I’m known in my family for my love of traditions. Even if we’ve only done something once, I’m liable to declare it “a tradition”. My philosophy is, if there’s something I enjoy, why not make it a tradition so that I can be sure of having regular opportunities to enjoy it again? I enjoy my traditions, though there is a downside to them. It can be hard to let go of them even if they are no longer serving their purpose.
The question of when to let go of traditions is central to the novel Far and Beyon‘ by Unity Dow, though in this case the traditions are broader cultural traditions, rather than personal ones. The book focuses on the life of an ordinary family in a Botswanan village in the late 1990’s. Two sons in the family have recently died of AIDS. Most of the book is from the perspective of their teenage Mosa, though her mother, Mara, and brother, Stan, also get a chance to speak. Mosa is outspoken, full of curiosity, and unwilling to tolerate the sexism she frequently encounters. (The sexist aspects of tradition definitely go in the reject pile.)
Another traditional belief in Botswana is that bad things happen to people because others have performed witchcraft against them. I found it interesting to compare this to The Circle of Karma, the book I read for Bhutan. There, the belief that bad things happen to people because of karma seems to have both good and bad effects on society. It can lead to compassion for others if bad things are fated to them due to a previous life. It can also lead to people blaming themselves when things go wrong. A belief in witchcraft, on the other hand, leads to blaming other people when things go wrong, potentially leading to the destruction of close and trusted relationships.
Perhaps more important than the traditions to get rid of are the traditions to keep. Unity Dow warns against rejecting tradition just because they are African. The traditions that get a more positive airing are those relating to the maintenance of strong family and community ties. Because of the AIDS epidemic, funeral traditions play a big role in the book. Some traditions function to give structure to the process of mourning, such as a ceremony of giving away the dead person’s clothes six months after their death. Other traditions promote community co-operation, such as the expectation that families send representatives to help dig the grave when someone from another family dies. (If they don’t, others might not help them when their own family member dies.)
One thing that I found very interesting was how the question of what tradition required was not fixed, but could be negotiable. Following funerals the tradition is to shave the head of the immediate family of the deceased. But when Mara’s son dies, does his daughter count as a member of the family if the son never married the daughter’s mother? When the family comes together to make plans for the ceremony, the (male) senior members of the family say no. But Mara argues within the context of tradition that her granddaughter should be included and eventually it is decided that the Elders would think it right as well.
In addition to writing this and several other novels, Unity Dow is a lawyer and an activist. In fact, she was the first woman to serve on Botswana’s high court. She sounded like a fascinating person which is part of what drew me to her book. But I was also a bit worried before reading it that the book might have been published because of her other accomplishments, rather than her accomplishments as a writer. I needn’t have worried. Far and Beyon’ is definitely shaped by an activist message and occasionally that does detract a bit from its success as a novel. However, overall I found it an insightful book that gave me a lot to think about.
I should also mentioned that even though I talked a lot about funeral traditions here, the book as a whole was much more positive and uplifting. Though after reading In Praise of Hatred, probably anything else would seem uplifting by comparison!
There’s an interesting video of Unity Dow giving a talk about tradition and other things on YouTube: