Book Review: The Screaming of the Innocent by Unity Dow

The Screaming of the Innocent

Unity Dow

Spinfex, 2002

This novel is one of the saddest books I have ever read. It’s a superbly told story of village life in Botswana. The first chilling chapters are from the point of view of Mr Disanka, a successful businessman at the village level. He has a wife and several children to whom he is outwardly devoted (so much so in the case of his youngest child that she’s obese from all the sweets, ice-cream and other “treats” she demands and receives), he has a mistress who has all the same things as his wife but not quite as good, and he has various liaisons. None of this is sufficient to satisfy a very dark desire, however. He plans how to achieve his malign goal with two other local “dignitaries”.

After this mesmerising, and menacing, start to the novel, the reader is plunged into life in this country of ignorance, poverty, superstition and extreme sexism. Attitudes to women and to the poor are deeply ingrained and maintained by long traditions, supported by those themselves who suffer. The police, as well as other low-level “government officials” in their cosy jobs for life, keep everything under control and make sure any benefits are kept among themselves. The country is going through a period of positive change, typified by occasional poor children being able to attend school, and the odd inside toilet (greeted with derision for, from their perspective, very practical reasons by most of the villagers).

Five years after the start of the novel, a young woman called Amantle Bokaa takes up an internship at a remote health centre. As she begins her duties assigned to her by the lazy, unpleasant nurses who run the centre, we read of her life-story. She’s the seventh child of a typical poor peasant family, the first sibling to be able to go to school, and wants to be a doctor. She’s a determined, brave woman who uncomplainingly accepts the menial jobs meted out to her by the nurses despite the fact she’d clearly be better both with the patients and in diagnosing their illnesses. One of her tasks is to clear out a storeroom, and there she discovers a box inscribed with the name “Neo Kakang”, containing some bloody clothes. Amantle remembers that this is the name of a girl who went missing, presumed killed by an animal or drowned, five years previously.

The rest of the novel describes what Amantle does about her discovery, involving a lawyer friend whom she’s met previously when unfairly accused of inciting a student riot. In the process, the reader learns many details of the entrenched culture of poverty and repression; and the lazy, smug attitudes of the (mainly male) people who have been lucky enough to be assigned government jobs. These details are seamlessly woven into the narrative, and add a tremendous power and authenticity to the novel. One of the many aspects that I loved was the positive portrayal of young, professional women (and the occasional young man) who, helped by education, are rising above the history and traditions of their tribal, superstition-ridden society to strike out for independence and freedom of choice. The story is, however, unbearably tragic– the last chapter (which explains the title) is so terribly, pathetically upsetting that I could hardly bear to read it.

The author, Unity Dow, has been a prominent human rights activist and is Botswana’s first female high-court judge. This novel is a must-read, if you can bear it. It is an admirable book, and provides a searing perspective and portrait of life in a region whose impact and depth could never be matched by authors from elsewhere who try to reflect similar realities from the outside.

I purchased my copy of this novel, which is published by an admirable, small, independent Australian press, Spinifex.

Other reviews of this book are at: Shotsmag (Mary Andrea Clarke), Mixed Media, one of Michael Stanley’s top 10 African crime novels (the Guardian), and quotes at the publisher’s website,

From Griffith Review:

“The Screaming of the Innocent (2002), Dow’s second novel, is based on a real case of a ritual killing of a child, a practice that has its roots in traditional initiation ceremonies. It is a compelling account not just of how a belief in the supernatural still exists in a society that has adopted many Western beliefs and practices, but also of how powerful figures in a small town – the village head, a school principal and a successful businessmen – can force their will on ordinary people and manipulate the local representatives of government. The novel vividly portrays multi-partner relationships, which have their roots in traditional attitudes to male-female relations and sexuality. The supernatural world again plays an ambiguous role, at worst allowing individuals to escape responsibility for their own actions. “Someone else is doing things to you,” said Dow. “You might drink too much, have a car crash, and then blame witchcraft. This really becomes a problem when it’s applied to AIDS.” ”

The best of times, the worst of times. Edition 17: Staying Alive by Peter Browne

4 thoughts on “Book Review: The Screaming of the Innocent by Unity Dow

  1. Bernadette said…
    Sounds like a good book but one I would need to pick my reading time – I’m not quite in the mood for saddest books of all time just now.

    Reply 25 November 2010 at 21:35

    Maxine said…
    Me neither, Bernadette. I read it and admired it, but I am still reeling. Totally harrowing. (and not one bit gratuitous, which increased its power to unbearable point.)

    Reply 25 November 2010 at 21:41

    Margot Kinberg said…
    Maxine – Thanks so much for this terrific review! How very, very sad this story sounds, but it also sounds so profound. I will definitely look to read at one of those times when I can handle a truly sad, if well-written, story. Harrowing but not gratuitous takes a lot of talent…

    Reply 25 November 2010 at 21:47

    kdurkin@earthlink.net said…
    I am glad to see this, as I had come across Unity Dow’s name while reading about African crime fiction. I am very glad to see books written by authors who are from the areas they are writing about; that adds realism. This is why I like Malla Nunn’s books, as well as so many other writers.
    This sounds like an excellent book, which I’ll plan to read this year, but am not sure when I can read such a sad book. I often look for escapism and distraction in reading; reality is often harder to deal with. Thanks for the review.

    Reply 26 November 2010 at 03:10

    Dorte H said…
    I have heard quite a bit about the culture and the sexism from female missionaires in Botswana, and as we spent six months in Ethiopia many years ago, I also know that Africans don´t necessarily envy what we take for granted (e.g. our toilets and our Western food).

    This one sounds like a good choice for the global challenge next year, but I am glad you have warned me how sad it is. I can´t always read sad books either.

    Reply 26 November 2010 at 16:16

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