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
Place of Reeds by Caitlin Davies
Simon & Shuster, £12.99
Ron, Caitlin, Ruby and Rons other daughter, Alice
Caitlin with her daughter Ruby
ITS easy to be fooled by appearances. Sipping a cappuccino
in Hampstead Heaths 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
The daughter of Highgate novelists Margaret Forster and Hunter
Davies says: I wanted to write the sort of book Id
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
She continues: It drives me mad that people use rape as
a plot device in novels or EastEnders, without any real idea of
what its about. Is it so difficult to show it from a womens
point of view? Ive 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. Im
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 its 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: Its not true youre 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 theres 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 dont 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 Eliahs 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 Caitlins
home: I really did want her to grow up in Botswana.
Im scared for her here. When we came back to live
in London, she didnt 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 ones 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 continents 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 dont regret it for a second. The first seven years
were absolutely wonderful and I hope Place of Reeds wont
put anyone off, she says.
Now Id like the chance to go and see how people live
somewhere else. And I need to get Ruby out of here.