Interview with Unity Dow

Unity DowUnity Dow is a novelist, lawyer, and human rights activist. A native of Botswana, Dow earned acclaim as a young lawyer for her stances on women’s rights. She became the first woman justice on Botswana’s High Court where she served for ten years. After stepping down from the Court in 2009, she opened Dow & Associates, a law firm in Botswana. In 2010 she was appointed as a judge on the Interim Constitutional Court of Kenya whose mandate is to hear cases arising from Kenya’s constitutional review process.

Why is your book titled Saturday Is for Funerals?

Dow: “Saturday is for funerals” is a phrase I’ve used, stating a fact in my life. Max heard it as a statement worthy of remembering. The expression stayed with him for months. When he proposed that we write the book, it was one of his suggestions for the title.

Saturday is for funerals because most people can attend on that day. On Saturdays at the height of the epidemic, whole villages were clusters of hymn-singing groups. When one planned any event or was invited to an event, there was always the rider, “if there is no funeral.” It became common to expect last-minute excuses for any event taking place on a Saturday.

At the height of the epidemic, what was a typical Saturday like in Botswana?

Dow: As families faced one death after another, burial practices started to change. Before the epidemic, when a funeral procession passed, pedestrians sat down by the roadside and drivers not forming part of the funeral procession stopped their cars until the procession passed, as a mark of respect. The epidemic changed that.

With the number of funeral processions crisscrossing the village to various burial grounds and/or following each other, this basic mark of respect could not survive. Now, pedestrians hardly pause in their strides and motorists not only do not stop by the side of the road, they might even drive within the procession. There have been so many funerals that death has ceased to be strange.

I attended a funeral once where the unthinkable happened—when it was time to call together young men, ‘hyenas’, to dig the grave, only a couple were available for the task. My cousin decided to go to a drinking place not far from where we were to hire some men for few pints of chibuku beer to dig the grave. The fact that these men were drinking while a wake was in progress in the neighborhood was a comment on their character. They would not have been the sort one wished to have at the funeral of a loved one. But the fact that there were not enough ‘hyenas’ at the wake was a comment on how fatigued everyone was. So many people were dying that young men were slipping away to rest, to avoid having to dig one more grave.

I also attended a funeral where I stayed right through the interment at the grave side, singing alongside people I knew and nodding to old school friends as our eyes met over hymn books, only to find as I walked back to my car that I was at the wrong grave. At least twelve funerals were going on at the same time and I had been separated from my group without even noticing. I have heard similar stories from many other people.

During those years, death became so commonplace that when you did not see someone for a while, you were cautious to ask after them when you met their family members. To this day, I catch myself often hesitating before I ask after a school friend. “Ao, she died in 2005, how come you haven’t heard?” is an accusatory retort I might hear.

A cousin jokes that cattle must get nervous whenever they see serious-looking women wearing megagolwane shawls and gathering at a homestead because it can only mean a wedding or a funeral. In either case, a cow will lose its life. If he is correct, then 2004 must have been a terrifying year for cattle.

How and why are things different today?

Dow: Things have calmed down. The last HIV/AIDS funeral I attended was in…I can hardly remember. Someone commented only this past weekend, “It is irresponsible to die of AIDS these days.”

About Martha S Henry

Martha Henry is the Director of Communications for the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health AIDS Initiative.