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Head is known for her writings exploring the sources of racial and sexual inequalities in southern Africa. A mixed-race South African who spent most of her life as an exile in her adopted land of Botswana, Head wrote from the perspective of an outsider attempting to understand her environment and her social position. In her works, Head addresses problems of sexual and racial discrimination in Africa by emphasizing the similarities among all forms of prejudice, stressing such themes as the disintegration of rural traditions, the corruption of authority, and the equally powerful forces of good and evil.

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Head was the daughter of an upper-class white woman and a black stablehand in South Africa. When her mother, Bessie Emery, was found to be pregnant with the child of a black South African, she was institutionalized by her parents and labeled insane. Head was born in the asylum but was quickly sent off to live with white foster parents, who later became ashamed of Head's dark skin color and sent her to live with Catholic missionaries. When Head was about thirteen, her mother, still institutionalized, committed suicide. Head was trained as at teacher and taught elementary school children for several years in South Africa. In 1961 she married a journalist but divorced shortly thereafter. When she was twenty-seven Head left for Botswana with her young son because, according to her, she could no longer tolerate apartheid in South Africa. For the next fifteen years she lived in poverty as a refugee at the Bamangwato Development Farm. Despite the harsh living conditions, Head found in her village a sense of community she had hitherto not experienced, and she did eventually gain Botswanan citizenship. After suffering a psychological breakdown, which became the focus of her novel A Question of Power (1973), Head dedicated herself to writing and maintaining a seedling nursery for vegetables. She later represented Botswana at writers' conferences in the United States, Canada, Europe, and Australia. She died of hepatitis in 1986.


Throughout her career, Head emphasized the need for Africans to abandon power struggles. She stated that until she moved to Botswana in 1964, she "had never encountered human ambition and greed before in a black form." In South Africa her experiences with domination had been primarily with the white system of apartheid; in Botswana, she found that similar structures of oppression toward women and other social groups existed in tribal communities. Head's first novel, When Rain Clouds Gather (1968), was an attempt to suggest an alternative to the desire for power. This book focuses on Makhaya, a young South African who leaves his country only to become an outcast in Golema Mmidi, a refugee community in Botswana. Many of the stories in Head's later book of short stories, The Collector of Treasures (1977), reiterate the futility of power struggles.

In her later works Head identified oppression and discrimination as major tools for those in power. In her novel Maru (1971) two village leaders fall in love with a young Masarwa school-teacher, Margaret, who admits her association with the Masarwa, who have traditionally been considered inferior to other black Botswanans. As both men vie for her affections, they begin to understand the plight of the Masarwa people, and a union is ultimately created between the two groups through Margaret's marriage to one of the village leaders. Head called her autobiographical novel A Question of Power "a private journey to the sources of evil." Elizabeth, the protagonist, is a South African refugee in Botswana who experiences temporary insanity. In dreams and fantasies she encounters both local and mythical figures representing the nature of her femininity and Africanness. This psychological work explores the roots of female oppression and questions the existence of God.

In addition to her fiction, Head wrote two studies on Botswana, both of which combine local folklore with historical information. Serowe: Village of the Rain Wind (1981) recounts tales of the Bamangwato nation from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and A Bewitched Crossroad: An African Saga (1984) focuses on African tribal wars in the early nineteenth century.


Although critics have tried to identify Head as a "feminist" or "African" writer, Head herself resisted these labels, seeing her works instead as individually crafted pieces that did not fall into ideological categories. Critics have noted that Head respected but did not idealize African history and tradition. Rather, she worked for substantial change in customs, envisioning equality for citizens of Africa. Scholars have identified themes of exile and oppression in her works, and commented on the universal relevance of Head's social observations. Commentators have also noted feminist themes in Head's short stories and novels such as A Question of Power, focusing discussion on the topics of sexuality, male images of authority, and the subjugation of women that are presented in these works.

Principal Works

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When Rain Clouds Gather (novel) 1968

Maru (novel) 1971

A Question of Power (novel) 1973

The Collector of Treasures and Other Botswana Village Tales (short stories) 1977

Serowe: Village of the Rain Wind (history) 1981

A Bewitched Crossroad: An African Saga (history) 1984

Tales of Tenderness and Power (short stories) 1989

A Woman Alone: Autobiographical Writings (essays) 1990

A Gesture of Belonging: Letters from Bessie Head, 1965-1979 (letters) 1991

Bessie Head (Essay Date 1966)

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SOURCE: Head, Bessie. "The Woman from America." In A Woman Alone: Autobiographical Writings, selected and edited by Craig MacKenzie, pp. 31-36. Nairobi, Kenya: Heinemann, 1990.

In the following essay, originally published in 1966, Head describes her friendship with an American woman who had married a Botswanan and moved to Head's village.

