Champion of Choice

Midwives on Motorbikes

midwife Ofelia Soares MadeiraTibar, East Timor

On a July evening Ofelia was awakened by a strange man knocking at her door. She threw on some clothes, grabbed her bag, pulled on her white helmet, then hopped on a motorbike to shoot off into the night. She was headed to his house, although the stranger did not go with her. The woman wound up the treacherous hairpin turns of Fahi-Ten Mountain, avoiding the hazards she knew were waiting for her in the dark: the free-roaming goats, dogs and cattle, and of course the other drivers who would hurdle around a blind curve dead in the center of the narrow thoroughfare. On top of this, Mother Nature had voided the plan to introduce civilization here in the wilderness, creating an obstacle course by washing boulders and uprooted trees down the slope. The resulting condition of the roadway proved to be more rutted earthen track than smooth concrete, and in spots the surface suddenly dropped several feet in jagged tiers; in other places the pavement had washed away altogether, leaving potholes several yards wide, yawning like jaws as they waited silently to swallow the unsuspecting rider. And the rainy season had not yet begun.

As I retrace Ofelia’s route in daytime, in an off-road vehicle, I cannot imagine navigating this course in the black of night. On a dirt bike. My driver Carlos sits stoically behind aviator sunglasses as he steers along the edge of a cliff. The valley lies hundreds of feet below, the view slightly hazy as the fresh morning air suspends dust particles from the arid hillside, and the scent of dried grass and minty eucalyptus rushes in the open window. We round the bend and come upon what I initially take to be a pond covering the road, reflecting blue sky. Carlos cuts the wheels sharply, and as we careen around the edge, to my horror I realize that it’s not water we’re avoiding; rather the cliff has eroded and I am staring through a gaping hole larger than our truck, into the void. He has just saved us from dropping through nature’s manhole to freefall through the heavens and flatten one of the unsuspecting thatched huts dotting the basin below.

It’s not an unusual occurrence for Ofelia to have men awaken her in the middle of the night. She’s a midwife in this remote district in East Timor, the world’s newest nation, and she delivers twenty to thirty babies a month. Everyone in the district knows where she lives, and so when this gentleman’s wife went into labor he rushed straight to the midwife’s home to summon her. The dutiful husband had waited hours for a bus to pass by the winding, isolated route down Fahi-Ten Mountain, and there is no phone service in this region where even the health professionals communicate by shortwave radio. When he finally reached Ofelia she dressed quickly and leapt aboard her Honda Supra X Astrea, a bike built for rough terrain, and headed up the treacherous road in the dark to deliver Ermelinda’s baby. Unfortunately, she did not succeed.

Ofelia Soares Madeira is part of a program called Midwives on Motorbikes, an operation begun by UNFPA in 2003, where the maternity professionals of Timor use motorcycles to traverse the mountain passes of this country bordering Indonesia. The agency ordered sixty-five cycles from Honda, and the manufacturer threw in another fifteen for free. Local healthcare workers also ride the dirt bikes to reach their remote clientele for other projects, particularly to deliver immunizations.

Ofelia herself coordinates the midwife program, having practiced since 1989. She’s lost track of the number of babies she’s delivered after sixteen years. Her professional training was thorough—attending nursing school for three years followed by a year of midwifery courses. Her husband taught her how to ride the Honda and he sometimes accompanies her on missions. She thinks the motorbikes are a great asset to healthcare workers’ ability to reach patients, but laments the poor communication options in the district. If she runs into problems with a delivery, she must ride back to the clinic to radio for an ambulance, wasting valuable time that has cost lives.

Today I am traveling to visit the home of the man who summoned the midwife in the middle of the night. As we climb, I take in the breathtaking tropical scenery of mountain vistas, the leafy green of banana and coconut trees , the brilliant magenta bougainvillea, the delicate feathery limbs of acacia trees sheltering the coffee plantations, the gatherings of thatched huts built of bamboo and palm fronds, the baby goats and full grown cows meandering aimlessly, the vans barreling around blind curves as Catholic schoolchildren amble across this same road in their spotless white shirts and dark trousers, heading to morning mass.

On this sunny September morning, we find the new mother, Ermelinda, sitting on a bench outside her hut, a one-room box built of twigs topped by a corrugated tin roof. She is a petite woman, with mahogany-colored skin and large eyes luminous with worry; her ebony hair sweeps back from her face into a bun. She is dressed in a simple black cotton skirt and blouse with tailored lines and fitted, puffed sleeves, an outfit that looks oddly formal for life in the wilderness. Ermelinda holds two-month old Maia, whose face is contorted beneath a shock of wild hair. The infant howls until mama removes one breast to nurse and it’s clear this newest member of the family has a healthy appetite.

As mother and child stare transfixed into one another’s eyes, they form the hub for the melee of life swirling around them: the newborn’s six siblings—some teenagers dressed in t-shirts and baseball caps, some naked toddlers wearing nothing but dust. Other villagers in this outcropping called Aldeia, a name which means “small community,” come out to meet the visitors.   A neighbor walks up balancing a plastic jug of water on her head, while roosters crow, baby chicks peep and peck around our feet, goats endlessly search for something to eat, and puppies look for playmates. A grey monkey studies us solemnly with his tail curved around his feet, and the morning calls of songbirds float down from the palms.

