Edinburgh, Fife & East Scotland

Edinburgh Council leader Jenny Dawe gets back to basics

Jenny Dawe, the leader of Edinburgh City Council, is known to voters in the capital as a prominent local politician.

But in an interview with the BBC Scotland news website, the 66-year-old has lifted the lid on her life before politics and explained what drives her to continue in the job well beyond retirement age.

Image caption Jenny Dawe in Ukiriguru, Tanzania, in 1967 with a snake she had killed with a golf club

There is an old African saying that if you kill a mamba its mate comes back.

That meant Jenny Dawe had to kill many of the large snakes at her home during a 14-year stay in rural Tanzania and Malawi, which began back in 1966.

Caring for her four young boys while their father was away for several days at a time on business, she developed an "accurate blow" when using a big African knife called a panga.

She also had a golf club to hand for those moments when she had to protect her children from the deadly snakes, which would come slithering onto their veranda.

It may have been "hair-raising", but the mother-of-four took it all in her stride.

She said: "You don't think twice about killing a mamba when it is near your children.

"You were meant to keep the back door closed but, with all the children passing in and out, it would be left open.

"Our iron had a thick black flex with red and yellow stripes and one morning I picked it up before realising the cord was actually a coral snake, which must have thought it had found its life's partner.

Image caption Jenny Dawe celebrates her birthday with her sons while living in Africa

"Needless to say the iron never recovered as I threw it out of the door onto the concrete, which left the iron very bent."

In another snake encounter, their pet dog, Toby, was left with a large tumour after sitting on a puff adder. It was removed by two Bulgarian vets, who she had been helping fill in an English application, who performed open surgery on her kitchen table.

She recalled: "We kept anti-venom in the house so when Toby was bitten I injected him with some - but I didn't know how much to use because it was for humans.

"Toby recovered, but then formed a large tumour. He was operated on on the kitchen table, and that's why I now hate the smell of formaldehyde."

Image caption Toby the dog waits patiently while Robert Dawe finishes gnawing his bone in Ukiriguru

She also quickly learned to put each leg of their beds inside cans filled with paraffin to stop her children being overcome by armies of ants as they slept in their house in Lower Shire Valley, Malawi.

Ms Dawe had ducks and hens and would cure pork into ham, bake, make jams and chutneys and grow vegetables and fruit for them to eat.

Before they moved to Malawi the family lived in Tanzania, where Ms Dawe had a job as a librarian. She learned fluent Swahili while pregnant with her first child, and home-educated her four sons, Robert, Gavin, Kenneth and Craig.

She would cycle with them all down to the library, where she would set them their school work before beginning her own job.

Her sons have grown up to have jobs including one being a consultant and another an assistant professor of neuroscience. Asked about her teaching, Ms Dawe explained: "I'm a bit of a polymath. I have a range of interests.

"I had to be quite tough though, and separate when I was being a mother and when I was being a teacher.

"There were no local schools that would have given them the kind of education that would have fitted them into the schooling or university system when we returned back to the UK, which was always the eventual plan.

Image caption Jenny Dawe's washing facilities at her home in Malawi in 1975

"Most of the expatriates in any of these oversees countries would send their children home to boarding schools.

"But I just thought, what's the point of having kids if you are going to send them away - and their father himself had been at boarding school and had absolutely hated it."

So she continued home schooling them, even though it was a tough environment to live in.

On one occasion her car broke down in the middle of "lion-infested" territory on the way back from a trip to Kenya.

She said: "All I could do was eat a piece of Christmas cake I had in the car and then breast-feed my baby at the time.

"I had to sit there all night and then the next day, when I thought I would just have to take the chance and start walking, a missionary came past and helped me."

Image caption Gavin Dawe up a paw paw tree to get the family breakfast

It was the breakdown of her marriage to the children's father, Michael Dawe, who moved to Nigeria, which led to her return to Edinburgh with her sons at the age of 35.

She said: "It took me a long time to get over living in Africa, I kept finding myself staring at the ground all the time looking for snakes.

"I also found that my children were academically brilliant, but socially they found it very difficult being at school.

"A few years ago I had a chance meeting with a man at a seminar who asked me if I was related to Robert Dawe. I told him he was my son.

"He explained that he had been Robert's teacher and how he had been so shy and quiet that some weeks into his class he asked Robert why he wasn't sitting on a chair.

"It turned out he had been too shy to ask for a chair and had been squatting at his desk every day for weeks."

After completing a one-year masters course in African studies at Edinburgh University, she worked as a university tutor while doing a PhD on the social, economic and political history of cotton-growing in east and central Africa.

Ms Dawe became an information officer at Lothian Community Relations Council in 1988, then worked in welfare rights for Lothian Regional Council and then East Lothian Council until 2007.

Image caption Three of Jenny Dawe's four children were born in Africa

First elected as a councillor in October 1997, Ms Dawe has been the leader of the Lib Dem group on Edinburgh City Council since 1999.

The party became the largest political group in 2007 and she was elected council leader in May of that year.

That position has meant she has found herself in the news, and she admitted to being "hurt" by the headlines when Ms Dawe and her deputy, Steve Cardownie, were accused of being "untruthful" in evidence to MSPs over the troubled clan gathering event in the city.

The pair were cleared of the allegations earlier this summer, but she had thought the coverage was "so unfair and so untrue".

"It is not that I am putting on a facade that it doesn't hurt, it's just that in your dealings with the public you can't go around weeping and wailing and so you have to present in a composed way," she said.

"It can be quite annoying and you can waste an awful lot of time trying to work out what's the best way to counteract something.

Image caption Toby the dog in front of the hen and pigeon coops in Kasinthula

"Everybody is human, everybody has feelings, and I would challenge anybody to say they don't feel a twinge of hurt along with the anger sometimes."

Working until 04:00 most nights before rising again at 07:00, she said she gets over it by "being too busy to dwell on it".

She said: "I also think I am quite resilient, it's not to say it doesn't get under the skin sometimes.

"The Gathering investigation annoyed me intensely. It didn't get under my skin in that I felt I had done something wrong.

"I've always hated injustice and I felt it was completely and utterly unjust the way that the parliamentary committee dealt with myself and the other council witnesses."

Her partner since 1988, Mike Falchikov, a retired university lecturer, used to get "exasperated" by his wife working into the small hours of the morning.

"He is used to it now and has realised there is no point in trying to stop me. I am a perfectionist and like being thorough."

The grandmother-of-five said she planned to carry on working despite being over retirement age, and has pledged to stand again in the council elections next year.

Image caption How Jenny Dawe looks today

Another term as a councillor would take her to the age of 71.

The former Cramond Primary and Trinity Academy pupil said: "I've always been a bit stubborn.

"I had quite a strict upbringing and was probably quite an abominable daughter. I was a bit wild.

"I got sent to school at four because I was such trouble at home, at a time when children were sent to school at five.

"I always had a bit of a mind of my own and was not too willing to listen to parental advice. I was probably rather awful as a child."

She also wants to write a book and continue writing poetry.

She added: "I like a challenge, nothing fazes me."

More on this story

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites