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Far and Beyon’, by Unity Dow.

April 27, 2013

Far and Beyon’, by Unity Dow.  Melbourne, Australia: Spinifex Press, 2001.

GLOBAL WOMEN OF COLOR

A perceptive book by a Botswanan author about a family living in a village caught between traditional and modern values and understanding.

Unity Dow is an impressive Africa woman, an author and a High Court Justice in Botswana.  In the video included here she talks about her vision for rethinking Africa.  She values her own western education  but protests the ways in which African practices and beliefs have been needlessly devalued.  This theme runs through her book.  Mosa, the high-school age daughter, dreams of being able to go “far and beyon’,” but she  thoughtlessly adopts western beliefs and customs.  Many of the issues Dow raises had been invisible to me, but reading her book gave me a new awareness of the persistent problems that traditional Africans face.

Many books have dealt with the choices confronting those old and new ways of life, but few have done so with such attention to the daily stresses of living in situations where traditional and western assumptions both hold sway. The village where Mosa’s family lives reminded me of the Nigerian one that Flora Nwapa depicted in Efuru but fifty years later the modern western world has encroached on the traditional one.  In Mosa’s family, two sons have died of AIDS while she and another brother attend a local school.  They follow the traditional rituals following the deaths: rituals in which a Christian preacher participates.  Mosa and her brother Stan discuss the problem of their dual lives. Mosa complains, “You have to try and keep two separate thoughts, and switch back and forth, depending on whether you are at school or at home: you have to remember to say ‘Koki and me” at school and ‘I and Koki’ at home.”   Mosa realizes that a relative whom she considers a sister would be a distant cousin in her teacher’s view and the ever-shifting households in which she has lived bear little resemblance to the teacher’s definition of a family. In addition, she complains

At school, I am taught about science and the world works from that point of view!  I get home and have to deal with witchdoctors and ancestors, and somehow we are supposed to stay sane.  I read all these books that could be about life on another planet, and, Stan, I sometimes feel I am losing it.

Stan also notes the ways in which the teacher with whom he lives fails to understand and respect the behavior the villagers recognize as polite.  Although basically a good and caring person, the teacher has never learned to recognize from a person’s face when he needs to stop asking questions, something so basic even young children can do it in the village.  And the teacher is always deeply shocked to see the bare breasts of village women, even though he has no trouble accepting bare thighs which the women try to keep carefully covered.

As the siblings discuss their problems, Mosa chides Stan for not being more critical of the world view he is learning from his teacher.  Somewhat contradictory, she says he has allowed himself to become frozen because he is stuck between the two world of home and school.  She also chides him to be more cooperative with their mother’s need for harmless traditional rituals.  He should do this, whether or not he believes in the ritual’s power, simply out of love for his mother.  The growing number of deaths from AIDS in the village, however, make it imperative that scientific views be understood as more valid than those of the witchdoctors.

Neither the old ways or the new display any respect for women.  I was appalled by some of the traditional ways which continue to encourage disrespect for women and fostered practices such as wife-beating and philandering by husbands.   While Mosa complained about such traditional practices, it was the white teachers in her high school that caused her the most concern.  They assumed that young women like Mosa were fair game for sexual exploitation at the same time they blamed the girls for getting pregnant or catching AIDS.  At first Mosa felt helpless, and turned to women lawyers who have come to the region.  Soon she discovered that although they were well-educated and eager to help, they too were young and female and squeezed out by the western power structure.  Finally she works with other school girls to confront the white men’s abusive behavior.

Dow is an excellent writer and tells a good story.  Her stately prose has echoes of other African writers I have read, but I lack the ability to be precise about how.   As I read, I realized that Dow was not writing primarily for a global audience, although her book is worthy of one.  She is writing for African readers who struggle with the dilemmas that the characters in her book face.  She is encouraging them to be proud Africans, selective about what they adapt from former colonial teachers.  I respect and admire her for that.

I strongly recommend this book, especially to those interested in post-colonial Africa and in the need to be selective in choosing which practices from another culture to accept.

Spinifex sent me a copy of this book as part of their Global Women of Color Giveaway.  I am grateful.  Biblioglobal has written an excellent review of this book.  I am particularly grateful that she post the film clip of Unity Dow’s speech which I have included below.  Thanks to all.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. April 27, 2013 10:36 pm

    I’m glad you enjoyed it too!

    It’s interesting, I had thought of the main predatory teacher as Black.(Since the book usually seemed to mention it specifically if characters were white.) But I think maybe she didn’t specify either way. Regardless, I would say that both local and foreign teachers were culpable. Sadly, I’ve read statistics indicating that this is a really common problem in other places in Africa too.

    • April 29, 2013 9:31 am

      And a problem not not in Africa, but everywhere. I was sure the teacher was white, maybe because of his closeness with the other white teachers. I thought all the teachers were white. I will go back and check because I am curious. Maybe my assumptions are just different than mine.

  2. April 27, 2013 11:47 pm

    As I read this, I realised that most of my reading of African literature has been male writers, so I look forward to reading Unity Dow. Great idea to include the video too. Very interesting topic.

    • April 29, 2013 9:35 am

      Yes. That’s what most of us find when we start to read books from other regions. Male prominence in literature is not just an Australian thing. I have deliberately been looking for books by women globally, and I am very impressed by some of them.

  3. May 3, 2013 12:10 am

    wow….must check this out…really interesting!!!

    • May 7, 2013 9:56 am

      Yes. I’d be interested in your reaction. I really liked it–and I am impresses with Unity Dow.

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