Monday, April 02, 2007

Kind Of The One For Me

Bessie Emery Head (1937-1986) is usually considered Botswana's most important writer. She was born in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, the child of a wealthy white South African woman and a black servant when interracial relationships were illegal in South Africa. Her mother was apparently mentally ill; the exact circumstances are disputed but it should be noted that some comments by Bessie Head, which are often quoted as if straight autobiography, are in fact from fictionalized settings.

* 1 Early life
* 2 Professional Life
* 3 Move to Botswana
* 4 Writing
* 5 Death
* 6 Trivia
* 7 Bibliography
* 8 References
* 9 Contemporary authors
* 10 External link

[edit] Early life

As a baby, Bessie Head was fostered or adopted (sources differ) until she was 13 by a mixed race ("coloured") South African family and then sent to an orphanage, although she had contact with her mother's family, who paid for her education.

[edit] Professional Life

She became a teacher, then a journalist for Drum in the 1950s and '60s.

[edit] Move to Botswana

She moved to Botswana (then still the Bechuanaland Protectorate) in 1964 as a refugee, having been peripherally involved with Pan-African politics. It took 15 years before Head was given Botswana citizenship.

Bessie Head settled in Serowe, the largest of Botswana's "villages" (i.e. traditional settlements as opposed to settler towns). Serowe was famous both for its historical importance, as capital of the Bamangwato tribe, and for the experimental Swaneng school of Patrick van Rensburg. The deposed chief of the Bamangwato, Seretse Khama, was soon to become the first President of independent Botswana.

[edit] Writing

Almost all of Head's important work was written in Serowe, in particular, the three Serowe novels When Rain Clouds Gather, Maru, and A Question of Power. She also wrote short stories, including the collection The Collector of Treasures, and a book on the history of her adopted home, Serowe: Village of the Rain Wind. Her last novel was a historical novel about nineteenth-century Botswana, A Bewitched Crossroad. Her work, which emphasised the value of ordinary life and humble people, was somewhat out of keeping with the general contemporary trend in African writing for overt political commitment, but it has lasted well. Religious ideas figure prominently, specially in A Question of Power; Bessie Head had had an initially Christian upbringing but had later been much influenced by Hinduism (from South Africa's Indian community). Her ideas cannot, however, be easily summarized.

The novel The Cardinals, which was published posthumously, had been written before Head left South Africa.

Bessie Head remained in many ways an outsider in her adopted country, and had something of a love/hate relationship with it. She suffered from mental health problems, and at one point put up a public notice making bizarre and shocking allegations about the President, Sir Seretse Khama, leading to a period in Lobatse Mental Hospital. Fortunately Khama was a well-balanced man who did not take this personally. A Question of Power is partly based on these experiences.

[edit] Death

Her early death in 1986 (aged 49) from hepatitis came, tragically, just at the point where she was starting to achieve recognition and was no longer so desperately poor.
deaths | Botswanan writers


Blogger Mike Begnal said...

I was just thinking about Botswana the other day...

10:49 AM  

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