Rating: 3 stars
Read for the Reader’s Room Read Around the World Challenge
I’ve been drinking a lot of Rooibos tea lately. Earlier in the year, I developed insomnia, worse than I’ve ever had it before. So bad that I had to see the doctor about it and have two months off work. Alongside the insomnia, I had anxiety and palpitations. It was not a fun time. One of the things my doctor asked was how much tea and coffee I drank in a day. I don’t ever drink coffee because I’m too sensitive to the caffeine in it. I do drink a lot of tea, though. About six large mugs per day on average. My sister, who is a doctor and shares the family propensity towards anxiety, also asked me the same question. She can only have one cup of tea per day. The rest of her hot beverage consumption consists of the evil that is known as decaffeinated tea. I managed to get my tea intake down to two large mugs a day and bought a box of organic decaf tea. It’s disgusting. It looks like tea you get from a vending machine, all grey and sad looking. And it doesn’t taste like tea. I remembered that I like Rooibos and decided that, if I couldn’t have black tea that tasted like tea, I should have a different type of tea that doesn’t even try to taste like black tea, because it has a flavour all of its own. The added bonus of Rooibos tea is that it has zero caffeine and contains vitamin C. It tastes nice, too.
But what has this got to do with reading? And in particular, what has it to do with The Heavens May Fall? Drinking more Rooibos, also known as red bush tea, got me thinking about the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency. Precious Ramotswe and her assistant Grace Makutsi drink a lot of tea, especially red bush tea. It’s such a feature of the novels that you can now buy No 1 Ladies Detective Agency branded red bush tea. The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency novels are set in Botswana. Botswana is August’s country for the Read Around the World challenge over on The Reader’s Room. I’ve read the first two books in the series and thought I might go back to them. I enjoyed reading them, and I loved the TV show that was based on them, but I did feel slightly uncomfortable knowing that the author, Alexander McCall Smith, is a white colonial man. I struggle to accept the authenticity of his books, as well written as they are.
I decided that I wanted to read something by a black woman born in Botswana, someone who has lived the experience of being a woman in what appears to be a chauvinistic society. I searched around for an author who would fit the bill, and liked the sound of Unity Dow’s books. Unfortunately, my library authority only has one of her books, The Heavens May Fall, and it has mixed reviews on LibraryThing and Goodreads. I borrowed it anyway, but with low expectations. Most of the criticism I’ve seen has been about the clunkiness of the text. The style is quite terse and I occasionally thought of it as wooden, but I think that’s because it’s written with the rhythm of Botswanan speech, which sounded different to my Western ear, more clipped and to the point.
The Heavens May Fall has a case at its centre that opens up all manner of legal difficulties for the main character Naledi Chaba. It leads her into Botswana’s past, and throws light on the country’s skewed justice system that repeatedly fails the weakest in society and protects men, especially men who hold high office. Naledi is the right mix of brave and foolhardy to try to take the system on.
Interwoven with the legal drama are explorations of Botswanan society. Dow presents it in a way that confirmed my suspicion of its being chauvinistic in nature. Men are the decision makers, women are the child bearers. A woman who chooses a career over family is viewed with suspicion. Botswanan traditions mix with Christian belief to deny women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, and the rights of children. Customary law is played off against criminal law as it suits the majority male lawyers and judges. As a lawyer and a judge herself, Dow is most scathing about the legal system, and prods more gently at other subjects, such as the nature of family, the denial of homosexuality, and the false conflict between being perceived as feminine and pursuing a career.
The novel is built around the lives and opinions of Naledi and her cousin Mmidi More, both successful women in their fields of expertise. Naledi is a lawyer, Mmidi a doctor. Their Bakgatla heritage is one that prizes beauty in women, not brains. A young girl who doesn’t conform to the traditional notions of beauty grows up hearing negative comments and not receiving the same level of affection as more appealing daughters and nieces.
One way in which Dow explores the growing conflict between traditional culture and imported Western culture is by discussing the new notions of beauty being imported into Botswana via the pages of glossy women’s magazines and televised beauty pageants. These new notions of beauty insist that a woman should be emaciated and immaculate.
We try to hate this new image of beauty … We look at models about to expire with hunger and argue that surely such suffering cannot be beauty. We try to understand the men – the poor men, how confused they must be. We rationalise that though the television tells them they must want the starving thin ones, their raging African hormones demand full satisfaction.
Both Naledi and Mmidi are conflicted about this, but for different reasons. Naledi wants to be considered beautiful and feminine, but feels that to be a successful lawyer she is expected to deny that aspect of herself. Mmidi wants to be appreciated for her inner qualities, since all she has heard from childhood is how unattractive she is. Both are aware that, as Bakgatla women, they buy into this judging of women by their appearance.
‘But really, the Bakgatla are obnoxious and in-your-face like no other tribe! Aren’t we obnoxious? How many times have I heard someone say to another one without even thinking twice about it, “Who is this ugly one?”, “My, you are fat! Look at that belly! Are you carrying twins?”, “Moses must be doing his job, you look pregnant already!” Everybody seems to think they have the right to comment about anything and everything.’
Naledi wishes that her inner qualities didn’t drive her to pursue justice for the weak and discriminated against in Botswanan society. She wishes that her quest for beauty was matched by an equally shallow quest for money. She is only half serious. Her circumstances have a lot to do with her pseudo-vanity.
Naledi works for a children’s agency, investigating and prosecuting cases of rape and abuse of young girls. Mmidi sees many of these girls as patients at the hospital where she works. Naledi is angry and frustrated by the way her boss has to demean herself and beg for financial support from white Western businessmen who want to virtue signal so that they gain lucrative contracts. She hates that Botswana is such a poor country, struggling to survive, struggling against the prejudice of rich outsiders. Mmidi is her anger twin, except she is angry about the arrogance of white Western male doctors and the laziness of black Batswana male doctors who prevent black Batswana female doctors from getting on. She hates that Botswana is a country struggling with outmoded religious attitudes that make dealing with rape and dealing with the growing AIDS crisis more difficult than is necessary.
Naledi is funny. She’s overworked and allows her tongue to run away with her when approached for legal assistance in what she sees as trivial matters. Her bluntness is born of frustration, her honesty is brutal, and I sympathised with her a lot.
Dow also explores the suppression of homosexuality in Botswanan society. Naledi’s cousin Mmidi is single and doesn’t find men attractive. She wonders whether she might be lesbian and Naledi encourages her to find out. But as Mmidi points out, in a society where lesbianism isn’t supposed to exist, because what can women do together sexually without the all important penis, it isn’t exactly easy to ask another woman on a date. It’s not a major thing in the novel, but I thought Dow’s decision to include it was pretty brave, given that she is writing about Botswana for a Motswana audience.
The book ends quite abruptly, just as one of the story arcs gets interesting. Things are explained and tied up, but it felt incomplete as an ending. There was something unresolved about it. It felt as though Dow lost interest in the ending. That’s a shame, because I enjoyed the rest of the book very much. I might seek out another of her books. She seems like an interesting woman.