Thursday, April 26, 2012

Edgar Night

Tonight is Edgar night, the night when Mystery Writers of America throws a gala function and announces the winners of its prestigious Edgar Awards for the best mysteries of 2011.  As you probably know, Death of the Mantis has been shortlisted for the Edgar for best paperback original of 2011.  Just being shortlisted was a huge deal for us and not one we expected.  We didn't even check the announcement when it came out; we were only alerted by generous congratulations from Leighton!  We were blown away.

Stan is going to be there tonight, but unfortunately I couldn't get away from commitments in South Africa - including the Knysna Literary Festival which is taking place this weekend and features a mystery writing event with myself and South African mystery writers Mike Nicol and Margie Orford.  So when the announcement is made tonight, I'll be trying to sleep. (It'll probably be about 3am here.)  But I'm feeling the same butterflies all the other finalists are feeling tonight...

Certificate of nomination
Death of the Mantis was a special book for us.  Of course they are all special, but this was the book were we tried to paint our story on the poignant backdrop of a dying culture.  If the book wins tonight, it is the Bushman people and their extraordinary lives that have made it so.

So here once again is the story of the Bushman people and the way it led to tonight...

The Bushmen have been nomadic peoples – there are many different groups with a variety of languages - for hundreds of thousands of years. As other population groups crowded them, they moved into the arid regions of southern Africa and developed a very successful if spartan lifestyle. They would dig for water and suck it out of the ground through straws or use Tsama melons for fluid. Sharing was a survival strategy. They moved with the seasons, following game which they hunted using bows and poisoned arrows. The poisons make a story in themselves, ranging from snake venom, through extraordinary desert plants, to an extraction of the larva of a beetle which is so poisonous there is no known antidote.  Their ancestors left amazing rock art.

Fast forward to the twenty-first century. (There’s some pretty sickening stuff in the years we’re skipping over, including a period when the Bushmen where hunted like animals.) Now things in Botswana are very different. Much of the Kalahari is declared as the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. Diamond mining drives the economy. Bushmen numbers have declined.

And how you interpret the situation depends on your perspective. Here is my superficial summary of the way some of the Bushman leaders see it, and how support groups like Survival International see it:
The Bushmen have always lived in the Kalahari. Fences and private land ownership – which is alien to them – interfere with their nomadic behaviours, and rules concerning hunting force them near starvation. Their culture is not respected and is being destroyed by the change in environment and legal constraints with which they don’t agree. In order to keep the Kalahari for tourism and – according to some - for diamond mining, the Bushmen are being forced out of the Kalahari game reserve and into settlements little better than concentration camps on the verges of the land they once regarded as their own. Yes, there is some compensation, but this is soon frittered away leaving nothing. Financial investing is completely beyond their ken.

And here is how the Botswana government sees it:
The government has an obligation to provide appropriate infrastructure for all its citizens. This includes proper schools (Botswana has a policy that schools should be within walking distance from where people live), health care at least at a primary level, water and sanitation. Furthermore the Kalahari is remote and inaccessible, an ecological treasure that must be preserved. Discrimination on race is forbidden by the constitution; if the Bushmen live there, how are other population groups to be prevented from living and hunting there? And now the Bushmen hunt with guns rather than bows and arrows. Their nomadic behaviour has changed to informal settlements where water has to be supplied by road, rather than found in depressions or melons. Crudely put, the traditional culture is already dead; only the inconvenience remains. Thus a group of planned settlements set up in appropriate places with schools and services is the way to go. Appropriate compensation is paid to the people who have to move. They have a new and better life ahead.
In the wide gap between these two viewpoints is a variety of groups trying to negotiate a scenario which would bring the two sides closer together. Among these is Ditshwanelo, an amazing human rights organisation led by the equally amazing Alice Mogwe. (Ditshwanelo is a Setswana word meaning variously: obligations, merits, duties.) Nevertheless, with such extreme perspectives, and the muscle behind each side, it was almost inevitable that the matter would end in the Botswana High Court.

One of the three judges was the remarkable Unity Dow – first woman High Court judge in Botswana, member of the Kenyan Constitutional court, novelist. Broadly, the judges ruled in favour of the Bushmen. In the judgement, Dow said that the case was ‘ultimately about a people demanding dignity and respect. It is a people saying in essence: "Our way of life may be different, but it is worthy of respect. We may be changing and getting closer to your way of life, but give us a chance to decide what we want to carry with us into the future”.’

Michael - Edgar Night


  1. Great book. Well worth an award.

  2. Well I'll be rooting for it, and hoping the judges see sense. Good luck!

  3. Terrible situation with the Bushmen -- not quite as bad, fortunately, as that faced by the Ara in Brazil.

    I have EVERYTHING crossed for the Edgars tonight.

  4. Reading this early, it is my hope you win-for bringing the Kalahari and the issues facing the people to us. Good luck!

  5. I will be there, eating my rubber chicken with my fingers crossed. GO KUBU!

  6. Excellent post, interesting information about the history of the Bushmen. It is horrendous to hear that they were hunted in their own homeland. God, what horrors so-called "civilization" can bring to a harmonious people.

    I love to read this history. It shows to me, once again, that people are NOT innately greedy, that sharing and cooperation can be done and has been a way of life for the Bushmen and many other Indigenous peoples.

    Great that the Botswana high court made the decision they did and Brava to Unity Dow.

    Now I have to read your book and her book!

  7. Hi guys, to my dismay I saw that someone else won. I think I know what must have happened - the jury divided the quality of the book by two as it is a collaboration. There can be no other explanation. Next time for sure.

  8. I forgot to put my name under the above comment - Yrsa

  9. I join Dan in that, but suggest applying a certain layman's form of surgical procedure to the concept.

  10. Thanks, everyone, for the support and good wishes. The whole thing was mind-blowing for us. Sorry for this late response; I was holding the fort at the Knysna Literary Festival while Stan was getting indigestion at the Edgars!
    Thanks again