Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2247
Viewing herself as a humanitarian, Bessie Head wrote to examine her life and community, expressing her awareness of political, religious, and social issues and seeking to depict African cultures authentically. Her characters experience internal turmoil, much like Head did as she dealt with misperceptions and untruths regarding her identity. Head wrote her fiction primarily from a third-person viewpoint, with omniscient observers removed from the situations they described, much like her characters were removed from their native homes and relocated as exiles and refugees to unfamiliar places. These characters, like Head, strive to become part of their new communities and secure acceptance.
As Head’s characters endeavor to belong, they often remain outsiders, both to their new communities and to themselves. Head created characters on the periphery, confused not only by their often mixed ancestry but also by peoples’ reaction to them. As a result of misunderstandings and assumptions, Head’s characters are frequently victimized by generalizations that define them inaccurately and associate negative stereotypes with them. Although some of this categorization is benign, many people maliciously assign identities to exclude or vilify characters.
As Head depicts in A Question of Power, deception causes fragile individuals to question their worth and to believe lies. Support or ostracism from their community determines whether characters will thrive or succumb to identifiers beyond their control, such as parentage. Racism within ethnicities, as Head depicts in Maru, exposes inequities that seem unnecessary.
Head consistently creates borders as a literary device in her writing; her characters are trapped physically and emotionally by both real and imagined boundaries. Political and legal borders designate rules for characters to abide or resist. Other boundaries, including livestock fences and corrals, indicate how the freedom of human beings and animals is restricted on land, with only the sky offering movement without borders. Freedom, however, presents responsibilities and demands accountability.
Gender roles are another important component of Head’s writing. Both men and women represent innocence and evil. Rejecting rigid archetypes, Head does not cast all female characters as victims, nor depict males solely as villains. Characters in such works as the The Cardinals are complex and display both naïveté and malice. Head creates strong women who are resilient to the challenges presented in patriarchal societies. Some women are depicted as fragile, yet exhibit the strength and resourcefulness to overcome their weaknesses. Many of Head’s fictional men are misogynists or predators who torment women, taking advantage of their vulnerabilities by manipulating them or cruelly attacking their insecurities. Some of Head’s male characters, however, are compassionate and offer possibilities for salvation; acts of kindness and affection redeem characters.
Power and wealth are also important concerns in Head’s work. Most of her characters are impoverished financially. Rejecting greed and materialism, many of her characters consider the freedom to make unhindered decisions priceless. Their perception of wealth is to possess and share innate qualities of empathy and community. However, some entitled characters scheme, planning how to acquire more monetary wealth and power over people they consider inferior.
Head effectively develops emotions as strong literary elements. Many of her characters experience or indulge in hostile behavior, and both oppressors and victims express their rage. Anger and hate offer her characters the means to intimidate targeted individuals and groups or to resist oppression, often culminating in aggression and violence. Passive characters internalize their fury, punishing themselves instead of their tormentors by allowing their emotions to become irrational and paralyzing. Head emphasizes how peace and hope can enable characters to adapt to their circumstances and to embrace faith in themselves and their community, thus attaining the power to live sanely.
Head uses images of nature to intensify her characterizations and settings. She personifies nature as a fickle character, which both oppresses and rejuvenates human beings. Head’s settings are often bleak, particularly the dying bush in When Rain Clouds Gather, where even tree roots wither. She uses colors, such as red dust, black vultures, and white ants, to accentuate her imagery and suggest conflicts between individuals, within individuals, and between individuals and nature. Drought represents the depletion of hope and trust that nature will protect, emphasizing the need for Head’s characters to summon their inner resources to survive such barrenness.
Interested in portraying Africans realistically, Head gives voice to ordinary people in her novels and nonfiction work, Serowe: Village of the Rain Wind. She offers an African perspective of natives’ roles in that continent’s history in A Bewitched Crossroad: An African Saga.
When Rain Clouds Gather
First published: 1968
Type of work: Novel
A Zulu man freed from jail escapes from South Africa into Botswana, where he lives as a refugee, seeking freedom, community, and self-knowledge.
