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Friday 10th June, 2005
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Flashbacks from the reeds

Writer Caitlin Davies tells Jane Wright why she has no regrets over her decision to live in Botswana, despite a gruesome assault

Place of Reeds by Caitlin Davies
Simon & Shuster, £12.99

Ron, Caitlin, Ruby and Ron’s other daughter, Alice

Caitlin with her daughter Ruby

IT’S easy to be fooled by appearances. Sipping a cappuccino in Hampstead Heath’s stately home Kenwood House, Caitlin Davies is the epitome of the easy-going, middle class, hippy chick.
Yet underneath, she must have nerves of steel. Two years ago she returned to her native Highgate from Botswana, southern Africa, where, during a 12-year stay, she was ostracised by her Botswanan in-laws, placed on trial for her journalism and brutally raped.
But instead of putting it all behind her, Caitlin has documented her African experiences in her third book Place of Reeds, published this month.
The daughter of Highgate novelists Margaret Forster and Hunter Davies says: “I wanted to write the sort of book I’d like to read, about living in a very different place, not as a tourist. And I wanted to see if I could write about the rape in a straightforward rather than a sensational way. But that was horrendously hard. Even now, thinking about it makes me feel nauseous.”
Caitlin was raped in her home in the Botswanan town of Maun, meaning place of reeds, by a stranger with a knife, in front of her baby Ruby.
She continues: “It drives me mad that people use rape as a plot device in novels or EastEnders, without any real idea of what it’s about. Is it so difficult to show it from a women’s point of view? I’ve moved on, but my world view has been changed by it. It confirmed for me that bad things happen.
“But I think I was naïve to write about it. I’m getting interviews because of one chapter out of 35 and the night before every interview, I have very disturbed dreams.”
Then she adds, somewhat surprisingly: “But at least I can be brutally honest about the rape. Writing about my marriage was harder. I held back there because it’s not fair and because, one day, Ruby has to read it.”
Caitlin met her Botswanan ex-husband, Ron, when both were students in the United States. He is now an MP in his home country. She says: “His grandmother was a slave. However, armed guards now salute him as he goes into his office and he represents a government which has just deported someone for calling for the election of officials. As I became more English in Botswana, I think Ron became more African.”
Nevertheless, 12 years of “trying to understand what was going on” has made Caitlin a staunch defender of Botswanan culture. She maintains: “It’s not true you’re more likely to be a victim of crime in Botswana. What about at all the crack and the violence in Camden Town. And my rapist got 12 years in jail, when there’s no way he would have got more than four in Britain.
She continues: “The minute you start trying to explain the Aids crisis in Botswana, you fall into racial stereotypes. But 20-year-olds don’t use condoms here.
“And in Botswanan culture, private parts are private. So it took a long time to face up to Aids, but then it became the first country in Africa to provide anti-retroviral drugs free.”
She says her mother-in-law Eliah’s “simmering resentment”, which made life in Botswana more and more difficult for her, arose when Caitlin rejected her opinions after Ruby was born.
She adds of Ruby, now aged five and attending Brookfield Primary School in Chester Road, Highgate, next door to Caitlin’s home: “I really did want her to grow up in Botswana.
“I’m scared for her here. When we came back to live in London, she didn’t know what biscuits were. Now all she says she wants are high heels and nail varnish and biscuits. Eliah will be shocked.”
However, Caitlin remains a fervent admirer of one aspect of Britain. She explains: “You can still go on a demo here and not be tear-gassed. No one’s above criticism and you can say whatever you like about Blair.”
Twelve years in Africa taught her caution and humility in the face of that continent’s complex problems. She says: “At first I felt uncomfortable as a British woman going to a former British protectorate to teach people English. But Ron and his friends said: ‘Shut up with your colonial guilt. You have the skills and we need them’.”
Considering all the trauma Caitlin encountered in Botswana, how does she feel now about her time there?
“I don’t regret it for a second. The first seven years were absolutely wonderful and I hope Place of Reeds won’t put anyone off,” she says.
“Now I’d like the chance to go and see how people live somewhere else. And I need to get Ruby out of here.”