Bessie Head (1937-1986)

African writer who described the contradictions and shortcomings of pre- and postcolonial African society in morally didactic novels and stories. Head was born of an illegal union between her white mother (institutionalized during her pregnancy) and black father (who then mysteriously disappeared). At age 27, Head abandoned South Africa and moved to Bechuanaland (near Botswana). Her novels evolved from an objective, affirmative narrative of an exile finding new meaning in an adopted village in When Rain Clouds Gather (1969) to a more introspective account of the acceptance won by a light-colored San (Bushman) woman in a black-dominated African society in Maru (1971). A Question of Power (1973) is a frankly autobiographical account of disorientation and paranoia in which the heroine survives by sheer force of will. The Collector of Treasures (1977), a volume of short fiction, includes brief vignettes of traditional Botswanan village life, macabre tales of witchcraft, and passionate attacks on African male chauvinism. Serowe, Village of the Rainwind (1981) explores the themes of communal development. The novel A Bewitched Crossroad: An African Saga (1984) is a historical chronicle of tribal migration in southern Africa. Another volume of short fiction, Tales of Tenderness and Power (1989), and a novella, The Cardinals, With Meditations and Stories (1993), were published posthumously.

("Head, Bessie." Merriam Webster's Encyclopedia of Literature, Merriam-Webster, 1995).


When Bessie Head died in 1986 at the age of forty-nine, she left a legacy of diverse writings including three novels, a volume of short stories, an oral history, a reconstructed history of nineteenth-century southern Africa, and two volumes of collected writings published after her death. Her first works show the influence of her own experience in South Africa, focusing on themes of refugeeism and racism. Despite the parallels between her personal life and her story lines, Head transcended the specific setting of southern Africa to address patterns of evil that can be found in the minds of people everywhere. In her later works she shifted the focus from an individual's struggle for dignity to helping preserve the cultural and historical heritage that a people needs to achieve dignity.

Bessie Emery Head was born on 6 July 1937 in a mental hospital in Pietermaritzburg, where her white mother, Bessie Amilia Emery, had been committed because the father of her child was a black stable hand. The child was handed over to colored foster parents, who cared for her until she was thirteen. Because her natural mother had provided money for Bessie's education, she was placed in a mission orphanage, where she earned a high-school diploma and was trained to be a teacher. She taught elementary school and then wrote for the African magazine Drum. On 1 September 1961 she married Harold Head, a journalist with whom she later had a son, Howard. The marriage ended in divorce, and in 1964 she accepted a teaching position in Botswana, then the British Bechuanaland Protectorate. When she left South Africa she was given a canceled exit visa, depriving her of citizenship and making her a refugee. Fifteen years later, in 1979, she was granted citizenship by the government of Botswana. There she found an African past with depth and dignity she could be proud to claim as her own. She died of hepatitis in 1986 in Serowe, where she had made her home.

When Rain Clouds Gather (1968), Head's first novel, is the story of Makhaya Maseko, a political refugee from South Africa who escapes to Botswana after serving a prison term for sabotage. He is taken to the village Golema Mmidi (its name meaning "to grow crops") by Dinorego, a village elder, who introduces him to people who, like him, are seeking to make new and better lives for themselves in the harsh, drought-stricken land. Gilbert Balfour, for example, is a British expatriate setting up a cattle cooperative. He sees in Makhaya an ally for helping the villagers to learn greater self-sufficiency, and he recruits him to teach the women how to grow tobacco as a cash crop. Dinorego, his daughter Maria, Mma Millipede, and the young widow Paulina Sebeso share Gilbert's hopes for the future of Golema Mmidi, and they, too, accept Makhaya into their community. The local chief, Matenge, and his African nationalist friend Joas Tsepe seek to have Makhaya barred from the village, but a British district police official allows him to stay. Although welcomed to the village by most, he retains an aloofness, a separateness from the villagers and their problems. Events, however, pull him into the center of village life as the drought worsens, killing Paulina's young son and all her cattle. When the power-hungry Matenge tries to implicate Paulina in the boy's death, the whole village responds, challenging Matenge and his tyranny over them for the first time. Through these experiences and because of his growing involvement with Paulina, Makhaya's alienation is overcome. He discovers the love and goodwill in Golema Mmidi and accepts the new and hopeful life that the village offers, marrying Paulina and settling down to a quiet, apolitical revolution.

When Rain Clouds Gather was widely acclaimed as a surprisingly mature first novel. British audiences especially responded to it, perhaps because it is a traditional romance with factual details about the society neatly interwoven into a fast-moving plot. The potential personal conflict between Makhaya's public and private self is not fully developed, which has often been cited as a shortcoming of the novel. However, Head demonstrates her ability to capture the African land-scape and its impact, teaching her readers about the regional customs while she creates finely drawn individual personalities.

