I write not just to
tell stories: Unity Dow
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
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.
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 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!