Survival and rebirth resonate in When Rain Clouds Gather. The protagonist, Makhaya Maseko, nervously waits in an elderly man’s hut in Barolong, South Africa, before daring to cross into independent Botswana. Makhaya burns a note linking him to a bombing plan and reveals he dislikes his tribe and has been imprisoned. Police sirens wail as they pass in the darkness before he climbs barbed wire fences to freedom. Moving blindly in Botswana, Makhaya hears melodious bells that replace the harsh sound of sirens.
Makhaya spends the night with an older woman and a girl, who tell him the bells are worn by the cattle, which move freely. After sunrise, a truck driver offers Makhaya a ride to a crossroads where Makhaya hopes to register as a refugee. At the police station, the policeman knows Makhaya’s name, showing him a newspaper article identifying him as a saboteur. Makhaya denies that charge, and the officer says he realizes that Makhaya only thinks about violence but does not pursue it.
Makhaya sees an elderly man, Dinorego, outside the post office and tells him that he desires contentment. Dinorego, an outsider originally from northern Botswana, contemplates Makhaya’s fortitude for living in rural Botswana, commenting that God has blessed his village, which is free of crime and violence and rich with generosity and tolerance compared to urban South Africa. Dinorego invites Makhaya to his and his daughter Maria’s home in Golema Mmidi. Here, Makhaya encounters a community of women because most of the male villagers are at cattle posts tending their livestock. Dinorego introduces Makhaya to an Englishman, Gilbert Balfour, who aids the natives by providing scientific and cooperative agricultural methods to ease impoverishment. The village’s punitive subchief, Matenge, is aware of Makhaya’s arrival and suspicious of his intentions.
Makhaya joins Gilbert in his efforts to build reservoirs in order to store water during a prolonged drought, and he agrees to teach women how to erect tobacco storage sheds. During this work, Makhaya meets Paulina Sebesto, also an outsider, who has moved to Golema Mmidi with her daughter after her husband committed suicide. Her son is at a cattle post with the family’s cows. Mma-Millipede, a divorced woman who has been Dinorego’s friend since childhood, envisions Makhaya and Paulina together. Accepted in the community, Makhaya participates in villagers’ rites of passage, including Gilbert and Maria’s wedding, and becomes closer to Paulina.
When Paulina’s son, who is suffering from tuberculosis, does not return with the other cattlemen, Makhaya travels with Paulina and Gilbert across the dry bush, seeing bones from thousands of famine-stricken cattle and observing dead trees filled with vultures. They reach the hut, where Makhaya shields Paulina from seeing her son’s corpse. He stays with the boy’s remains and burns them, collecting the ashes in a container that he gives to Paulina, honoring her customs. The Golema Mmidi community gathers at Paulina’s hut to grieve. They hope the annual September rain clouds will soon bring relief and restore life to the desolate bush.
When Paulina is summoned to court by a servant of Matenge, Paulina assumes her relationship with Makhaya has upset Matenge, who strictly controls Golema Mmidi. Villagers accompany Paulina as she walks toward Matenge’s mansion. The crowd alarms Matenge, who cowers inside after his servants abandon him. The villagers watch Matenge’s house, curious about why he has targeted Paulina. Inside, Matenge cries, contemplating his loss of control over the villagers. He realizes his future is gone if the villagers will no longer recognize his authority.
Makhaya enters Matenge’s house by knocking the door down. The villagers follow him indoors. They discover that Matenge has hung himself. Although Matenge assumed the villagers threatened his possessions, they are more interested in the freedom to make decisions. To them, wealth is generosity and compassion. Despite Matenge’s cruelties to them, the villagers treat his body with benevolence, not vengeance, gently preparing it for the arrival of his brother, Paramount Chief Sekoto. Sekoto lies about his brother’s suicide to protect his family’s image and his power. Through her characterization of the brothers, Head emphasizes how fear and charm empower and weaken leaders and their communities.
Makhaya adapts to life in Golema Mmidi, achieving peace from his emotional strife. He proposes marriage to Paulina. Their sacrifices are the catalysts for beginning a new life together, and they will no longer be outsiders.