The theme of Head's second novel, Maru (1971), is racism, not of whites against blacks as might be expected, but the prejudice of the Tswana people against the Masarwas, the bushmen. An infant found beside her dead Masarwa mother is taken in by a female British missionary, who gives the child her own name, Margaret Cadmore. As a lone Masarwa in the mission school, young Margaret quickly comes to understand and accept her separateness when the other students torment her because of her background.

After she completes her teacher-training course, Margaret takes a teaching post in a small rural village, Dilepe. There she meets Dikeledi, Moleka, and Maru. Dikeledi, a young woman, teaches at the same school and intercedes for her when the children discover Margaret is a Masarwa and disrupt her class. Moleka, the local playboy, falls in love with Margaret when they first meet, but his love is never fulfilled because of Maru. Maru, brother of Dikeledi and best friend of Moleka, also loves Margaret. Believed destined to be the next paramount chief, he is admired for his wisdom and sensitivity. The entire village looks to him for leadership, but it is a burden Maru refuses to take up, always finding excuses to delay accepting his role as chief. In Margaret, Maru sees the ideal partner and a way out of his dilemma since the people would never accept his marrying a Masarwa. However, Margaret loves Moleka. Using three henchmen, Maru prevents Moleka from approaching Margaret and engineers Moleka's seduction of Dikeledi, who has always loved him. What makes such scheming acceptable in a character of Maru's nobility and integrity is Margaret's mystical ability to share Maru's dreams and record them in her paintings. Because of this supernatural closeness between the two, their union seems right, and readers can believe with Maru that Moleka would make Margaret miserable because of his inability to overcome the prejudice against the Masarwas.

Critical reaction to Maru has been diverse, ranging from Lewis Nkosi 's view, that it is "as nearly perfect a piece of writing as one is ever likely to find in contemporary African literature" to Cecil Abrahams's dismissal of it as "a rather weak vapoury study on theme of racial prejudice." Maru is Head's attempt to universalize racial hatred, pointing out that victims seek other victims lower in power and prestige than themselves. As in When Rain Clouds Gather, she examines how one feels alienation and copes with it. She once again raises the question of an individual's political responsibility to a larger society. Maru, unlike Makhaya, leaves his village for an isolated existence with Margaret, allowing his act of abdication "to pull down the old structures" and leaving Dikeledi and Moleka to change society. In Maru Head's strength lies in giving her characters a subtle depth that takes them beyond the limitations of a fairly simple plot and obvious didactic message.

A Question of Power (1973), Head's most important work, is a dramatic departure from her earlier writing. It is an autobiographical account of mental disintegration, encompassing a classic battle between good and evil. The primary character is Elizabeth, a teacher who has come to Botswana from South Africa and settled in Motabeng at an agricultural cooperative. Like Head herself, she is colored, the daughter of a white woman and a black stable hand. Warned that she may be insane like her mother, and unprepared for the isolation she feels in her new home, Elizabeth finds herself losing control as she is nightly visited by terrifying hallucinations that ultimately lead her to a complete mental breakdown when she cannot distinguish reality from her phantom world.

Her nightmares are dominated by two men whose real counterparts in the village Elizabeth has never met--Sello and Dan. The first section of the book is devoted to Sello's invasion of her mind. Although Sello represents goodness and compassion, he also introduces Elizabeth to the power of absolute evil and to his own weakness. After surviving the hell of Sello's world, Elizabeth still lacks complete understanding. Thus she can be seduced and then coerced by Dan to experience his satanic power. She is subjected to a constant parade of sexual depravity and filthy stories about people in the village. As Elizabeth loses touch with reality, she is sent to a mental hospital, where she is finally able to recognize the existence of evil without being overcome by it. Dan has shown her the full power of evil, and in her quiet passive way Elizabeth has resisted, hanging onto the simple realities of her son and her work in the co-op garden. In the end she responds to Sello's reminder, "love is two people mutually feeding each other"; she embraces the brotherhood of man and at last finds a place to belong.