I am accompanied by Cecilia da Silva from UNFPA and the midwife, who tells me the story of what happened on the night Maia was born. While Ermelinda’s husband made his way into the village, his wife lay at home alone in labor. Before Ofelia arrived the mother had pushed her tiny daughter out on her own, but she was frightened because even though at thirty-two she had already given birth to eight babies, only six had survived. Of additional concern was the fact that on this night the mother’s placenta had not come out, a situation that could cause hemorrhaging because the uterus won’t contract, and she could bleed to death.

When Ofelia arrived at the hut on that dark night, she set to work cutting the umbilical cord, then massaging the top of Ermelinda’s uterus while pulling steadily on the cord to deliver the placenta. This procedure allowed the patient’s womb to begin contracting, thus returning to its normal size—a necessary step that ceases the flow of blood.

With her patient stabilized, the midwife packed up her equipment and boarded her Honda Supra X for home. Now the sun was rising, casting a golden light over the coffee plantations as she rode slowly back down the mountain, dodging the obstacle course. Ofelia yawned, hoping she could get some sleep before another baby decided to enter this world.


On the Run from Rio

The opening chapter of On the Run from Rio

Chapter 1: On the Run from Rio

As I sat at the café with my friends, they had no idea that they’d never see me again. But I knew.

That summer night the gang had gathered as usual—arguing, laughing, and sipping beers around tables on the cobblestone patio of Amarelinho da Cinelandia. While my chums chatted I found it difficult to concentrate, instead trying to fix the scene in my mind, memorizing my friends’ faces and the Praça Floriano—something to hold on to for the future. I stared up at the café, the graceful ochre building which curved around the corner of the block. It had been the setting of a half century’s worth of political and intellectual debate—talk of revolution, talk of dreams.

My compatriots were college students with grand dreams of their own for Brazil’s future and I was their young protégé. As a teenager I had big dreams, too, but mine were tempered with a harsh dose of reality, as I arose each morning at four and took two busses to reach my job at the purse factory. This difference between our lives had recently become quite clear to me when we were hauled off to jail after another day here at Amarelinho when we had gathered to hear Lula speak.

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was then an activist who was gaining quite a following amongst the leftists. Although later he would become the nation’s thirty-fifth president, he was just a young man when he began organizing the trade unions here in Brazil. When the Steel Workers’ leader came to my factory in Rio de Janeiro, he told us it was inhumane that besides lunch, the workers’ only breaks consisted of three minutes in the morning and three minutes in the afternoon—our only opportunity to go the bathroom. He didn’t mention the thing about that break I found the most degrading: the factory restroom had only a partial swinging door and everybody could see you when you went in to do your business.

When I heard Lula speak I was so proud to learn that I had rights—certainly it was the first time anyone had brought this notion to my young mind—and he encouraged the workers to strike to gain those rights. My naive enthusiasm led me to want to support the movement in any way I could as we prepared for a protest. But ill-equipped for any kind of confrontation, I offered up the idea that when we workers united with the students we should all bring marbles to the demonstration. After all, I was still a kid and the idea seemed amusing. Besides, I knew just the place to get these marbles.

That evening we assembled in the plaza in front of Amarelinho, even though we knew any type of demonstration was illegal under the military dictatorship. But Lula was a man of the people, someone to whom I could relate, because we had much in common: like me he had worked as a street vendor, and like me he began toiling in a factory at fourteen. When he lost his finger manning the assembly line in an auto parts plant, he had to run to several hospitals before anyone would give him medical attention, a sobering experience which pushed him to become involved with the Workers’ Party. Unfortunately another trait the activist and I shared was our lack of education, a luxury for which poor Brazilians had no time. Yet he encouraged all of us to learn to read and write so that we could vote and take part in the future governance of the country.

When we heard Lula was scheduled to speak in Rio’s city center, my friends and I planned to gather in solidarity. On my way there I paraded through the streets chanting my slogan of the time, “O povo unido jamais serà vencido” (People united, will never be defeated). At eighteen, I wore my uniform of the era, a t-shirt and voluminous bell-bottom jeans covering my long skinny black legs. Swinging my sack of marbles to the beat, I performed in my solo marching band.

The combination of politics and public performance was not new to me. I had joined a street theater group where I met my rich student friends; our activities and conversations focused on making Brazil a better place, and I loved my amigos for their vision and enthusiasm. Our group acted out little skits with the moral of the story geared to encourage literacy: you have to learn to read and write so that you have rights. We ended our act with the message: “Sponsored by da Silveira.” So it was philanthropy with a motive.

Our community operated together on the campaign to elect Antonio Modesto da Silveira as a federal deputy. He would later go on to risk his life as a courageous attorney defending Brazil’s countless political prisoners, but like Lula, his humble roots made me feel connected to him emotionally. At age nine da Silveira was a quarry worker, then later a shoe shiner (another high-paying career shared by me), a woodsman, and a guide for the blind before he later attended law school. He was one of the leftist leaders trying to galvanize the poor and uneducated in Brazil, a nation where a small elite band of wealthy conservatives treated the workers like slaves, allowed the military to run the country, and destroyed any dissent by brutal force. Anyone taking a stand against the ruling class knew the stakes.

Da Silveira turned to the unions asking for help in putting up political posters and we were glad to oblige. My mother even got into the act. Mama invited all the people from the campaign to the house and cooked lunch for the volunteers to help the cause. But she was embarrassed and shy that Antonio da Silveira, this important white man, came to our modest shack in Maringá, one of Rio’s many favelas. Unlike Mama, my father wasn’t shy! I could tell Pa was proud of me and received these people with pleasure; still he cracked jokes about his crazy daughter “who is mixed up in all these activities.”