A Question of Power
First published: 1973
Type of work: Novel
A South African woman exiled in Botswana alternates between experiencing nightmares and normal activities as she struggles with inner and external demons threatening her sanity.
Head explores emotional instability in A Question of Power, which is divided into two halves, representing the two powerful male characters impacting the vulnerable protagonist, Elizabeth. Many scholars consider this powerful novel with strong autobiographical elements to be Head’s most significant and provocative work.
In the first section, entitled “Sello,” readers learn about Elizabeth’s history, beginning with her birth in a South African mental hospital and her mixed racial heritage. Her story closely parallels many aspects of Head’s life. Narcissistic men, including her unfaithful husband, have mistreated Elizabeth, who distrusts most males and loathes herself. As an adult living in Motabeng village with her son, whom she calls Shorty, Elizabeth experiences nocturnal visits from a villager named Sello, whom she sees sitting near her bed. Describing Sello as a monk, Elizabeth sleeplessly listens to his comments about poverty and Africa. Although good, Sello seeks to influence Elizabeth’s soul by revealing his susceptibility to evil.
Fragile because she feels like an outsider, Elizabeth obsesses about slights from her community because of her ethnic identity. Powerless, she questions if she belongs and doubts her worthiness. Sello comments about Elizabeth’s precarious role in Motabeng. During her nocturnal episodes, Elizabeth also encounters Medusa, whose fury intensifies Elizabeth’s despair. Elizabeth absorbs the messages she receives during the night, and her sanity weakens.
Head presents Elizabeth’s experiences as streams of bizarre thoughts with intervals of lucidity, as she struggles with her inner demons. Elizabeth questions her sanity because of the absurd things she hears and sees. Head uses bird imagery, including a dead owl on Elizabeth’s doorstep, hawks, and songbirds, to indicate Elizabeth’s shifts from melancholy to normality.
In the second section, named for Dan, Elizabeth suffers Dan’s derisive attacks, which demean her as being inferior to other women and denounce her mixed ethnicity. In her imagination she hears his messages as recordings cycling through the night. Dan is evil and manipulative, and his sadistic words and actions confuse Elizabeth, who often seems delirious as she endures his visits. Interested in controlling Elizabeth’s body, Dan frightens her. Elizabeth believes Dan is in her bed with other women, tormenting her with their sexual prowess. His rejection and ridicule cause her mind to twist.
Elizabeth loses control of her emotions during daytime. Community members question her sanity, and she loses her teaching position at the local school because she refuses to convince others she is sane. Eugene, the principal, helps Elizabeth pursue agricultural tasks for the local cooperative. Working closely with an African woman, Kenosi, and an American, Tom, Elizabeth discusses political concerns in Africa and globally. When Tom says he supports Black Power, Elizabeth responds that the Africans might reject him because he is white.
Elizabeth contemplates whether good and evil, and God and Satan, can exist simultaneously within a person. She questions whether she is evil and harmful to others. Her mind exhausted, Elizabeth becomes fragmented and has a nervous breakdown. She talks in her sleep, scaring her son, who hears her rants. Elizabeth attacks an aged woman, Mrs. Jones, living nearby, and hangs a sign on the Motabeng post office, accusing Sello, whom she blames for provoking her rage, of committing incest with his daughter. Her irrational acts result in her being sent twice to the hospital, where she is sedated.
Discarding the medicine prescribed to her, Elizabeth seizes power over her life. Returning to Motabeng, she embraces her sanity. The cooperative provides Elizabeth a peaceful Eden, where she can be healed and cultivate land to sustain life. Elizabeth apologizes to Mrs. Jones, who says Elizabeth should trust Jesus, but Elizabeth believes faith exists more in ordinary human beings than in an unseen spiritual being.
As the two split halves of herself, represented by Sello and Dan, are unified, Elizabeth becomes whole. She no longer exists in fragments, and she believes Sello and Dan have strengthened her. Realizing that the abuse of power is evil, Elizabeth chooses love and self-acceptance instead of victimization and terror and is empowered. She holds her hand above the land to emphasize that she belongs.
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