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Botswana is an arid country on the whole and thus water is of particular and sometimes contentious concern. When a workman running a backhoe to dig a trench as part of a water project turns up what looks very much like a human skull he is of two minds what to do about it. Self-preservation suggests he should just keep on digging and ignore the skull and make his boss happy because no work time will be lost, but his upbringing warns him against disrespecting the dead. His decision is made by the sudden realization that there is not just one skull but many human bones that are poking up out of the sand. He downs tools and goes off to inform the local police. They in turn inform Assistant Superintendent Makaru in Gaborone who then dispatches Detective Sergeant Bengu and pathologist Ian MacGregor to go up north and determine what these bones represent.
Readers of some if not all of the preceding seven books in this appealing series will immediately recognize the name Bengu but might be initially puzzled by his startling demotion in rank. Not to worry - Bengu, or Kubu, as he is better known, has not suffered some disgrace. A DEADLY COVENANT is a prequel, one that takes Kubu back to his earliest days in the police force, days in which he was learning his trade as a detective but also already demonstrating his talents, talents responsible for his accelerated advance in the service.
This may be a younger Kubu, but he is still a big one. He has carried his school nickname that translates as "Hippo" with him into his adult life and he is happy to eat well and explore the pleasures of Scotch single malt without worrying too much about his waistline. He is still very young in one respect, however. He is teetering on the verge of his first serious love affair. Her name is Joy and she works in Records and he is agonizingly and sweetly shy about it. Readers of the earlier books will know how it all turned out.
The pathologist determines that the bones are those of Bushmen, the indigenous people of the region, otherwise known as San, and that they were apparently murdered. The news provokes a mixed reaction among the local inhabitants and a certain indifference on the part of Balopi, the station commander of the nearby police force. When a lone Bushman named Selelo turns up at the exhumation site, he is greeted with both fear and contempt by everyone save Kubu and MacGregor. The constable detailed to guard the site is wary - he believes the San to be dangerous and when Selelo begins to dance in the starlight to achieve a trance state in which he can communicate with his dead ancestors, he is terrified.
Selelo is not alone in his respect for traditional spirituality. Mma Zondo, the widow of a neighbouring farmer who simply disappeared one day, is in touch with a water spirit named Mami Watu who is angry that the proposed water project is stealing her water and is threatening to "reveal the past." When Mma Zondo is herself killed, suspicion falls on some very important people involved with the water project, though Balopi would like to fit Selolo as a likely perpetrator as a way of clearing things up with minimum damage.
Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip who together and with one voice write as Michael Stanley have from the beginning called attention to the situation in which the Bushmen find themselves in a Botswana that is seeking a modern economic prosperity that is intolerant of an indigenous way of life. Though they write from the perspective of outsiders, they treat traditional spiritual beliefs with respect nor do the authors invite readers to find these convictions either quaint or entertaining. On the contrary it is what might be seen as values espoused by the colonizers that in the end receive a more stringent, if brisk, examination.
Once a series is firmly established, new readers may be reluctant to pick it up somewhere in the middle of the ongoing story but also unwilling to read six or seven books to catch up. The prequel is a means of resolving this dilemma and Michael Stanley carry it off very well indeed. New readers will not feel excluded; veterans whose hearts belong to Kubu will enjoy seeing him before he is fully grown - a young man with a good heart and brain who is open to learn but quick to reject false teaching. The sandy stretches of northern Botswana may appear simple but they have a complex past and a complicated present that will not yield to comfortable resolutions. Kubu is an excellent, if large, companion for readers entering his unfamiliar land.
§ Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal. She's been editing RTE since 2008.
Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, August 2022
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