husband behind, Michealene Risley went to Zimbabwe, Africa, planning to spend two weeks filming a documentary about a heroic woman's fight to save girls from sexual abuse. A week into the filming, Ms. Risley was arrested, accused of being a CIA spy, interrogated, deprived of food and water, and incarcerated in a filthy, crowded prison.
She survived to tell the tale, return to her family and complete the documentary. The film, "Tapestries of Hope," tells the story of Betty Makoni, who began the Girl Child Network to help girls who had been sexually abused and to fight the myth that led to much of the abuse -- that having sex with a virgin could cure a man of HIV/AIDS.
Local residents will get a chance to see the film at 7 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 20, at Kepler's bookstore in Menlo Park.
It is the second film for Ms. Risley, whose resume includes work in Hollywood for Amblin Entertainment and Disney, as well as Mattel and Sega. Her first film was about sexual abuse, based on her own childhood experiences and meant to increase public awareness of the topic. The film, "Flashcards," was nominated for an Academy Award, shown on PBS and used by the Canadian Mounties to train their officers.
Ms. Risley had no intention of making a documentary when she met Betty Makoni in the spring of 2007. Ms. Risley was on a book tour promoting her first book, "This is Not the Life I Ordered," which she had written with three friends -- Jackie Speier, Jan Yanehiro and Deborah Collins Stephens, and she was busy with her young family.
But over a breakfast date, Ms. Risley and Ms. Makoni, who has also survived childhood sexual abuse, bonded. "By the time we were done with breakfast she had asked me to go to Zimbabwe."
In short order Ms. Risley raised money, bought bags-full of the present Ms. Makoni said the girls would most appreciate, new underwear, and arranged to go to Zimbabwe with assistant Lauren Carara.
Ms. Risley says her husband, Eric Risley, was, as always, supportive of the project. Mr. Risley, the managing partner at Architect Partners, investment bankers specializing in mergers and acquisitions, did ask her to think about one thing.
"He said to me, about a week before I left, 'You have to ask yourself this one question: If you don't come back, would this have been worth it?'" He did not try to talk her out of making the trip, however, "and when I went to prison, he never said I told you so."
Even so, Ms. Risley said she didn't think much about danger before she left. "I think I went to Zimbabwe very naive," she says. "Until I got there, I really didn't know how dangerous it was." Betty Makoni had also told Ms. Risley not to worry because she had a private security team.
Upon arriving, however, the danger was obvious. "The first day we were stopped by (Zimbabwe's) Central Intelligence Organization," Ms. Risley says. "So I knew we had to be careful." Ms. Makoni told her she had been followed by agents of the CIO for years. "So then my husband's words started flashing through my head," Ms. Risley says.
She began filming, mostly at a Girl Child Network "Empowerment Village" near Ms. Makoni's home, where a group of young girls were living and being educated as they recovered from abuse.
One morning Ms. Risley and the assistant, Ms. Carara, went off for breakfast. "When we came back from breakfast there were 15 men waiting to arrest us at Betty's house." The men, who were armed, questioned them, searched their belongings, and even counted the money in her suitcase. "They thought I was CIA," she says. "They thought I was an American spy."
The two Americans and Ms. Makoni were taken to the police station and interrogated in separate rooms. Ms. Risley later found out that her interrogator was the head of the CIO.
"When I sat in front of him, he had three grenades on his desk. He had an AK-47 hanging on the wall," she says.
"I got a little nervous," Ms. Risley says. "Oh my god, my husband was right," she says she remembers thinking. "Holy cow, what did I do?"
After being questioned from 9 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. with no food or water, they were allowed to go home and told to come back in the morning. "I thought we were going to go back to pick up our equipment," Ms. Risley says. "I was still in disbelief. What would they want with a little filmmaker?"
The next morning, however, "they started interrogating us all over again."
There was no way to deny how serious the situation was. At one point during the second day of questioning, a female agent took Ms. Risley to the restroom. Ms. Risley begged to call her husband. "She actually let me try, but I couldn't get reception," she remembers.
"I started to tear up again and she said, 'Do you believe in God?' and I said yes, and she said, 'Then you need to pray.'"
