Remembering Bessie Head
Harare – April 17, 2013 passed just like any other normal day.
But to those who follow their African literature avidly, it is the day that Besie Head breathed her last at the age of 48 after succumbing to hepatitis.
It is sad that such days as that on which Bessie passed away are seldom observed, despite the enormous contribution that people like her have made to African history and society.
It would have been thought that Botswana and South Africa primarily would have organised a literary festival to celebrate this great woman of letters.
The history of African literature can never be complete without mentioning her name because her writings effectively dealt with issues that affected us all; such as colonialism, racism (of which she was a victim of for a long time because of her mixed race), discrimination, poverty and the plight of refugees among others.
These are the matters she tackles in novels like “When Rain Clouds Gather”, “Maru” and “A Question of Power”.
Born on July 6, 1937 in South Africa, Bessie was one of the first female African writers to get published when she penned “When Rain Clouds Gather” in 1965.
Back then, the situation in South Africa was tragic due to apartheid, which discriminated against blacks, people of mixed race and Indians.
Her father was black while her mother was white, a relationship that was considered a taboo.
“I did not have any parents. In fact, there is a sort of tragedy attached to my birth. My mother was a white woman, her family was very wealthy and she acquired me out of wedlock from a black man. This caused such a disturbance that they succeeded in getting my mother classified insane,” she once noted.
So intense was the hatred for Bessie’s father by her white relatives that they separated her from her mother at birth and put her under the guardianship of foster parents until she turned 13.
On reaching that age, Bessie was handed over to an orphanage. It was during her stay at the orphanage that she witnessed the worst forms of callous, inhuman and heartless treatment of man by man.
Blacks, Indians, “coloureds” and whites had an intense distaste for one another.
This hatred inevitably became entrenched in the mentality of the minors at the orphanage to the extent that she and others often found themselves being subjected to the severest scorn and racial ridicule.
The young Bessie took solace and sanctuary in books, which she read voraciously for hours on end whenever time permitted her.
“I feel that a love of books is a kind of inborn thing. You open up a book and you learn about something that’s more exciting than your everyday grind, a world of magic beyond your own,” she is on record saying.
After her secondary education, Bessie Head worked as an elementary school teacher for two years, but her heart really was in writing.
She started writing articles for Drum, an iconic Afrocentric magazine that was popular during her time for its vocal, pro-nationalist stance.
In 1974 Head relocated to Botswana and settled in Serowe Village to escape the racial persecution and constant taunts she received in South Africa as a person of “mixed blood”.
A year after her arrival in Botswana, she married and conceived a son but the marriage soon fell apart. It was during this time that she started working on “When Rain Clouds Gather”, written during a period of intense drought in 1964/65.
She recalled: “I had come here in ’64 and over the period of ’64, ’65 there was a terrible drought in which the cattle died. And when there is a tragedy, detail and a picture of the country emerge because people discuss it so much. My book is written with a particular feeling for the black person….”
Most of her books are concerned with the emancipation of blacks and humanity at large. These include novels “Maru” (1972), “A Question of Power” (1974), “The Collector of Treasures” (short stories), “Sarowe: The Village of the Rain-Wind” (non-fiction) and numerous other short stories published in a number of anthologies and magazines worldwide.