Her hair tightly woven into an African-style braid, Jenni Williams raises her arm in the air as she asks the crowd at a popular Washington cafe to chant “the healing wind of WOZA.”
The phrase has been repeated over and over since 2002 by women protesting against the government on the streets of Bulawayo, the second-largest city of Zimbabwe.
WOZA is an acronym for Women of Zimbabwe Arise, an organization selected to receive the 2009 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award.
Ms. Williams and Magodonga Mahlangu, co-leaders of the group, are in Washington to accept the award Monday from the late senator’s widow, Ethel Kennedy, in a private ceremony.
“Bread and butter is not enough. We want more than that. We want healing to come back to Zimbabwe,” Ms. Williams told supporters during a forum Friday at Busboys and Poets on U Street in Northwest Washington.
Since 2002, the organization has organized more than 100 peaceful marches for women’s rights, democratic reforms and better living conditions. They often end up being attacked by police.
“What are the issues that make us risk everything,” asks Ms. Mahlangu rhetorically. “Education, malnutrition, women empowerment.”
“We want to bring back the attention to the lives of the ordinary people. No one talks about food insecurity or lack of water,” she says, referring to the government of President Robert Mugabe.
Mr. Mugabe has ruled Zimbabwe since the country’s independence from Britain in 1980.
The country began to fall apart in 2000, when Mr. Mugabe’s government began a coercive land-reform program to distribute white-owned farms to landless black peasants. Combined with a drought, the program resulted in a disastrous plunge in agricultural production, with famine-like conditions forcing millions of Zimbabweans into exile in neighboring countries such as South Africa.
Zimbabwe made headlines last year for fraud-tainted elections followed by months of violence, in which police and pro-Mugabe gangs beat and tortured opposition supporters.
A unity government formed in February paired Mr. Mugabe as president with opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai as prime minister.
At a food summit in Rome this week, Mr. Mugabe blamed his nation’s food shortages on global warming and economic sanctions by “neocolonialist enemies,” according to Agence France-Presse.
The Zimbabwean leader also said climate change has had the “most devastating impact” on food security in Africa.
The Kennedy award was created in 1984 to support human rights defenders.