The symbolic richness in A Question of Power invites a wide range of critical interpretation. The extensive sexual content and dominant concern about insanity have prompted readings, including that of Adetokunbo Pearse, drawing heavily on psychology and arguing that the sexual negativism expressed in the book is the result of the negative self-image projected on black Africans by the South African government. Elizabeth's work on the cooperative being presented as a resolution of the conflict and the implicit political overtones throughout the novel have appealed to Marxist critics such as Kolawole Ogungbesan, even though Head's approach to social problems was meager and frustratingly slow. Readers who seek in her work metaphorical statements about the future of Africa find a picture of enduring hope touched by a cynical mistrust of politics. Feminists, including Femi Ojo-Ade, have been attracted by the female protagonist of A Question of Power and the nature of the battle she wages. The threatening male images of power in Elizabeth's inner world contrast with the positive, nurturing personalities of men such as her friend Tom and the co-op leader Eugene. Yet it is by defeating these male forces that she gains her place in the world. Religious interpretations (such as those of Linda Susan Beard and Joanna Chase) are also common, fed by the Christian symbolism of Elizabeth as a messianic figure who redeems herself and the world through her suffering. These readings are not incompatible with Head's overriding humanistic message that God and goodness are to be found in man: "There is only one God and his name is Man. And Elizabeth is his prophet." Such affirmation is present, although less obvious in her earlier books, just as the predominant themes of those books are present in A Question of Power. The alienation of the refugee is opened for intense psychological exploration, whereas she before examined it superficially from a distance. The racial prejudice under attack is her own, born of the self-hatred engendered particularly among coloreds by the separatist policies of South Africa. However, she does not allow readers to focus solely on South Africa; part of Head's achievement is her ability to transcend her South African context and speak of all people.

The Collector of Treasures, and Other Botswana Village Tales (1977) is a collection of thirteen finely constructed short stories, in which Head continues to explore good and evil, paying special attention to tribal witchcraft and the mistreatment of women in village life. These are dramatic, poignant stories where the distinction between right and wrong is never clear. "The Deep River: A Story of Ancient Tribal Migration," for example, displays a new historical orientation that characterizes Head's later works. "The Deep River" explains how the Botalaote tribe came to be separated from their parent tribe because a man refused to deny the woman he loved and their son. The account is fictionalized, but in its telling Head captures the tone and scope of mythic folklore. She maintains a traditional style in all the tales and imbues them with a strong sense of cultural integrity.

Short stories are not likely to draw significant critical attention, and Head's are no exception. Most of them bear a definite feminist bias, exploring the place of women within traditional society, and question the significance of religion, whether tribal witchcraft or Western Christianity. However, more important, the stories represent Head's deepening commitment to her new home in Botswana and to its cultural heritage.

In Serowe: Village of the Rain Wind (1981) Head shares the roots she has discovered by means of an oral history of the people of Serowe and their efforts for progress. The book is not a coherent, plotted narrative. Head has structured her history around three prominent men whose lives and achievements are intimately interwoven with the life of the village: Khama the Great, his son Tshekedi Khama, and Patrick van Rensburg. She presents interviews with people who knew and worked with these men, allowing the people to tell the stories in their own way. Thus she traces the village's notion of self-help through its evolution in the individual vision of each leader. The result is an unusual, innovative book--historical yet immediate.

A Bewitched Crossroad: An African Saga (1984) is a loosely organized novel tracing the migrations of the Sebina clan during the nineteenth century. As in Serowe, Head's focus is more on discovering and publicizing the history of blacks in southern Africa than on writing a novel in the traditional sense. Consequently the book can be confusing, appearing to lack coherence. Individual characters do not come to life as they do in her early novels. However, it could be argued that no character is as important as the land. Head's purpose is not to tell the story of individual characters but to portray a time in history when decisive steps were taken by the British and Afrikaners, which determined the future of the southern part of the continent. She celebrates the African role in that history and juxtaposes its humanity against Boer exploitation in South Africa. For Head, the historical direction of her last two works is a natural development of her life as a South African exile. In A Bewitched Crossroad she undertakes the task of reviving a history for the people of southern Africa "that is not sick with the need to exploit and abuse people."

Two volumes of Head's writings have been published posthumously: Tales of Tenderness and Power (1989) and A Woman Alone: Autobiographical Writings (1990). Each collection begins with a substantial biographical introduction and ends with Head's observations about the role of storytellers in South Africa. Seven stories appear in both collections, despite the difference in focus of the two books. Tales includes twenty-one stories, all but one grounded in real events. Three of the stories are previously unpublished. Although Head claims no interest in politics, her fears about the misuse of power and her implicit humanistic teachings are much in evidence. A Woman Alone contains twenty-nine reprinted essays and stories, which combine fictional narrative, journalistic reporting, cultural comment, and personal introspection; these selections are divided into three periods--"Beginnings, 1937-1964"; "In Exile, 1964-1979"; and "Retrospect, 1979-1986." Both collections reflect Head's evolution as a writer and citizen of Africa and the world.