And indeed, the activities continued to multiply. My comrades and I called ourselves brothers and sisters as we worked to teach Cariocas, the citizens of Rio, how to read and write. I also participated in the black power movement, but there were many other political factions. Interestingly, all the undertakings were organized by the sons from rich families, whom we called “daddy’s boys.”

While I liked the political demonstrations, I did not accept the movement’s extreme positions, which they started to push, especially the frequent disputes about race. I maintained that my paternal grandmother was white, my grandfather was black, and my mother was an Indian. In fact at my home there were people of all colors—Indians, Asians, whites, blacks. Over time I started to get fed up with the group’s antics, concluding that we talked a lot but didn’t achieve much. At least every day we went into the shantytowns to teach people to read and bring them some food. These efforts were important, I felt, and I had decided that soon I’d leave the purse factory altogether to look for work which would allow me more time to be politically active.

Certainly leaving that sweatshop would be no loss. I dreaded getting up in the dark to head to this pointless job—as I had since I was fourteen—but for now I needed the money to survive as I had left home and was on my own. The plant, located on the Avenida Brasil in the center of Rio, employed 3000 people; we all worked in one big room, where in the summer we sweated and in the winter we wrapped our feet in newspapers to keep warm. The assembly-line chores were divided by groups: first the men cut the leather for the purses; then the pieces passed on down the conveyor belt to the women who sewed them; lastly us kids used scissors to clip the loose threads from the expensive handbags.

When the workers arrived in the morning we left our lunch on a shelf next to the time clock and the guards patted us down to be sure we weren’t carrying any food. What they didn’t know was we stashed sweets in our panties. My favorite part of the day was when I heard the lunch whistle blow because that meant the thundering noise of the machinery would immediately cease and I had one hour of quiet. This was when I went to retrieve my marmita, the lunch box I had brought from home. At the beginning of the month when my father had just been paid, my marmita included meat; by the end of the month, it carried only rice, beans and farofa, a dish of toasted manioc flour.

Sometimes I would swap my food from home with a friend; I especially liked to trade with my pal Benedetta because her dad was a fisherman and she’d bring shrimp. On one sweltering day, Bene took my marmita featuring a tasty pig’s ear. Unfortunately when she cracked the lid the container exploded and the ear flew across the lunch room. There was some sort of chemical accident there, with the result being I didn’t eat any more shrimp.

But I had developed a taste for this treat, so I slyly asked my mother—who had no idea I’d been trading my lunches—“Why don’t you ever buy shrimp for us?” She didn’t want to say, we are too poor for shrimp you fool! so instead she said “No! You can’t eat shrimp because you’ll have an allergic reaction and break out in hives!” I just opened my eyes innocently wide and nodded.


On the night I arrived to hear Lula at Amarelinho, people stood on the cobblestones waiting to hear this union leader speak from the second-story of the city council chambers, a majestic building next door to our café. I was sure the sight of Lula speaking from this balcony on high—surrounded by the white marble pillars and bathed in the golden spotlight—would incite the crowd, seeing that this man from such a humble beginning had risen to political power. However, the military had caught wind of this demonstration, and before any momentum could build, they came out in force to break it up, pressing in from the opposite side of the plaza. As they marched in with their billy clubs, I caught sight of my brother, Felipe, who had been drafted into the army, as all Brazilian men were at eighteen. The soldiers pushed toward us and the fighting began, hand to hand. We opened fire with our childlike weapon, hurling marbles at the troops, and when I hit my own brother in the forehead, I felt a pang of guilt at his startled expression. As the glass balls rained down, the soldiers rushing toward us slid around on the cobblestones.

The night did not end well. The military retaliated by spraying tear gas into the crowd. Protesters ran in every direction, and some escaped but many were caught and taken to jail, myself included. Our daddy’s boys were set free within half an hour; a telephone call from their parents worked wonders. We, the poor ones, had to stay for three days and were obliged to wash dishes and clean cells. When I came out of that prison, I decided that from now on I shall do my own revolution. Yet I was much luckier than the truly damned ones because no one knows what happened to them. Till this day they have disappeared without even a tombstone to mark their whereabouts. In that era I saw many families all around me crying daily, not knowing what had happened to a loved one. Was their son moaning in a coma from a hospital bed, held a prisoner to be tortured by the Death Squads, or lying in a shallow grave with a bullet hole in his back?


As a teenage girl the love of my life was not a boyfriend, but rather my older brother Ricardo, who was twenty. He was a comic, always joking around, and from the time I could first remember we had our fantasy life together; whether in the countryside of Minas Gerais or later when we moved to the slums of Maringá, our make-believe world continued. In this latter location all the neighborhood children gathered in front of an old man’s house. He was the only one who could afford a television, and he placed his black and white set in an open window framed by almedoera, umbrella-like trees which were covered with vines. This was the ideal setting to watch our favorite show, Tarzan, and we reenacted the episodes every chance we got.

My brother Ricardo organized this game, so naturally he was always Tarzan, and my sister Flor became Jane. I was always the chimpanzee. I would cry because I wished to be Jane, but my sister told me that if I wanted to play I had to be Cheetah. When I asked her why, she told me that all day long I was laughing like a monkey, therefore this was my perfect part. My brother tried to console me by saying it was Cheetah who crossed the river with Tarzan. So I held onto his neck as he grabbed a vine and together we swung across the river.

