Interview: Unity Dow on rethinking Africa, promoting gender equality - and fighting mosquitoes

Unity Dow wears many hats. She’s a lawyer, a retired judge (who happens to have been Botswana’s first female high court judge), a prolific author of four works of fiction and one non-fiction, and an advocate for the rights of women and girls. During her PopTech talk, which we’ll be posting shortly, she shared her perspective on a spectrum of topics connected to her pursuits including rethinking the future of Africa, reimagining the role of women and girls, and reclaiming one’s self and identity in the process. We caught up with her after she left the stage to follow up on some of the most salient points from her talk.

PopTech: During your PopTech presentation, you said that, “Africa’s star is on the rise,” because there’s a new generation saying, “I love myself for who I am. How can I move forward without being Western?” When you think about the Africa of the future, what do you see?
Unity Dow: I see prosperity, I see peace, I see democracy, I see the things that every young person, or every person, wants for themselves. People forget, there’s a whole new generation in Africa who do not have the burden of the colonial past. They didn’t live through it. But on the other hand they’ve been raised to be Western, I mean literally – young people in Africa would be proud not to like African music, would be proud not to like African food. It’s a statement of pride to say, “My child does not speak my language.” But now people are saying, are you crazy? What have you done to yourself? And they’re beginning to look at themselves and say, “You know what? I’m proud to be African. I’m beautiful as I am.”

A lot of your work has been fostering that sense of confidence – like your work on equality for women and issues like HIV/AIDS.
I’ve been involved with HIV and AIDS from the first time I heard the word in 1988. I co-founded the first AIDS-specific initiative in the country. So I’ve seen a lot of that, how women have been affected and infected over time, and I think the good news is that the devastation of the year 2000 is not there any more. Drugs are working. Of course there are issues about how to keep a whole nation on drugs. But then, everywhere in the world, people are on drugs for all kinds of reasons.

In terms of the space for women, gender equality, I have begun to see a difference. I know people introduce me as the first female judge in Botswana – but women should not be first at anything any more. That should be in the past. There are four women judges in Botswana now. The new generation is much more independent, much more assertive. They have the same problems as women anywhere in the world. So I see a change, but I know it’s not going to be overnight. The more women who are out there, the better, the quicker the change.

What are you working on right now?
I’m retired as a judge. It’s a great profession, but a gagged one, and I want to talk, discuss, to write. I’ve come back to be a lawyer. I run a law firm. A big part of it is family law. Gender violence, divorces, making sure that my clients get half of an estate. Not close to half, but half of that estate. I work a lot with NGOs to start community-based organizations, and I’m still involved in a lot of work on HIV/AIDS – my last book was on that subject. And I’m retired, remember, so I’m allowed not to work!

Is there anyone you’ve met at PopTech, or the “festival of ideas” as you called it, that you could imagine collaborating with or who has particularly struck a chord with you?
The money man, Bernard Lietaer! We’ve been speaking a lot in the last few days, and really some of his ideas resonate. I see them happening at home, on a small scale.

And another thing: I know from living in Africa that if you take a bowl of vinegar, just vinegar, which is very cheap, put it in the middle of the room, mosquitoes will go away. But they will come back in about 30 minutes. Because the vinegar needs to fume, to be stirred. There must a way of agitating it every 30 minutes. I saw Thomas Thwaites build a toaster from scratch – I’m sure he can do that! I love that about PopTech. There’s this feeling that all these crazy things are possible.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Image: Kris Krug for PopTech

Rate this post:

  • Meh.
  • Love it!
  • Community Rating: 10
Click and drag above to vote.