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Bessie Head PDF Print E-mail

Bessie Head (1937-1986), one of Africa's most prominent writers, was born in Pietermaritzburg's Fort Napier Mental Institution. The child of an "illicit" union between a Scottish woman and a black man, Head was taken from her mother at birth and raised in a foster home until the age of thirteen. Head then attended missionary school and eventually became a teacher. Abandoning teaching after only a few years, Head began writing for the Golden City Post. In 1964, personal problems led her to take up a teaching post in Botswana, where Head remained in "refugee" status for fifteen years before gaining citizenship. All three of her major novels - When Rain Clouds Gather, Maru, and A Question of Power - along with other works were written in Botswana during this period. Bessie Head died in Botswana in 1986 at the young age of forty-nine.

Though Bessie Head's life might be seen as sombre and traumatic, her works present love and light alongside the pictures of hardship and isolation that she paints. Head uses intense imagery and vividly describes the beauty found in both human and environmental nature. She praises good as she condemns evil, and expresses her hope for peace and change with her criticism of the apartheid. Head wrote that she viewed her activity as a writer as "a kind of participation in the thought of the whole world'.

Head remains a constant source of academic and critical interest. In 2015, her unpublished letters were included in a collection, entitled Everyday Matters, which was edited by Margaret Daymond. In the same year she was listed as one of the six best African writers by digital news publication Connect. Namwali Serpell, a 2015 Caine prize shortlisted author, paid tribute to Bessie as an African author who inspired her.


Selected Work

From Maru, 1971

When people of Dilepe village heard about the marriage of Maru, they began to talk about him as if he had died. A Dilepe diseased prostitute explained their attitude: 'Fancy,' she said. 'He has married a Masarwa. They have no standards.'
By standards, she meant that Maru would have been better off had he married her. She knew how to serve rich clients their tea, on a snowy- white table cloth, and she knew how to dress in the height of fashion. A lot of people were like her. They knew nothing about the standards of the soul, and since Maru only lived by those standards they had never been able to make a place for him in their society. They thought he was dead and would trouble them no more. How were they to know that many people shared Maru's overall ideals, that this was not the end of him, but a beginning?
When people of the Masarwa tribe heard about Maru's marriage to one of their own, a door silently opened on the small, dark airless room in which their souls had been shut for a long time. The wind of freedom, which was blowing throughout the world for all people, turned and flowed into the room. As they breathed in the fresh, clear air their humanity awakened. They examined their condition. There was the fetid air, the excreta and the horror of being an oddity of the human race, with half the head of a man and half the body of a donkey. They laughed in an embarrassed way, scratching their heads. How had they fallen into this condition when, indeed, they were as human as everyone else? They started to run out into the sunlight, then they turned and looked at the dark, small room. They said: 'We are not going back there.'
People like the Batswana, who did not know that the wind of freedom had also reached people of the Masarwa tribe, were in for an unpleasant surprise because it would be no longer possible to treat Masarwa people in an inhuman way without getting killed yourself.



1968. When rain clouds gather. London.:  Victor Gollancz.
1971. Maru. London: Victor Gollancz
1974. A question of power.  Johannesburg:  Heinemann Publishers. 
1977. The collector of treasures and other Botswana village tales. Sandton:  Heinemann Educational Publishers.
1981. Serowe, village of the rainwind. Johannesburg:  Heinemann Publishers.
1984. A Bewitched Crossroad : an African saga. Johannesburg:  Ad Donker. 
1989. Tales of Tenderness and Power.  London:  Heinemann International. 
1990. A Woman Alone : autobiographical writings. ed. Craig MacKenzie. Johannesburg:  Heinemann. 
1993. The Cardinals: with meditations and stories. Sandton:  Heinemann Educational Publishers.
1991. A gesture of belonging : letters from Bessie Head, 1965- 1979. (ed) Randolph Vigne.  London:  Heinemann.

Author Map (Pietermaritzburg)

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