Although she left South Africa, Bessie Head, unlike her fellow exiles, remained in Africa, and in Botswana she found roots. What began in her early novels as a search for freedom and dignity ended as an affirmation of her African heritage and an attempt to make that heritage available for others.


From: Little, Greta D. "Bessie Head." Twentieth-Century Caribbean and Black African WritersFirst Series, edited by Bernth Lindfors and Reinhard Sander, Gale, 1992.


  • Further Reading
    • Betty McGinnis Fradkin, "Conversations with Bessie," World Literature Written in English, 17 (November 1978): 427-434.
    • Jean Marquand, "Bessie Head: Exile and Community in Southern Africa," London Magazine, 18 (December 1978-January 1979): 48-61.
    • Lee Nichols, "Bessie Head, South Africa," in his Conversations with African Writers (Washington, D.C.: Voice of America, 1981), pp. 49-57.
    • Linda Susan Beard, "Bessie Head in Gaborone, Botswana: An Interview," Sage, 3, no. 2 (1986): 44-47.
    • Michelle Adler, Susan Gardner, Tobeka Mda, and Patricia Sandler, "Bessie Head," in Between the Lines: Interviews with Bessie Head, Sheila Roberts, Ellen Kuzwayo, Miriam Tlali, edited by Craig MacKenzie and Cherry Clayton, (Grahamstown, South Africa: National English Literary Museum, 1989).
    • Susan Gardner and Patrick E. Scott, Bessie Head: A Bibliography (Grahamstown, South Africa: National English Literary Museum, 1986).
    • Craig MacKenzie and Catherine Woeber, Bessie Head: A Bibliography (Grahamstown, South Africa: National English Literary Museum, 1992).
    • Susan Gardner, "'Don't Ask for the True Story': A Memoir of Bessie Head," Hecate, 12 (1986): 110-129.
    • Cecil Abrahams, "The Tyranny of Place: The Context of Bessie Head's Fiction," World Literature Written in English, 17 (November 1978): 30-37.
    • Abrahams, ed., The Tragic Life: Bessie Head and Literature in Southern Africa (Trenton, N.J.: Africa World, 1990).
    • Ursula A. Barnett, A Vision of Order: A Study of Black South African Literature in English (1914-1980) (London: Sinclair Browne / Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1983), pp. 119-126, 198-203.
    • Nancy Topping Bazin, "Venturing into Feminist Consciousness: Protagonists from the Fiction of Buchi Emecheta and Bessie Head," Sage, 2 (Fall 1985): 32-36.
    • Linda Susan Beard, "Bessie Head's A Question of Power: The Journey through Disintegration to Wholeness," Colby Library Quarterly, 15 (1979): 267-274.
    • Lloyd W. Brown, "Creating New Worlds in Southern Africa: Bessie Head and the Question of Power," Umoja, 3 (Spring 1979): 43-53.
    • Brown, Women Writers in Black Africa (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1981), pp. 158-179.
    • Charlotte H. Bruner, "Bessie Head: Restless in a Distant Land," in When the Drumbeat Changes, edited by Carolyn Parker and Stephen Arnold (Washington, D.C.: Three Continents, 1981), pp. 261-277.
    • Bruner, "Child Africa as Depicted by Bessie Head and Ama Ata Aidoo," Studies in the Humanities, 7, no. 2 (1979): 5-12.
    • Joanna Chase, "Bessie Head's A Question of Power: Romance or Rhetoric?," ACLALS Bulletin, 6 (November 1982): 67-75.
    • Sara Chetin, "Myth, Exile, and the Female Condition: Bessie Head's The Collector of Treasures," Journal of Commonwealth Literature, 24, no. 1 (1989): 114-137.
    • Cherry Clayton, "A World Elsewhere: Bessie Head as Historian," English in Africa, 15 (May 1988): 55-70.
    • M. J. Daymond, "Bessie Head, Maru and a Problem in Her Visionary Fable," in Short Fiction in the New Literatures in English, edited by Jacqueline Bardolph (Nice: Faculté des Lettres & Sciences Humaines, Université de Nice, 1989), pp. 247-252.
    • Teresa Dovey, "A Question of Power: Susan Gardner's Biography versus Bessie Head's Autobiography," English in Africa, 16 (May 1989): 29-38.
    • Gillian Stead Eilersen, Bessie Head: Thunder behind Her Ears (Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann; London: J. Currey; Cape Town: D. Philip, 1996).
    • Elizabeth N. Evasdaughter, "Bessie Head's A Question of Power Read as a Mariner's Guide to Paranoia," Research in African Literatures, 20 (Spring 1989): 72-83.