We expanded our make-believe world to include Jerônimo, o herói do sertão, a popular radio program in Brazil. This show featured a cowboy who—like Robin Hood—stole from the rich and gave to the poor. In this drama I always played the part of the Indian, which I didn’t mind; I ran around with a broom between my legs pretending I was galloping on a horse. My brother and I were joined by our whole family as we sat for hours listening to these soap operas on the radio each night, dreaming of lives so very different from our own. It was no coincidence that many of these stories focused on the difference between the rich and poor in Brazil, a popular theme in the 1970s.

Ricardo and I put our dramatic skills to work at the local puppet theatre. The maestro there was a lady who created all types of puppets for her production and the children acted on stage alongside them. The whole neighborhood turned out to see Ricardo perform as a poor old man dressed in rags, and myself starring in one of my more important theatrical roles, the part of a butterfly. The play’s rhetorical theme was that the poor people on the left had many children; on the right side of the stage were the rich people who had none. They adopted all the kids from the poor family, and without the burden and expense of raising their flock, the poor became happy. Clearly these stories had an agenda, teaching the community about the price to be paid for babies.

And certainly their were plenty of babies at our house. My family lived in a small handmade shack which kept expanding with each new arrival—whether baby, relative, or friend. In my household were Pa, Mama and seven of us children. But Ricardo was always my favorite. He was tall, skinny and all the girls thought he was so handsome; like me he wore bell bottoms, platform shoes, and he sported an Afro comb in his hair, the defining accessory of the 1970s. He worked with Pa on construction sites when he could land a spot. Other days he sold ice cream on the streets. But he made the most money with his amazing ability as a hustler shooting marbles with the neighborhood kids. He wound up with sacks and sacks of these after claiming his winnings, and sold them on the street as well. Of course he was happy to donate some of his stash to his sister’s cause when I went down to the demonstration.

At night Ricardo and I would dress up like the Jackson 5, our favorite band, and imitate their songs. On Saturdays we were joined by my other brother as we headed off to dance at our local hangout, a nightclub where live bands played Brazilian music, and of course songs by the Jackson 5. While our existence in Maringá was always a struggle, we would never stop dancing. It was something basic, like having to eat to live. In no other country have I found anything similar to the capacity of the Brazilian people to make a day of it under any circumstances.

However at the same time in this period, it seemed as if the Brazilian police started going around killing people they ran into just by chance. Organized by the military dictatorship to intimidate and scare the poor, the Death Squads would arrive in our area randomly shooting at anyone. Brazil has never declared war on another nation, but now it waged a war against its own citizens. In those days everyone talked about the squatters in the shantytowns in the city center, but it was people on the periphery who were dying daily. Even if the criminals killed someone in Rio itself, they brought the body to the outskirts and dumped it. Everyday I heard a mother crying over a murdered son. It was a primitive and sadistic type of population control, kill the poor to stop them from reproducing so they wouldn’t be a drain on the Brazilian economy. The Death Squads, killers who were secretly on the dictatorship’s payroll, did the dirty work and the police came around and picked up the corpses.

About four months after I was arrested at the Lula demonstration, I went out one evening with my brothers. We were leaving our regular dance club when suddenly everyone started to run. I heard people screaming that the Death Squad was approaching. We had learned to recognize them in their black wagons with the smoked windows, darkened so no one could identify the murderers inside.

I crouched down behind a wall and from there I listened to the shots. I was terrified to even look, but when the shooting stopped, I dared to raise my head and saw policemen loading the lifeless boys into a black van. In the dark I couldn’t see well, but the van was leaving, its tires burning rubber. Then I started to look for my brother Ricardo.

Asking around, somebody told me that he had been shot. The only thing I could manage to do was to run home to my mother and tell her what had happened. She didn’t waste any time and quickly set off together with other women to look for their sons. They went to the police station and to the hospital, but in my mother’s case, she had no luck. She refused to believe my brother was dead and kept on searching for her first-born son, but from that moment on, Mama changed. While she was still able to smile, it was an extinct smile; it was no longer the smile of my mother.

My father was in despair. According to his reasoning, if the dictatorship wanted to get rid of the poor people, on a Sunday they should just go to Maracanã, the soccer stadium, close the gates and set it on fire.

After about three months went by, with no joy in my life and barely able to function, I decided that there was no reason to stay in Rio anymore. I never wanted to even hear the Portuguese language spoken again. So I went to find my mother to talk about it. That morning she was working as a cleaner at a hospital and when I told the receptionist it was urgent for me to come inside to see my mother. I was told it was impossible. But the woman at the front desk must have passed word that I was waiting outside, because the ramshackle building had one large window in a tower, and soon I saw Mama’s worried brown face framed by the white plaster. She looked down at me standing on the sidewalk of the busy street, the busses roaring past behind me. I called up to her, “Mama, I am ready to leave.” When she asked me where I would go, I told her the truth: “I have no idea.”

To my surprise she said: “Go Denilda. We won’t see each other again in this lifetime, but always remember that although I gave birth to you, your real mother is life itself.” And she stood there waving slowly as I backed away, tears blurring my image of her at the window, until I turned to run down the hill.

After I said goodbye to Mama, I went to my favorite cafe, Amarelinho, to see the old gang one last time. While I drank my beer, I did not mention my plan to anyone, because it would be useless. What advice could these other young people—who had lives so different from mine—offer me? Instead I sat there among them as if it were any other normal night, and toasted to the revolution.

Your Woman on the Scene

The Hungry Mouth of Creativity


His theatrical career began because his dad’s truck wouldn’t start.