Later, Ms. Risley says, they found out that the four-story building they were held in was the CIO's central torture facility. The lower floor, Ms. Risley says, contains a pool full of sulfuric acid. "When Mugabe and his thugs wanted you to disappear, they threw you in the pool. Even your bones disintegrate in that," she says.
A call finally came from the U.S. Embassy. "Jane Howell introduced herself and said: 'You need to get out by the weekend or you'll be raped or killed.'" She told Ms. Risley that no one, not embassy officials or the human rights lawyers her husband had hired, would be allowed to see them for the first 48 hours of detention.
Late in the day, Ms. Risley and Ms. Carara were told to follow the female agent down a hall. "I suddenly realized we were in prison," Ms. Risley says. There were both men and women held in the filthy facility, with feces everywhere and holes in the ceiling. Prisoners appeared to be diseased or dying.
"l learned very quickly that if we were going to survive, we would have to bribe people," Ms. Risley says. They were forced to take off their bras, shoes and socks, and hand over their possessions. Guards wrote down how much money she had on a paper and gave it back to her with an eraser, allowing her to transfer money by simply changing the amount on the paper.
Bribes got them in to a 5-foot by 5-foot cell with six other women. The cell had one light bulb, a small bench and an unlocked door.
The women in her cell began to tell her their stories. One woman was having asthma attacks. "She was terrified because her three kids were home alone."
Most of the women had been arrested because they had illegally crossed the border to get food for their children. One woman had been beaten by her husband so badly she was unrecognizable. In the middle of that endless night, Ms. Risley says, "I started weeping." One of the women said: "Why do you weep? Why do you cry?"
"I said, I cry for you, for your lives." The woman, Ms. Risley says, seemed unable to understand why Ms. Risley would care. "It's OK. This is our lives. We'll be OK," she was told.
"I think that was probably the most profound moment of my trip," she says. "Here I was sitting there with all these women who just wanted to feed their kids. We're all moms. We just want to take care of our kids."
Tears come to Ms. Risley's eyes as she remembers the scene. "That night I saw two men having sex. I saw a guy being tortured. I stepped on feces and I was urinated on from the fourth floor."
The bribes she had given to the first guards had to continue at each shift change and she began to fear she'd run out of money. The first meal she had came at 11 a.m. the next day, when Ms. Makoni sent in food, enough for most of the prisoners. "We just fed everybody," Ms. Risley says.
That afternoon, Ms. Risley and Ms. Carara were taken into the hallway and told, "We can get you out of the country tonight if you will agree to pay the airfare," which was only the equivalent of $130. "I said just get us out of here," Ms. Risley says.
While Ms. Carara went back to the house with Betty Makoni to grab their things, Ms. Risley was taken to the airport.
The Zimbabwean officials took her new laptop computer, but they gave her back her films, which she carried on the plane. "I couldn't figure out why they would let me take my film," she says.
She later found out that a Facebook friend of the film project had helped free them. Ms. Risley had been posting information about the project on Facebook. When they were arrested, she had been able to warn a colleague to take everything off the page. He replaced it with: "Michealene and her assistant have been arrested in Zimbabwe -- please pray for them."
An international reporter in Greece who had been supporting the project on Facebook saw the note and called a contact at the CIA, who called Zimbabwe's president, Robert Mugabe. The reporter was soon told, "She's coming out and she has her film."
Ms. Risley and Ms. Carara flew to Johannesburg that night. "I had never been dirtier in my life," Ms. Risley says. "I took three baths when I went to the hotel."
Eric Risley told his sons about their mother's imprisonment only after she had been freed.
Would she do it again?
"I most definitely will take on hard issues, but I would do a lot more due-diligence in a risky area before I would risk my life and my family's happiness," Ms. Risley says.
For now she is working on a book about the project, which will be titled: "Tapestries of Hope, the Story of One Survivor's Journey to End Violence against Women." She hopes to release it as an e-book in December.
Ms. Risley said she will continue to work on issues concerning violence against women, which she sees as one of the most pressing problems of the 21st century. "One out of every three women will suffer rape or violence in their lifetime," she says. "How can I teach my three boys to respect women when the world around them shouts out a very different message?"
Barbara Wood is a freelance writer, photographer and gardener who lives in an old farmhouse in Woodside.
● tapestriesofhope.com for information on the film.
● girlchildnetworkworldwide.org for information on the Girl Child Network Worldwide.