WE'VE just returned from two weeks in Botswana, lovely country, lovely people, where we were visiting Caitlin, our elder daughter. Things are not so lovely for her. On 25 May, she will appear in a court on a charge which could lead to a two-year prison sentence.
It was a strange feeling, as we flew home, picking up newspapers I'd never heard of before in Botswana and South Africa, seeing her name in leaders and news reports, all defending our Caitlin, saying what a disgrace, how could it have happened to Caitlin Davis. Yes, very often they did spell her surname wrong. I've gone through life with that happening, but never, so far, had my name in a newspaper because I've been arrested.
Caitlin is 34 - though it says in the charge sheet I have in front of me she is 31, so that's the first mistake. She went to Camden School in London, Sussex University, then did a Master's degree at Clark in Massachusetts. There she met Ronald Ridge from Botswana, born in a rondavel, a thatched and mud hut with sand on the floor. Through natural brilliance and hard work he'd gone from local village schools to the University of Botswana in Gaborone, the capital. Thence to Clark, taking a degree in computer sciences, something Botswana was unable to offer at the time. They fell in love, moved to Botswana, they got married.
That was eight years ago. Happy ever after, oh yes. She absolutely adores Botswana. Only last year, after endless bureaucratic delays, she became a citizen.
At first she taught in Maun, Ronald's home village, on a British Council scheme for teachers. Then when he got a job elsewhere in Botswana, in the salt pans, she started freelance journalism. They returned to Maun in 1995 and she became editor of the local newspaper, the Okavango Observer. Not exactly Fleet Street, but I was jolly pleased. The first, and probably only one of our three children to show a real interest in writing.
This was when her problems began. In her first issue as editor, on 29 September 1995, she ran a front-page story about a gang of youths terrorising Maun. Similar stories had appeared in the past by the same reporter, but she asked a reporter who normally dealt with the police to get their reaction. The local station commander could neither confirm nor deny the latest incidents, as nothing had been reported to the police. So the story was sprinkled with the occasional "allegedly".
On 19 January 1996, a CID officer came to the offices of the Okavango Observer, told Caitlin she was under arrest, invited her to the police station. The charge, when eventually given, was publishing "a false report ... which was likely to cause fear and alarm to the public". This is contrary to Section 59 of the Penal Code, which apparently has never been invoked before.
The Media Institute of Southern Africa, based in Namibia, investigated the case and she was interviewed by Amnesty International. All promised support to help fight her case. In the event, nothing happened. Silence for about a year. It was presumed it had all been forgotten, or had been a joke. Then, in December 1997 she was called before the magistrates court in Maun. There have been six appearances since then, but so far she has not been tried, mainly because of legal mix-ups and the prosecution not turning up.
The reason she has had such support from the African media and various freedom groups is that they are amazed that such a thing could happen in Botswana. It has been independent since 1966, yet managed to be a pillar of freedom, equality and peace in a continent not normally known for such virtues.
"Botswana is greatly admired throughout Africa," says Caitlin. "Our neighbours like Zimbabwe think we are so lucky, with free education and free health care. There is peace here between the tribes and the people are justifiably proud of their tradition of democracy and freedom of speech."
Caitlin herself has been totally welcomed into the local community and accepted by Ronald's family, including his mother and grandmother. They speak Setswana (which Caitlin herself has learned), not English. Both have been ill with worry on Caitlin's behalf. Her own life has been disrupted, with expensive trips to Gaborone to see lawyers and supporters, endless delays and uncertainties. She has also had an anonymous phone call, telling her to leave the country.
The Okavango Observer has recently ceased publishing, for financial, not political reasons, and Caitlin has been freelancing and writing. Her first novel, Jamestown Blues, has been published by Penguin and got good reviews, including three in the UK, which of course I have framed on my wall. It's set in Botswana, but is not autobiographical, written in the first person by a 13-year-old girl. One reviewer recommended it be put on the national school syllabus.
So why is she being charged? Why is someone or somebody out to get her, after it looked as if the case had been dropped? A leader on 7 May in Mmegi, Botswana's largest independent weekly, suggested it was victimisation. "Literally everyone in Maun knew that a gang of boys terrorised the village. The state claims the report caused alarm. Doesn't this just show how petty and vindictive the state can be?"
The real problem, so some other papers believe, was caused when Caitlin went on to produce a series of articles drawing attention to the Government's unpopular removal of indigenous Bushmen from the Kalahari. Caitlin initially expected these stories to be of purely local interest, but they received worldwide attention, Prince Charles got involved. There were questions in the House of Lords.
Caitlin herself can hardly believe this is the reason, pointing to all the nice stories she also ran about Botswana's handling of its environment and tourism and its achievements in the fields of health, literacy and women's rights.
Ronald, her husband, has his own theory. "The people of Botswana have been brought up, as I was, to respect our elders, especially the men. They ate first, got the best food. The Government in turn behaves like elders, looking upon the population as children, who should do as they are told. So they can't believe that someone as young as Caitlin should write these things - embarrassing them in front of the world."
Let's hope the authorities will respond favourably on 25 May - a big day for our family anyway, it's my wife's 60th birthday. Fingers crossed for a happy birthday present.
This article also appears in this week's New Statesman
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