Luis Valdez’s father was packing up the family, who would be taking down their tent and moving on after they’d finished picking cotton in the San Joaquin Valley. Instead, they watched as all the other migrant workers left for the next location. While Mr. Valdez figured out how to repair the truck, Luis’s mother decided to send her six-year-old son to the local school in Stratford. Each day he took his fish taco lunch in a paper sack and, as instructed, carefully brought the sack back home to reuse the next day. One day the sack was missing from the classroom shelf, and he asked his teacher if she knew what had happened to it.

The teacher explained that she had torn it up. She led the frightened boy into a room and showed him something magical that would change his life: she was using his lunch sack to make a paper mache mask of a monkey. “Why are you doing this?” he asked.

He had attended Stratford for only 30 days, but by the time this conversation was over several important things had happened: first, Luis had discovered the arts; second, he had learned that his first-grade class was putting on a play; and third, Luis agreed to star in this production as the monkey, wearing the mask made from his lunch sack.

He eagerly anticipated his moment of glory when the play would premiere in the old school’s auditorium on the coming Saturday, with the band playing and the community watching. On Tuesday, however, he learned his family had been evicted from the labor camp and would be leaving town the next day to look for work.

Luis ValdezLuis remembers driving away in the fog, brokenhearted at leaving school and missing his theatrical debut. “During that moment a hole opened up in my chest which never closed, and I have poured into it my plays and stories. It became the hungry mouth of my creativity.”

His family of migrant workers remained on the move, but whether they were living in a tent or a barn, they always carried with them the complete set of Encyclopædia Britannica his father had purchased. Neither parent had received the opportunity for much formal education, but they encouraged their children to read.

When Mr. Valdez found steady work tending to orchards, the family was able to settle down in East San José. Later Luis graduated from James Lick High and then pursued his dream of attending San José State. He landed a scholarship for math and physics, planning to follow his older brother in becoming an engineer.

In the mornings he’d walk over to meet his cohorts at Winchell’s Donuts on Fifth St. before all of them headed to their 7:30 class. He took a short cut through Hugh Gillis Hall, and soon he was peeking around backstage. The flickerings of his early dramatic career—and its painful demise—surfaced. “I decided I can’t deny this part of myself—I have to give it a try.” During Luis’s sophomore year at SJSU he changed his major to English with a playwriting emphasis.

Fifty years later a plaque on the SJSU campus reads: “This site is a landmark in the history of Chicano/Latino theatre.”Luis Valdez

In the Hal Todd Theatre, Luis Valdez, 1965 San Jose State graduate and world famous playwright and Father of Chicano Theatre in the United States, directed his first full-length play, The Shrunken Head of Pancho Villa, on January 14-15, 1965. At the suggestion of Dr. Harold Crain, Department Chair and mentor, Luis became a playwright-director, which led him to create his company, El Teatro Campesino* (The Farmworkers Theatre). Founded in 1965 on the Delano Grape Strike picket lines of Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers Union, the company created and performed “actos” or short skits on flatbed trucks and in union halls inspired by the lives of their audience. Luis Valdez went on to write and direct successes such as Zoot Suit and La Bamba, becoming the first Latino to present a play on Broadway.

Your Woman on the Scene

It’s About the Power

A few years ago a friend of mine, I’ll call her Janet, came over to my house and after several glasses of wine she told me that in the 1970s Bill Cosby had raped her. Here’s the story in her own words:

Along with others in the news right now, I was drug-raped by Bill Cosby. This was in the early 70s when he was doing stand-up comedy in Lake Tahoe at a casino. A girlfriend and I were on vacation there, standing at a blackjack table when Cosby came up and invited us to be his guest at his show. We left our small children at a babysitter, never dreaming we wouldn’t make it back for them that night. And I might add that Cosby knew we had left our children with a sitter. What a guy!!!

My girlfriend Gloria and I had front-row seats at the show, and he invited us to come backstage afterward. Then he said there was a private party nearby and (being stupid) we went. But we felt safe, we were honored to be in his company. He made drinks for us and soon my friend was falling asleep and I was flying high!

The rest was a blur but I know what happened. At one point I remember going outside naked in the snow and I couldn’t even feel it. The snow was not cold! What kind of drug was that?

I wanted to call the police when we woke up in the morning, but my friend said no, just forget about it. Instead we called a cab.

How to face my son, now, who felt abandoned at the babysitter? He was so young that I couldn’t tell him I’d been raped. In fact, I never told anyone about the incident for 20 years. Rather I went into therapy for five years to deal with my depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

My son remembers well the trauma of his mommy not coming back. I told him about ten years ago what had happened as he seemed never to get over having been left. He had this to say about that night: “I remember Gloria telling us that Bill Cosby had chosen you two to be his special guests for the evening. I still didn’t understand why you would leave us there at the sitters’ way beyond their allowable hours…no overnight kids. We wondered why Bill Cosby didn’t send a car for us.”

I realize I am not a celebrity but want to speak out anyway, as I often wonder how many other victims there are like myself.


I remember being so stunned by my friend’s secret disclosure that I scarcely knew what to say. The next morning I questioned if that whole conversation had really happened.

It was clear that Janet wasn’t lying, and I’m guessing part of her decision to tell me grew from the fact that she knew I was writing about women’s issues. And yet the incident she described seemed so surreal that it was difficult to process—a reaction I’m sure she felt in spades for decades to come.

