Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Screaming of the Innocent

Unity Dow is an extraordinary woman by any standards, but even more so by the standards of male-oriented Botswana. Born in 1959, she became a lawyer and immediately took up the cause of women’s rights in Botswana. In a landmark case, she challenged the constitutionality of a law which excluded her children from citizenship because of husband is a citizen of the United states. She won this, solidifying the equal gender rights promised by the constitution. Later she became a High Court judge – the first woman member – and served for 11 years. During that time she was one of the justices involved in the High Court challenge that gave the San (Bushman) peoples the right to return to their traditional lifestyle in the Kalahari. At present she is on a commission redrawing the Kenyan constitution.

She is also a talented writer. She has written four novels reflecting deep issues in contemporary Botswana: the struggle between traditional and Western values, the AIDS pandemic (Botswana and South Africa compete for the world’s highest infection rates), and ritual murder.

The Screaming of the Innocent is a powerful and disturbing book. A young girl vanishes; the police guess that she has been eaten by a lion, but the reader knows that she has been ritually murdered for body parts reputed to bestow great power. Years later a female student doing national service in the community comes across a box of clothing which seems to belong to the missing girl. But after she draws attention to it, the box vanishes. She seeks out a friend – now a lawyer – and the two young women pursue the matter together.

The book is good not only because of the intriguing characters and plot, but because the reader finds the premise completely believable because the perspective is purely African. To westerners, witchcraft has become almost flippant superstition – like avoiding a black cat. But in many African cultures it is not only respected and feared, but deeply believed. It is this that Dow manages to capture so well in her novel. She makes no bones about the influence of male dominance being connected with these issues. When her evil characters are plotting the murder, they look for “a man with a hard heart, a heart of stone, a heart of a real man”. And, of course, they find such a man. The heroine follows the twists and turns and seems to be taking us to a successful resolution. But Africa is often not like that.

The book was first published in 2002 by Spinifex Press – a boutique publisher in Australia specialising in books focussing on women’s issues – and subsequently published in South Africa. Fortunately, it is widely available. It is a harrowing book, but one well worth reading.

It is tempting to see the premise of the story as an ingenious (if ghoulish) invention, but it is probably based on a real case which would have been well known to Dow. In 1994 a 14-year-old girl named Segametsi and her friend Monnye decided to sell oranges in Mochudi (a small town where they lived) to raise money for a church trip to Francistown. The girls separated near the house of a man called Mokgalo. Segametsi was never seen alive again. Her body was found with fatal chest wounds and with a variety of body parts removed, possibly while she was still alive. Clearly she had been murdered to harvest these organs for Dipheko, “medicine” made from human flesh.

Nothing about the case was obvious. Circumstantial evidence pointed to Mokgalo and he was held briefly, perhaps for his own safety. Soon he was released. Monnye then came up with a story that Mokgalo previously had made advances to Segametsi. Mokgalo wa held again. And in an almost unbelievable turn of events the murdered girl’s father made a confession that he had accepted a promise of 1,200 pula (about $200) to help with the girl’s abduction. Mokgalo was held for two months. During that time the police became suspicious of the stories they had been told. The father was sent for mental examination. Both the father and the Monnye eventually withdrew their stories, and the suspects were released. This led to rioting in Mochudi and nearby Gaborone and the focus moved from the murder to public order. The police and soldiers reacted violently and many people were injured. One was deliberately killed by a policeman.

The government was under continuing pressure and eventually was obliged to ask Scotland Yard to send a team to independently investigate the murder and the police conduct of the case. This lack of trust in the police and people in authority is all reflected in Dow’s novel.

The policeman who killed the suspected rioter was sentenced for manslaughter and the government paid his family about $100,000 in compensation. Mokgalo won a case for wrongful arrest, but describes himself as a broken man who is still treated with suspicion. The Scotland Yard report has never been made public. No one has been arrested for the murder of Segametsi.

In his last post Stan mentioned our meeting with Director Mulale of the CID. When he heard we were mystery writers, he said there was much to write about in Botswana, and mentioned the Segametsi case. I have always wondered why the Director of the investigating department would want this brought up. Also, he must have known about Unity Dow’s novel. What was there to add?

The belief in the power of evil medicines and witches has another somewhat unexpected and damaging consequence. Since witchcraft is used to ensure success in financial and other ventures, it can be dangerous to appear too successful. If you have risen faster and farther than others, is it not possible that you too may have dabbled with Dipheko? This perception may be very dangerous for you indeed. It is safer to be mediocre…

Michael – Thursday.


  1. Where is Unity Dow now? I hope she is still fighting and surviving. I kept expecting you to write that she was slaughtered somewhere in your post...I am definitely ordering her book soon!

    And your book, 'A Carrion Death,' arrived at my home last week. I will be cracking it open soon!


  2. I'm happy to say that as far as I know she is still alive and well and addressing the Kenyan constitution issue. One advantage of becoming known across the world is that you are too significant to silence. But of course you can still be ignored...
    I hope you enjoy our book. And hers!

  3. Hi Michael,

    Interesting story.