Unity Dow’s fourth novel, The Heavens May Fall (Double Storey), is an elegant, perceptive and evocative piece of literature that explores the sensitive topic of women and child abuse. Dow, a human rights activist, is the first female High Court judge of Botswana. The themes of the novel are firmly embedded in the familiar ground of her profession, her stances on women and children’s rights and the intense and contradictory sentiments surrounding traditional conventions and Western laws in dealing with cases of rape and abuse.
Naledi Chaba is a young, spirited lawyer at the Bana-Bantle Children’s Agency in Mochudi, who is inundated with abuse cases. When she takes on the case of the 15-year-old Nancy Badidas who has been raped by the family’s tenant she comes face to face with a fellow attorney, the arrogant and ignorant JJ Salang. The battle in the courtroom soon reveals the vulnerable and disadvantaged position of Nancy and her family and Naledi’s determined and fearless attack on a corrupt and contradictory judicial system crowded with insensitive and hypocritical males.
Although the subject matter of the novel is deeply disturbing, Dow refrains from sentimentality and steeping the content in dramatic and emotional descriptions, yet it is exactly the sober, factual narrative and the protagonist’s balanced but moving meditations that provoke compassion in the reader and highlight the prevailing ignorance and stupidity surrounding the sensitive topics of rape and abuse.
When the rapist receives a not guilty verdict, Naledi decides to appeal before the High Court, seeking “an order compelling the respondent to undergo an HIV test” (104). Her reflections on the plight of the Bandidas family contain biographical nuances and her questions reveal society’s preference for romanticised superficialities and commodities rather than facing the harsh realities and brutality of ordinary life:
Why were they in my office, instead of some government office whose job should be explaining exactly what I was explaining? Why are victims of crime no more than tools in the system? Why are they discarded as soon as they have done their job of testifying?
Or am I just always seeing fault in everything? Why wasn’t I working in a flower garden, so I could tell everyone about lovers who come dashing in to buy a bunch of flowers to commemorate an anniversary? Why wasn’t I working as a nurse, so I could tell warm stories of the Lazarus effect as antiretroviral drugs literally raised patients from death-beds in hospital wards across the country? Even working as a marriage officer would do: then I could share stories of young lovers holding hands and dreaming of beautiful futures. Or perhaps I should write fiction; heart-warming fiction about love and trust and honesty and sunsets and moons and suns and stars and clouds wearing swirls of colours! (101–2)
Naledi attacks the system with vigour, exposing high-ranking officials in the process. The confrontation and corruption are extended beyond the boundaries of the courtroom when her invitation to do the Junior Bar Address is jeopardised. The final chapters provide a moving and endearing insight into the secret lives of some of the characters and Naledi’s compassionate yet courageous nature.
Dow skilfully underscores the main subject matter through Naledi’s close relationship with her childhood friend, Dr Mmidi More. Mmidi is the superintendent at the local Deborah Retief Memorial Hospital and shares Naledi’s sentiments on human rights. Both encounter resistance in professions dominated by sexist males. Their conversations provide an extended platform for serious yet often light-hearted feminist commentary on gender roles and Botswanan culture. Naledi is romantically involved with the attractive rugby player, Rapula, but Mmidi is single and “[i]t has been rumoured that Mmidi had ‘lesbian tendencies’” (19). During one of their conversations Naledi remarks: "… I know that this is one culture in which one can have a raging lesbian affair without anyone being any the wiser. No one expects it. No one suspects it and women are expected to bathe and sleep together …" (124–5). Their discussions include commentary on their own struggles to come to terms with the discrepancies between African value systems and the infiltration of Western standards with its emphasis on sexuality and the objectification of female bodies, aptly summarised in Naledi’s contemplation:
Unfortunately, both of us are very much aware of what Cosmopolitan and Fairlady say constitutes beauty. As much as we may defend the concept of African beauty, the defence is purely philosophical. We try to argue, at least to ourselves, that African men, confused by these new images of beauty, may during the day saunter with pride with their thin mates on their arms, taking them to dinners and weddings, but at night they knock on the doors of more traditionally-made women, seeking satisfaction.
We try to hate this new image of beauty – the scrawny-looking woman with relocated eyebrow, elongated eyelashes and coloured hair. We argue that extensions are really modifications of dreadlocks, are Himba-type hairstyles and certainly not imitations of European hair. 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 …
But finally, it is by the standards of the glossy magazines that we measure ourselves and it is by those standards that our peers judge us. Our peers are college-educated and many have studied abroad. They watch blockbuster movies and play American music at their weddings. (14)
These perspectives underscore the complexity of The Heavens May Fall’s subject matter and Dow’s awareness of the complicated boundaries between cultures in Botswana and, by implication, in Africa. Her criticism of a male-dominated society is mitigated by the tribute to Naledi’s loving father and her respectful and supportive relationship with Rapula.
The text is a creative contribution to African literature, not only for Dow’s compelling style, but also for the manner in which she skilfully enforces awareness about crucial social issues and the complicated relation between cultures. It is my first reading of a Dow text, but most certainly not my last.