And I’m convinced this is the reason so many women have never come forward: if you pretend like it didn’t happen, maybe it will go away and leave you to return to your normal life. But for Cosby’s victims—26 have accused him of raping and/or sexually assaulting them to date—feelings of shame and paranoia were now their new normal.

Then there is the fear of being called a liar publicly, as Cosby’s hired mouthpiece, his lawyer Martin Singer does on a daily basis. (How’d you like to have his job?) This was especially true in the 1970s, an era when women had far fewer rights in the United States than they do today…and Bill Cosby was one of the richest and most popular entertainers in America.

Which brings me to the biggest question of all: why would a man who was a handsome millionaire Emmy-winning TV star drug women for sex? He could have probably taken his pick of partners, and paid for a harem full of prostitutes. There is only one explanation: it’s about the power. A drugged woman is completely in his control and this is clearly an obsession of his.

Ironically during the same time that Cosby drugged and raped my friend, he released his Grammy-winning album: Bill Cosby Talks to Kids About Drugs. Well, he warned them, didn’t he?


If you’d like to learn more about Bill Cosby’s history of rape, see this timeline.

Your Woman on the Scene

Women’s Advocate: Hillary Clinton

hillary on stage


Last night I had the pleasure of seeing Hillary Clinton speak at the San José State University Event Center on my campus, and I must say the experienced politica—a former first lady, New York senator, and secretary of state for Obama—possesses quite the presidential presence.

While researching Champion of Choice, the biography of Dr. Nafis Sadik, I interviewed Nafis about her work at the UN Population Fund and her collaborations with Hillary. Nafis talked about her admiration of Clinton’s speaking ability as the two women both headlined at the Beijing Women’s Conference. Nafis said to Hillary, “I notice that you never look at your notes.” And Hillary replied, “Yes, after a time, one does develop a knack.”

That knack was clearly in effect last night as Clinton spoke extemporaneously with nary a note in sight. In fact I will go so far as to say that she is the best public speaker I’ve ever encountered, including her hubby, who while President Bill Clinton, gave a phenomenal commencement address when I graduated from Penn State. For those of us who speak for a living, like any craft, its practitioners analyze the skills of others and Hillary ruled the packed 7000-seat auditorium, receiving two standing ovations.

When her host, Santa Clara County tax assessor Larry Stone, (described as an old friend of the Clintons), asked if Hillary had any announcements to make—i.e. that she was running for president in 2016—the crowd roared.

I was curious about Hillary’s choice of theme last night: women’s rights. But she was no doubt speaking to her base, as the crowd was predominantly female. Accommodating her message for her Silicon Valley audience, she made note of the enormous gender disparity in high tech, noting that only 20% of the workers are female. That disparity exacerbates as the stakes rise, with only 11% on the boards of technology firms being women.

Last night Clinton seemed intent on establishing her long-standing record as a women’s advocate—showing she’s not a newcomer to the game—as she continuously referred to her participation at the Beijing Women’s Conference in 1995. While everything Clinton said about her participation there is true, she didn’t mention that all the work she and the U.S. team did at Beijing was based on the diplomatic successes of the previous year at the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, where 179 governments reached an agreement on females’ rights to education and reproductive health. In Beijing the Americans’ greatest goal was simply to protect the advancements for women made the previous year.

Actually Hillary was not well-received by the Chinese in Beijing in 1995. Then First Lady, she arrived at the conference hall to great fanfare, wearing a pink suit, her shoulder-length blonde hair styled into a smooth wave framing her face. In her address Clinton touched on many of the human rights abuses for which the Chinese had been excoriated in recent years; her comments clearly disparaging them were not well received, considered improper behavior for a guest in their country. Yet Clinton boldly addressed the issues head on at this global summit—with the international press corps recording. She referenced China’s one-child policy and their coercive tactics toward women to enforce it. That takes real guts when you’re on stage under the spotlight of the nation’s capital.

Last night, Hillary quoted her hero, Eleanor Roosevelt’s line: “Every woman in public life needs to develop skin as tough as a rhinoceros’s hide.” That trait will no doubt serve Secretary Clinton well if folks continue to lob shoes at her—as they did in Las Vegas last week. But she just ducked, cracked a joke, and carried on…acting very presidential indeed.


Champion of Choice

Cairo: September 5, 1994

Over the course of the coming week, dignitaries from around the globe will be arriving for the International Conference on Population and Development, their limos gliding down a grand circular drive lined by palm trees and a colorful cornucopia of national flags. They will stop at the VIP entrance to the conference center, a sleek white circular building featuring arched windows—a design reminiscent of a space-aged Roman Coliseum. When the passengers exit their cars, they’ll look out upon a wide expanse of green lawn and manicured trees. Peeking up above those treetops, they’ll be able to see the point of a contemporary pyramid marking Anwar Sadat’s grave—a poignant reminder of the risks those dignitaries will face when they enter this facility.

Egyptian president Sadat may have won the Nobel Peace Prize for his diplomatic efforts, but that didn’t save him from dying in a pool of his own blood when terrorists machine-gunned him as he sat a short distance from this conference center, watching a military parade. In the reviewing stand alongside Sadat that day were the future secretary-general of the UN, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, and the man who would become the new president of Egypt before that day was done: Hosni Mubarak. Thirteen years later, as this Arab nation’s head of state, he would be responsible for protecting twenty thousand dignitaries from violence by the same type of fundamentalists who had murdered Anwar Sadat.

