Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 903
Bessie Head’s writing occupies a transitional place in African literature between the domestic, village-centered writing of the 1950’s and 1960’s and the more overtly political and urban writing—much of it written by exiles in Europe and in North AmericA&Mdash;that came later. Unlike many of her contemporaries who fled South Africa and apartheid, including Es’kia Mphahlele and Lewis Nkosi, Head traveled only as far as Botswana. Her writing focused on life there instead of on the life of problems she had left behind in South Africa.
In addition to village life, Head’s great subject was her own life, and the struggle to find a home. She was always “out of place,” being a woman in a patriarchal world, a person of mixed race in a racially stratified culture, and a resident of a country that refused to grant her citizenship for fifteen years; she was an exile from a country that would not allow her to return. Her novels and short stories are filled with characters trying to make new homes, trying to fit in, trying to establish community. Frequently, as in When Rain Clouds Gather, Maru, and shorter works, racism is denounced and harmony is achieved. In addition, she was concerned about the role of capitalism in traditional African agriculture, and a utopian view of communal farming recurs in her work.
Head’s fiction, especially When Rain Clouds Gather and some of the short stories, is widely read in high school and college classrooms. The qualities that make her work popular with young readers and their teachers—her simple settings and dramatic plots, her optimism, her vivid and sympathetic depictions of African life—have led some critics to call her work immature and naïve. However, her insights into the status of women in African society have made her an important and inspiring early figure in African women’s literature.
When Rain Clouds Gather
When Rain Clouds Gather, Head’s first and best-known novel, is based in part on the author’s own life. It is the story of Makhaya Maseko, a black antiapartheid activist who leaves urban Johannesburg for the small rural village of Golema Mmidi in Botswana in the mid-1960’s. Botswana is moving toward independence, and its people are moving toward modern life. Makhaya becomes involved with Gilbert Balfour, a white British agriculturalist, in trying to form a cooperative and teach new farming methods, but they must overcome both the people’s hesitation to reject their old ways and the interference of the corrupt subchief Matenge.
Matenge’s power is threatened by the egalitarian nature of the project, and he is particularly suspicious of the involvement of women. When he calls out Paulina Sebeso for punishment, the villagers unite against him, and he commits suicide. Makhaya and Paulina marry and begin new lives as nonpolitical farmers in a bucolic village where men and women, blacks and whites, work together for the good of all.
Head’s descriptions of the landscape and of the harsh Botswana climate are powerful and beautiful. Later in life, though, Head would remark on the inexperience she demonstrated in When Rain Clouds Gather. She came to feel, as have many critics, that the dialogue is stilted, and that the novel’s central characters lack complexity—that Makhaya and Matenge are rather two-dimensional representations of good and evil. Still, the novel introduces themes that she would continue to explore throughout her career. The conflict of old and new ways is a common theme in African literature, explored perhaps most famously in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958). Head’s Matenge, however, is treated much less sympathetically than Achebe’s Okonkwo. Makhaya finds peace and hope for the future by settling into a humble rural life—a fate that ultimately evaded Head herself.
A Question of Power
A Question of Power, the most autobiographical of Head’s novels, is considered her greatest work. The protagonist is Elizabeth, the child of an unmarried mentally ill white woman and a black man in South Africa under apartheid. With her young son, Elizabeth leaves South Africa for the village of Motabeng in Botswana, but finds no peace there as she tries to adjust to rural living and to find acceptance as an independent-minded woman of mixed race. The only person with whom she shares intellectual interests is Tom, a white American Peace Corps volunteer. Elizabeth suffers from delusions and terrifying dreams and is hospitalized twice with mental breakdowns. Only her responsibility to her son and her tenuous friendship with Tom keep her from falling completely into insanity. Ultimately, she recovers and finds contentment in humble village life.
When she was writing A Question of Power, Head was recovering from a mental breakdown that led to her hospitalization. That she was able to create such a powerful and controlled description of mental instability is a testament to her mature skills as a writer and to her strength as a person. The novel revisits several of her recurring themes: the possibility of interracial cooperation; the conflict between old ways and news, especially as played out in agriculture and communal farming; the oppressive power of colonialists and of corrupt Africans; and the values of love, compassion, and generosity. Unlike the more linear When Rain Clouds Gather, A Question of Power alternates narrative and descriptive passages of village life with vivid scenes from Elizabeth’s hallucinations and dreams.
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