Afrikult. on Bessie Head

5th Jun 2015

Image: Photo: johnsonandalcock.co.uk
The amazing team at Afrikult. bring us the second in their bi-monthly series on African women writers. This month they highlight the incredible work of Bessie Head, an extraordinary woman who wrote passionately about race, gender and power.

I need a quiet backwater and a sense of living as though I am barely alive on the earth, treading small, careful pathway through life.Miss Bessie Head was born on July 6, 1937 in Pietermaritzburg mental hospital, in South Africa, during the tumultuous years of apartheid. The product of an illicit union between a white woman and a black stable boy, her life was nothing if not traumatic. The circumstances of her birth, though fuelling her incendiary, promethean love for humanity, were also the bane of her existence.

In the early years of her childhood, she was discarded by the paterfamilias of the Head family and placed in foster care. Her mother, on the other hand, was proven unfit for nurturing, confined to a mental institution. Fate’s cruel meddling was once again at play, as she found herself painfully severed from her foster mother due to the latter’s decline into abject poverty. Separated from all tender and maternal comforts, she was finally turn over to an orphanage run by the missionary. Whilst in the missionary, she suffered ill treatment at the hands of the nuns.

In A Woman Alone, she vividly recounts the nuns’ cruel disdain towards her: “Your mother was insane. If you’re not careful you will get insane just like your mother. Your mother was a white woman.” The missionary may have seen to her educational development, but never stopped short of reminding her of her interminable curse – ‘coloured’.

Upon leaving the missionary after completing her training as a teacher, her commitment towards social and political justice found her writing for the the first black lifestyle magazine in South Africa, Drum. The magazine sought to give voice to the voiceless by serving as a mouth piece for Indian, Black and Coloured writers. It primarily featured cultural, social and political issues within the townships.

The magazine also boasted renowned dissident coloured and black writers and intellectuals such as Richard Rive, Es’kia Mphahlele and James Matthews. As with the aforementioned contributors, her writings for the magazine and her political activities brought her to the attention of the Apartheid government.

In 1964, at the government’s behest, she found herself packing for exile. Botswana, with its wretched, arid beauty and isolation, served as an oasis of inspiration for most of her novels. It was in these backwaters that she wrote some of her most remarkable autobiographical novels: A Question of Power (1973), Maru (1971), and The Collector of Treasures: and Other Botswana Village Tales (1977). In these works she brings to the fore difficult questions regarding the psychology of power and gender.

She encourages the reader to reflect on the destruction of the human soul brought on by the allure of dominance and bewildering lunacy of self worth. For instance in A Question of Power, the characters Sello and Dan seek to validate their existential value in their own unique ways by exercising dominance over the opposite sex. In lurid, graphic detail, A Question of Power recalls Miss Head’s own experience of mental disintegration brought on by the ravages of male chauvinism.

In Maru, she turns our attention to the absurdity and dehumanisation of racial hatred, as the central female protagonist Margaret is rejected and denied basic rights and comforts by the higher council of a Botswanian village as a result of her Basarwa (bushman) heritage. The Collectors of Treasures further condemns the oppressive attitudes of men towards women and their foul neglect of their children, who they are suppose to care for and love.

Although it is fair to say that gender and race were central to her writings, in fact she seemed more concerned with the ghastly machinations of power, where evil finds expression. Thus, she describes Maru as “blinding flashes of insight into an evil that hung like the sickness of death over all black people in South Africa.” Hell-bent on racial equality and social justice, her diverse oeuvre of autobiographical writings, commentaries, essays and novels illuminates the pathological spoils of human injustice.

Bessie Emery Head died of hepatitis at the age of 48. She lived a heady, short and tragic life; nevertheless, her relentless spirit lives on through her tender, soul-piercing words of love for wo/mankind. Besides her generosity of spirit, her enchanting take on language and visceral characterisation of human relations envelops her narratives with celestial authority, bequeathing to her work experiential depth. This, more than anything, is what makes Bessie Head a worthwhile read.


By Henry Brefo, 1/3 of Afrikult.

In the month of July 2014, three friends came together to consummate their love for African literature. This auspicious encounter led to the birth of Afrikult. an online forum for people to connect, explore and expand knowledge on African literature and culture combined. Afrikult. aims to make African literature less exotic, less highbrow and more accessible. All materials on the site are cleverly presented in a simple language and in a bite-size format for easy readability. Check us at www.afrikult.com or follow us on facebook.com/afrikult, Twitter and Instagram @afrikult.