So for Mubarak—who had served as a military man for three decades, who had been seated just to the right of Sadat and watched him die, who had himself escaped multiple assassination attempts in his lucky thirteen years as president—the importance of security during ICPD was a very real concern, not just another perfunctory item on his administrative checklist. With four thousand journalists in town and the eyes of the international community focused on Cairo, he did not want any deaths—least of all his.

Part of the president’s strategy to prevent this was to station ten thousand armed troops around the city—circling the conference center, along the streets, at the airports—and to position soldiers and metal detectors at every hotel. A member of the U.S. delegation said the omnipresent security could border on the comical at times: “Our entire delegation and other invited guests spent one night on the Nile for dinner, a sort of relaxed evening. And ringing us on the river were police boats. They were just cruising around us, good and slow, making sure that nobody else came close.” In the meantime the leader of the U.S. team, Tim Wirth, wore a bullet-proof vest under his suit jacket.

Stirling Scruggs, as one of the UNFPA spokespersons handling the conference, remembered being coached on what to do in case someone was killed or taken hostage. “The White House Advance Team and the Secret Service from the U.S. government came in and laid out this map to show me where the U.S. was involved and where the vice president’s escape routes would be if there was an attack, or anything like that. There were fundamentalist threats against the U.S.—some of the dignitaries and Al Gore—but there were also threats concerning the issues.” Gore, hobbling around on crutches after surgery to repair his Achilles tendon, had better hope he didn’t’ have to beat a hasty retreat on foot.


Dr. Sadik flew in three weeks prior to the conference opening, and as soon as she hit the tarmac, she was under the watchful eye of Mubarak. As she traveled throughout the capital, UN bodyguards sat in the car with her. Two others, holding automatic weapons, hung out the windows of her limo on either side; this dynamic was repeated by the Egyptian security in the lead car in the motorcade and the car to the rear. As she walked around the conference center she became a very popular woman indeed, followed by four men: one in the front, one on either side, and one to the rear. They searched the ladies’ bathroom before they permitted her to enter; they accompanied her at lunch and sat at another table, with some staring at her throughout her meal while others scanned the perimeter; they monitored her conference command headquarters, which became a real nuisance as she was running this enormous event. “My office had two doors, one to enter and one to exit, and once I went out of the entrance door to look for some staff members. My security opened the door for something and when they found out that I wasn’t there, they went crazy and shut everything down. They said, ‘You can’t do that, you have to leave from this door and we have to see that you’re leaving.’ I said, ‘Well, obviously, you should have had somebody guarding the other door!”


An excerpt from Champion of Choice: The Life and Legacy of Women’s Advocate Nafis Sadik (University of Nebraska Press 2013)

© Cathleen Miller

Champion of Choice

Welcoming the Girls


We have all questioned the luck of the draw that shapes our destiny, examining how fate favors one girl born into a wealthy family that gives her every opportunity versus another girl who comes into this world as chattel to be traded for cattle. Although there are as many theories for shaping personality as there are philosophies and religions—from karma to reincarnation to environment to genes—for those who believe in the influence of the stars, we must consider what it means to be born a Leo, the lioness of the zodiac.

On the eighteenth of August, 1929, Iffat Shoaib gave birth to the couple’s first child. The baby was a girl, a situation that normally would have prompted grief and condolences in most traditional Indian households, but not in this one. After the Shoaibs christened the newborn “Iffat,” like her mother, they always called their daughter “Nafis,” meaning “precious or extraordinary.”

Following the child’s birth, acquaintances all asked the proud parents: “Does the baby have light skin?” referring to a desirable trait in Indian culture. No, she did not. The infant’s gender and complexion had both failed to pass the mark, because Nafis had dark skin and a temperament to match. However, her family—particularly her grandfather—adored the child all the same.

The patriarch of Nafis’s family, Mohammed Abdulla, had left his village in the United Provinces in eastern India and moved to Jaunpur, located about two hundred miles west of Calcutta, to practice law. There he built an impressive estate surrounded by gardens and fields, which would serve as the home of three generations and dozens of extended family members. He ran an open household where a constantly changing diorama of characters came and went: servants, sons, their wives, grandchildren, cousins, second cousins, and relatives with such a tenuous thread to the family fabric that no one could quite remember how they were woven in. The visitors arrived with their baggage and bunked in spare rooms, the children’s rooms, wherever there was room. They stayed for weeks, months—sometimes long enough to get a college education. It was the patriarch’s concept of noblesse oblige that prompted his generosity, a concept his son would later emulate.

A private inner courtyard served as the heart of Mohammed Abdulla’s whitewashed brick house. It was surrounded by the numerous rooms of the family’s private residence, which included separate quarters for his sons and their wives and children. A broad, shady verandah rimmed the second story.

As his legal practice thrived, Mohammed became such a respected member of the community that he designed a special room to receive guests who came seeking advice and favors. He made his headquarters a study that had an outside courtyard, and on the door to these chambers the gentleman placed an enormous photographic portrait. The subject was an unlikely representation for such a grand work: a one-year-old baby Nafis, with a couple of teeth and a shaved head—the shearing a practice that was thought to encourage a lush, full head of hair upon regrowth.

