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I write not just to
tell stories: Unity Dow

B orn in the southern village of Mochudi, Unity Dow studied to be a lawyer, working initially for the Attorney General's Chambers, setting up her own practice in 1986 and recently appointed Botswana's first female High Court judge.

Dow has a long record as a human rights attorney, co-founding the Women and Law in Southern Africa Research Project and is a member of International Women's Rights Watch, an advocacy organization. She also founded the first legal aid centre for women.

In 1995 Dow challenged government over the 1982 Citizenship Act, under which Botswana women married to foreigners could not pass on their nationality to their children; though Botswana men married to foreigners could. This led to passage of a legislation that gave women the right to pass on their nationality to their children.

Judge Dow has written two novels: Far and Beyon' and The Screaming of the Innocent. Far and Beyon' is the story of a Botswanan family - a mother and her two children, vacillating between the modern and the traditional; between poverty, AIDS, death and hope. She lives with her family in Lobatse, Botswana.


Far and Beyon' is layered with several issues, the central narrative being in the hands of a young woman, Mosa, who asks questions and seeks solutions. Why did you choose a woman narrator? Why didn't you look at the story through the eyes of a man, say Stan, for example?

For the same reasons that I did not set the book in the US or the UK. I was working with what is closest to me and to my heart. I have worked with young women for years and their stories informed and fueled Far and Beyon'.

Through Mora's children, Mosa and Stan, the novel also deliberates on two ways of living - the traditional way and the modern influences that the young are taking to very easily. The two youngsters reject traditional beliefs and choose to fight the oppression and powerlessness that they are subjected to. Is that closer to reality about Botswana or is it just hope?

First, it is my view that not all traditional beliefs should be rejected. But it is also my observation that there is and will continue to be a tension between 'old' and 'new' ways. For the African youth, this presents a dilemma and sometimes confusion. The more dominant cultures of the world are taking over the less powerful ones. How this tension is resolved will always depend on what the new cultures seem to be offering. So I am merely making an observation of what is happening.

The novel depicts the village life of Botswana - the family values, the ceremonies, noise, rites of passage, poverty and sex. Was it difficult for you to grow up in a land so steeped in traditions, poverty and the affliction called AIDS? Was it any worse because you are a woman?

It is still difficult to be part of ceremonies and rituals that are premised on female subservience. It is particularly difficult for me because I do appreciate that you can not change everything overnight. These ceremonies and rituals are based on old scripts which are considered un-reviewable. Picture this: It is the last day of the wedding celebrations and rituals and the new bride is sitting in the middle of the lapa (courtyard) and children and adults, male and female are gathered to witness the groom's mother's public instructions to her daughter-in-law. The mother drapes a shawl around the young woman's shoulders and pins it in place. Then she pounds (with her fist) around the young woman, proclaiming 'rutu, rutu, rutu' repeatedly.

The message is that she must be quiet and motionless, accepting, not complain, not cause trouble, not challenge. Then my turn comes (for this must be repeated by as many of the married women the party as possible) to give these instructions. Do I make a passionate speech for women's rights? Of course not. The most I can do is excuse myself and pass on the honor to another woman.

Is too much westernization and the man-woman inequality in Botswana bothering you?

I don't know that 'bothering' is the right term to explain my own personal views. What I can say is that I do believe that it is not in the interest of Africa to allow western values to stomp over African values without so much as a whimper of protest. Not all western is good. Just as not all African is good. The challenge is in merging the good from both and in developing a new culture that respects all persons, irrespective of, among others their gender.

Mosa provides a note of optimism in the novel. She thinks it is not hopeless, there is hope. You also once said that there are a lot of people in the real world like the fictional Mosa. "The resurgence of demands for rights is worldwide. The wrongs of the past are bubbling to the surface and people who have been voiceless are demanding answers in all sorts of way and they cannot be ignored." How hopeful are you?

Very. The human animal is unique in that no amount of battering will silence it for ever. Its need for dignity is just too central to its being.

You once said: "Often women will not demand their rights even when the laws and everything else is in place because the prevailing attitude around them is so thick with resistance that they slink back and take it and take it and take it". Are your books an extension of you as a social activist?

I write not just to tell stories, but also to raise political statements, to challenge, to urge, to nudge.

In The Screaming of the Innocentalso the story is woven around a woman - in this case the disappearance of a 12-year old girl. Should we expect a 'male' story in any of your novels soon?

I do promise!

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