Jan 14, 2013

The Screaming of the Innocent by Unity Dow – A Review

March 2002, Fiction
Spinifex Press, 215 pages,
 ISBN-13: 978-1876756208, Available on Amazon 

For my first read of 2013 I chose Unity Dow’s Screaming of the Innocent. I found this book a few months ago when updating my Amazon wish list in the run up to Christmas. The initial lure was the book title, and upon further reading I recognised the author’s name. Unity Dow is a lawyer, human rights activist and writer, and also served as Botswana’s first woman High Court Judge until her retirement in 2009. In 1992 she was the plaintiff in a landmark case which successfully challenged the legitimacy of the Botswana Citizenship Act which banned women from passing their nationality on to their children. You can read more of the case here.

If the above wasn’t enough to keep my interest, the opening paragraph did the job.
“He bore her no malice. He simply wanted her, needed her. Surely, in needing and wanting, there’s some affection, even if not quite love. And she was, by all accounts, available. He watched her as she laughing with her friends: throwing back her head in the air, making flapping movements with her arms…This was the second time he’d driven past the little group of children. He’d had no problem singling her out – he’d watched her before.”
This is how we’re introduced to the sinister side of Mr Disanka, a successful businessman and “good community man.” He’s described as a good man by all accounts, a devoted husband and father. He has a mistress and several extra marital children for whom he provides within society’s boundaries. Disanka is also shown as an indulgent father, spoiling his lastborn daughter, Morati, affectionately known as DeBaby “The Baby.” She’s so indulged to the point of obesity with a never ending supply of soda, sweets, ice cream and so forth.

As Disanka stalks his prey, Neo Kakang, described as a “hairless lamb” the reader is given insights into what lies beneath the veneer of the good man. Success and status are a heady drug for him, and he does not shirk from the cruel acts he commits to keep him in that position. He has killed before and will kill again for muti (traditional medicine). He and two other men, intent on using muti to advance themselves, engineer and carry out the scheme.  

The story then jumps five years and we meet Amantle Bokaa, a young National Service participant who has been posted to work in a health clinic in the remote village of Gaphala, Neo’s home village. Amantle arrives in Gaphala hoping to help patients but is instead treated a lackey by the two onsite nurses and is assigned to clean out a storage room.

It is in cleaning out the storage room that she comes upon a box labelled ‘Neo Kakang: CRB 45/94.’ Having previously met a woman with the surname Kakang on her first day of work she makes the connection and reaches out to the woman. She is Molatsi Kakang, Neo's mother.  Opening the box opens the proverbial pandora’s box and we’re taken back to the events leading up to Neo Kakanga’s disappearance five years prior, and the subsequent investigation.

The police resolved that Neo was killed by wild animals, a story never believed by her mother and the other villagers in Gaphala, and closed the case. The villagers suspected a human connection in her disappearance, and the discovery of the articles in the box brings back to the fore their anguish and frustrations at being casually brushed off by the police.

This sets in motion a string of events spearheaded by the strong willed Amantle who in the quest for truth sets out to unearth what really happened to Neo, and why the police closed the case when there was strong evidence to suggest she was a victim of a ritual killing. It is through this process that the reader learns more about the inner workings of the government bureaucracy (local and central), village politics and society.

The subject matter in this book though undoubtedly dark is presented quite skilfully by the author. She is unafraid to peel back the layers on her characters and show them to be flawed beings, just as we all are, without detracting from their essence. Unity Dow weaves together a fascinating tale that’s hard to put down and shows that even in the midst of horrific darkness there is hope and this hope is carried by ordinary men and women.

A tragic story told by a wonderful writer. I absolutely loved it. My 2013 reading season has started on a terrific note.

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