Nafis’s grandfather died when she was just seven years old, struck down by kidney failure. As was the custom of his generation, Mohammed Abdulla had not kept track of his age, but his family believed him to be in his sixties. Nafis remembered that “he always had his arms outstretched for me to run to him.” He doted on his granddaughter, bragging about how clever she was and prompting her to recite for guests. Perhaps this was because his two female babies had died in infancy and a third daughter had succumbed to tuberculosis in her twenties. Nafis’s grandmother had wailed, “There are no girls in our family!” Thus when her son Mohammed produced a daughter, the baby was joyously welcomed into the family. This fact was unusual in a society where the news of a girl’s birth was frequently greeted with pity: “Maybe you’ll have better luck next time.” Instead of being treated as a second-class citizen, Nafis was celebrated for her gender; as she grew up and went about the world, she found the absence of this fact in other households as unnatural as she did intolerable. On the global stage she would spend the rest of her life promoting her family’s vision of the fundamental worth of girls.



An excerpt from Champion of Choice: The Life and Legacy of Women’s Advocate Nafis Sadik (University of Nebraska Press 2013)

©Cathleen Miller 


Champion of Choice

A true story of fistula in Ethiopia

Fistula Hospital in Addis Ababa

Excerpt from Champion of Choice: The Life and Legacy of Women’s Advocate Nafis Sadik
by Cathleen Miller

Zadia Birru*
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

[*A pseudonym has been used to protect this girl’s privacy.]

Probably no other rite of passage is capable of changing a woman’s life like giving birth–an event that can alternately propel her into the joys of motherhood, provide caretakers for her old age, earn her the respect of a community, ensure her place on a nation’s throne, offer undeniable proof of an illicit affair, trap her in a miserable marriage, maim her for life, or kill her.

No group knows this better than the patients lying here in the hospital ward in Addis Ababa, a room that is so clean that upon entry, the viewer has the momentary feeling of being snow-blinded. The whitewashed walls and ceiling gleam, reflecting the sparkling sunshine that flows through polished windows. Two facing rows of hospital beds covered in sky blue blankets line either side of a central divider. This hygienic atmosphere presents a refreshing contrast to the patients lying in those beds, all of whom have dwelled–some for as many as fifty years–in the constant filth of their own bodily waste as a result of giving birth.

I see them recovering in the ward and walking around the lovely parklike grounds, all draped in handknit shawls, the contribution of a ladies’ church group from Australia. Most of the patients are mere girls, like Zadia Birru. She doesn’t know her age, but she looks about thirteen or fourteen. If she had been born in different circumstances, this classic beauty could have easily been a model. With her dark wavy hair pulled into a French braid, her face possesses an elfin charm, a gracefully curving jaw line, large expressive dark eyes, a full-lipped heart-shaped mouth and a beauty mark that highlights her café-au-lait colored skin. Her smile sparkles, transforming her face like sun bursting through clouds.

Zadia’s tiny frame measures around four foot eight; draped in a pale blue cotton nightgown and a handknit shawl of primary-colored squares, her body hunches with pain. Through the opening of her gown I can see that her breasts have stretch marks, a detail that seems strangely out of place on such a waif-like girl. But when I hear her story, I learn the reason for the telltale puckered lines.

Zadia had never been to school when her parents arranged her marriage to a farmer from their community. She doesn’t know how old she was when she wed her husband, but they had been married for three years before she started her period. In the beginning their relationship was good, but during the fourth year–with no access to birth control–she learned she was going to have a baby. This was when her husband began seeing someone else. The couple quarreled constantly, and when Zadia was four months pregnant, he left her.

The child bride returned to live with her parents in the village of Aju. When it came time for her delivery, she was in labor for two days at home with unbearable back pain because the baby was unable to pass through her tiny pelvis. When she started getting weak, her father decided to take her to the hospital. The family loaded her onto a bench and walked two hours, carrying the child to a district health center. Precariously balanced aboard the plank, she thrashed about in labor.

At the health center Zadia finally gave birth to a stillborn son. Later she learned that ironically his death had allowed him to be born. The fetus, which cannot withstand the rigors of days of obstructed labor, detaches from the placenta and dies. At this point the bones soften, and the baby shrinks enough so that it can pass through the birth canal.

Zadia herself nearly died and was unconscious in the hospital for fifteen days. When she came to, she learned that the stressful delivery had ripped a hole between her vagina and bladder, a condition called obstetric fistula, which permits waste to leak uncontrollably into the vagina. Like an infant herself, she was constantly soiled and reeked with the stench of urine. At this point her doctor referred her to the Fistula Hospital.

Unfortunately Zadia’s experience is not a rare occurrence in Africa, where one in twelve births results in the mother’s death. Although the choice to marry has been enshrined as a human right since 1948, in much of Africa half-starved girls as young as six are married off by their families. The poverty-stricken parents look at them as a commodity to be traded for livestock or other goods. In most cases they feel they’re doing their daughters a favor to try and place them in stable homes where they’ll be provided for. And when these girls become pregnant–as they immediately do without birth control–their young bodies are too small and frail to withstand the rigors of childbirth.

This combination of events results in an untold number of cases of obstetric fistula per year, but thousands and thousands of victims have come forward for treatment. The force of delivery on these slight, malnourished bodies can rip the fragile birth canal and tear holes between the girls’ rectum or bladder, allowing feces and urine to flow uncontrollably into their vagina. In the vast majority of cases the husband divorces the girl because she is unclean and unfit for sex. Zadia was one of the lucky ones whose family was willing to take her back. In many instances the family refuses, and the girl–whose only crime was obeying her parents and then her husband–is turned out into the street with no home, left to live in daily humiliation as a social outcast who scavenges for food like an animal.

I hear similar stories to Zadia’s from the other patients: a childhood marriage, an early pregnancy that results in a fistula and stillborn delivery, followed by divorce….

© Cathleen Miller, 2013