    • Susan Gardner, "Bessie Head: Production under Drought Conditions," in her Women and Writing in South Africa: A Critical Anthology (Marshalltown, South Africa: Heinemann, 1989), pp. 225-235.
    • Kathryn Geurts, "Personal Politics in the Novels of Bessie Head," Presence Africaine, 140 (1986): 47-74.
    • Christopher Heywood, "Traditional Values in the Novels of Bessie Head," in Individual and Community in Commonwealth Literature, edited by Daniel Massa (Msida: Malta University Press, 1979), pp. 12-19.
    • Huma Ibrahim, Bessie Head: Subversive Identities in Exile (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996).
    • Joyce Johnson, "Metaphor, Myth and Meaning in Bessie Head's A Question of Power," World Literature Written in English, 25 (February 1985): 198-211.
    • Johnson, "Proper Names and Thematic Concerns in Bessie Head's Novels", World Literature Written in English, 30, no. 1 (1990): 132-140.
    • Johnson, "Structures of Meaning in the Novels of Bessie Head," Kunapipi, 8, no. 1 (1986): 56-69.
    • Ketu H. Katrak, "From Pauline to Dikeledi: The Philosophical and Political Vision of Bessie Head's Protagonists," Ba Shiru, 12, no. 2 (1985): 26-35.
    • Charles R. Larson, The Novel in the Third World (Washington, D.C.: INSCAPE, 1976), pp. 164-173.
    • Craig MacKenzie, Bessie Head: An Introduction (Grahamstown, South Africa: National English Literary Museum, 1989).
    • MacKenzie, "Bessie Head's The Collector of Treasures: Modern Story-Telling in a Traditional Botswanan Village," World Literature Written in English, 29, no. 2 (1989): 139-148.
    • MacKenzie, "Short Fiction in the Making: The Case of Bessie Head," English in Africa, 16 (May 1989): 17-28.
    • Isabella P. Matsikidze, "Toward a Redemptive Political Philosophy: Bessie Head's Maru," World Literature Written in English, 30, no. 2 (1990): 105-109.
    • Lewis Nkosi, Tasks and Masks: Styles and Themes in African Literature (London: Longman, 1981), pp. 100-102.
    • Kolawole Ogungbesan, "The Cape Gooseberry Also Grows in Botswana: Alienation and Commitment in the Writings of Bessie Head," Presence Africaine, 109 (1979): 92-106.
    • Femi Ojo-Ade, "Bessie Head's Alienated Heroine: Victim or Villain?," Ba Shiru, 8, no. 2 (1977): 13-26.
    • Virginia Uzoma Ola, The Life and Works of Bessie Head (Lewiston, N.Y.: E. Mellen, 1994).
    • Maria Olaussen, Forceful Creation in Harsh Terrain: Place and Identity in Three Novels by Bessie Head (New York: Peter Lang, 1997).
    • Adetokunbo Pearse, "Apartheid and Madness: Bessie Head's A Question of Power," Kunapipi, 5, no. 2 (1984): 81-93.
    • Andrew Peek, "Bessie Head and the African Novel," Span, 21 (1985): 121-136.
    • Arthur Ravenscroft, "The Novels of Bessie Head," in Aspects of South African Literature, edited by Christopher Heywood (London: Heinemann, 1976), pp. 174-186.
    • Charles Ponnuthurai Sarvan, "Bessie Head: A Question of Power and Identity," in Women in African Literature Today, edited by Eldred Durosimi Jones (Trenton, N.J.: African World, 1987), pp. 82-88.
    • Alain Séverac, "Beyond Identity: Bessie Head's Spiritual Quest in Maru," Commonwealth Essays and Studies, 14 (Autumn 1991): 58-64.
    • Oladele Taiwo, Female Novelists in Modern Africa (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1985), pp. 185-214.
    • Michael Thorpe, "Treasures of the Heart: The Short Stories of Bessie Head," World Literature Today, 57 (Summer 1983): 414-416.
    • Margaret E. Tucker, "A 'Nice-time Girl' Strikes Back: An Essay on Bessie Head's A Question of Power," Research in African Literatures, 19 (Summer 1988): 170-181.
    • Brighton Uledi-Kamanga, "Alienation and Affirmation: The Humanistic Vision of Bessie Head," Journal of Humanities, 1 (1987): 21-35.
    • Rukmini Vanamali, "Bessie Head's A Question of Power: The Mythic Dimension," Literary Criterion, 23, nos. 1-2 (1988): 154-171.
    • Robin Visel, "We Bear the World and We Make It': Bessie Head and Olive Schreiner," Research in African Literatures, 21 (Fall 1990): 115-124.
    • Cherry Wilhelm, "Bessie Head: The Face of Africa," English in Africa, 10 (May 1983): 1-13.