Summer 2003
The Dirty Little Not-So-Secret
A Review
By Moira Richards
This Issue

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Far and Beyon'
By Unity Dow
aunt lute books
ISBN: 1-879960-64-8

Unity Dow addresses a number of social issues very pertinent to Botswana today in her novel. As a human rights activist and high court judge in that African country, she is particularly well qualified to write a book for a publisher that seeks, "work that explores the specifics of the very different histories from which we come." Her novel provides insight into the traditional way of the Botswana people, but she goes "far and beyond" a cursory feminist critique of aspects of Botswanan social practices. She broaches  the seamier, oft-ignored manifestations of patriarchal practice in her own (and, one expects, many another's) country. 

For instance, Far and Beyon' examines the problems that pregnant school- girls must deal with. Usually forbidden to continue their education, they lose all chance of improving their lot through schooling. They are also preyed upon and made pregnant in the first place by the very schoolmasters who should be encouraging them to study. The sexual molestation of schoolgirls by powerful men in the community (policemen, business tycoons, government officials) is tolerated to such an extent that the girls find themselves without viable defence or recourse. 

No book from Africa can ignore the continent's HIV/AIDS epidemic, and Far and Beyon' explores aspects of cultural practice which facilitate the spread of this disease between men and women, as well as from men to young girls. It considers especially whether changes need to be made in cultural practices--not an issue that yields straightforward solutions for a people struggling to retain its identity and African values in a world that has become increasingly Westernised.

Ms Dow deals with HIV/AIDS  in the context of the perennial challenge to young people everywhere: how much of  new cultures and values, to which their education necessarily exposes them, should they embrace? To what extent do their culturally accepted practices threaten the survival of the very peoples that hold them dear? How can such peoples integrate new ideas into the rich traditions they have inherited? Must old ways always be rejected to make way for new ideas, or are there means by which the old and the new can be integrated both by young and old? Unity Dow has incorpor- ated these weighty issues into a very readable and life-affirming novel accessible both to the young adult reader and to older readers who might have thought they had little new to learn.

We meet Mara, who has just buried her two oldest sons still in their early twenties. The white doctors claim her boys died from AIDS-related diseases, but Mara knows better--a diviner has read in the bones that her best friend has bewitched her family. She must find a way to protect them before her granddaughter and two remaining children die as well. But that will not prove to be so easy, because they are teenagers growing up to question traditional ways of life in Botswana. The boy embraces all the Western ideas he hears at school, while his sister  has mysteriously dropped out even though she was a promising student....

Far and Beyon' is a tale of how education and a changing world can drive the wedge of misunderstanding between even the most loving of mothers and her children. The author presents the points of view of both generations, taking no sides, and Mara and her children begin eventually to understand each other too. They learn how to meet the challenges of their individual lives and to move forward, albeit slowly, without having to cast aside their precious ties of family.

Lest you think Ms Dow's novel deals with sexual-abuse problems specific only to her own country, I'd like to  mention a report that Human Rights Watch published in 2001 [http://www.hrw.org/], documenting research in a broad spectrum of South African schools. It investigated sexual violence towards schoolgirls in Botswana and the effects this type of abuse has on the education of girls and young women. The report was based on interviews with teachers, students, parents and social workers. The following are testimonies given by some of the girls about their experiences: 

One of the greatest dangers a South African schoolgirl faces is gang-rape. A thirteen-year-old describes how she was gang-raped by her classmates, affirms that no one at the school took her allegations seriously, nor was she offered any support, protection or comfort by staff. The boys who raped her continued harassing her until she eventually dropped out, despite her having been a promising student.

Two boys attempted to rape a classmate, but she managed to escape and eventually agreed to accept their apology and continue to attend school with them rather than press charges. She was afraid that if she got the boys into trouble she would be in danger of even greater violence at their hands.

A nine-year-old tells how two older boys forced her into the school's toilet and raped her. The principal helped her to identify and confront the culprits, but he then suggested to the girl's parents that they accept money from the boys' parents instead of pressing criminal charges. The girl's parents agreed, and the boys continued at the school and were never disciplined or counselled about their crime. 

Two high-school students describe how a teacher directed sexual remarks at all the girls in his classes and lured each of them separately to his home under the pretence of giving extra tuition, then drugged and raped one of them. The girls said the school authorities preferred to protect the reputation of the school rather than involve the police. 

There are also stories in the report about teachers in poor communities who exploit their relative wealth to purchase sexual favors from young students-- often with the acquiescence of the children's parents. Some teachers offer better grades for sex or they threaten female students with punishment or academic failure if they refuse their sexual advances. 

In many cases South African schools have no guidelines to deal with allega- tions of sexual abuse against students and turn a blind eye to protect guilty teachers. In some parts of the country there is even a sense among male teachers that they are entitled to sexual favours as a sort of fringe benefit or to compensate for low salaries. All the girls affirm how difficult it is under the circumstances to concentrate on their work, much less excel. 

The Human Rights Report only investigated sexual violence towards girls in South African schools, but it is evident from Unity Dow's novel that sexual abuse of girls is perpetuated by  male classamtes and teachers in more than one African country.

(Moira reviews feminist writing for a number of print and online publications. She can be found lounging about the staff rooms of 
womenwriters.net and moondance.org--usually sipping tea, sometimes Jack Daniels. Talk to her at mr@intekom.co.za.)