“The Deep River: A Story of Ancient Tribal Migration” by Bessie Head is a fictional short story about a peaceful ancient tribe that is disrupted by a love affair. In this story, Head explores themes of unity, historical tradition, and individuality.
There are many ideas that one could reflect on about this story. For example, it is interesting to note how disruptive Sebembele and Rankwana’s relationship is to the unity of their tribe. The tribe permits polygamy, which means that Sebembele could have several wives if he wants. However, he chooses to marry his father’s third wife and reveals that Rankwana’s son Makobi, whom everyone thought to be Sebembele father’s child, is actually his own. In doing this Sebembele breaks away from the norm of his society.
Consider how the narrator describes that this news brought alarm to the people in the society, saying it meant “the first ripples of trouble stirred over the even surface of the river of their lives.” Here we see Head using the image of a river to symbolize unity, conformity, and tradition in this tribe. There is nothing inherently wrong with respecting traditions, but the way that Sebembele’s love stirs trouble prompts the reader to reflect on unity versus individualism. In a way, Head suggests a need for a balance and seems to comment that cultural unity should not always require conformity.