This woman from America married a man of our village and left her country to come and live with him here. She descended on us like an avalanche. People are divided into two camps. Those who feel a fascinated love and those who fear a new thing. The terrible thing is that those who fear are always in the majority. This woman and her husband and children have to be sufficient to themselves because everything they do is not the way people here do it. Most terrible of all is the fact that they really love each other and the husband effortlessly and naturally keeps his eyes on his wife alone. In this achievement he is seventy years ahead of all the men here.

We are such a lot of queer people in the Southern part of Africa. We have felt all forms of suppression and are subdued. We lack the vitality, the push, the devil-may-care temperament of the people of the north of Africa. Life has to seep down to us from there and that pattern is already establishing itself. They do things first, then we. We are always going to be confederators and not initiators. We are very materialistically minded and I think this adds to our fear. People who hoard little bits of things cannot throw out and expand, and, in doing so, keep in circulation a flowing current of wealth. Basically, we are mean, selfish. We eat each other all the time and God help poor Botswana at the bottom.

Then, into this narrow, constricted world came the woman from America like an avalanche upon us. Some people keep hoping she will go away one day, but already her big strong stride has worn the pathways of the village flat. She is everywhere about because she is a woman, resolved and unshakeable in herself. To make matters worse or more disturbing she comes from the West side of America, somewhere near California. I gather from her conversation that people from the West are stranger than most people, and California is a place where odd and weird cults spring up every day. For instance, she once told me about the Church-of-the-Headless-Chicken! It seems an old woman bought a chicken but the place where she bought it was very haphazard about killing and plucking fowls. They did not sever the head properly and when the old woman brought the chicken home and placed it on the kitchen table, it sprang up out of the newspaper and began walking about with no head and no feathers—quite naked. It seems then that the old woman saw a vision, grabbed the chicken and ran next door to a neighbour who had been bedridden for many years, and, in great excitement, told him the strange happening. The poor old bed-ridden neighbour leapt from the bed, healed of his ailment and a miracle had been performed. The story spread like wild-fire and in a matter of hours money was collected, a congregation formed and the Church-of-the-Headless-Chicken was born. The chicken was interviewed by many newspapers and kept alive for some months on soluble food mixture dropped into its open gullet!

Then, another thing too. People of the West of America must be the most oddly beautiful people in the world; at least this woman from the West is the most oddly beautiful person I have ever seen. Every cross current of the earth seems to have stopped in her and blended into an amazing harmony. She has a big dash of Africa, a dash of Germany, some Cherokee and heaven knows what else. Her feet are big and her body is as tall and straight and strong as a mountain tree. Her neck curves up high and her thick black hair cascades down her back like a wild and tormented stream. I cannot understand her eyes though, except that they are big, black and startled like those of a wild free buck racing against the wind. Often they cloud over with a deep, intense brooding look.

It took a great deal of courage to become friends with a woman like that. Like everyone here I am timid and subdued. Authority, everything can subdue me; not because I like it that way but because authority carries the weight of an age pressing down on life. It is terrible then to associate with a person who can shout authority down. Her shouting matches with authority is the terror and sensation of the village. It has come down to this. Either the woman is unreasonable or authority is unreasonable, and everyone in his heart would like to admit that authority is unreasonable. In reality, the rule is: If authority does not like you then you are the outcast and humanity associates with you at their peril. So, try always to be on the right side of authority, for the sake of peace, and please avoid the outcast. I do not say it will be like this forever. The whole world is crashing and inter-changing itself and even remote bush villages in Africa are not to be left out!

It was inevitable though that this woman and I should be friends. I have an overwhelming curiosity that I cannot keep within bounds. I passed by the house for almost a month, but one cannot crash in on people. Then one day, a dog they have had puppies and my small son chased one of the puppies into the yard and I chased after him. Then one of the puppies became his and there had to be discussions about the puppy, the desert heat and the state of the world, and as a result of curiosity an avalanche of wealth has descended on my life. My small hut-house is full of short notes written in a wide sprawling hand. I have kept them all because they are a statement of human generosity and the wide care-free laugh of a woman who is as busy as women the world over about things women always entangle themselves in—a man, children, a home … Like this …

'Have you an onion to spare? It's very quiet here this morning and I'm all fagged out from sweeping and cleaning the yard, shaking blankets, cooking, fetching water, bathing children, and there's still the floor inside to sweep, and dishes to wash and myself to bathe—it's endless!'

Or again …

'Have you an extra onion to give me until tomorrow? If so, I'd appreciate it. I'm trying to do something with these awful beans and I've run out of all of my seasonings and spices. A neigh-bour brought us some spinach last night so we're in the green. I've got dirty clothes galore to wash and iron today.'


'I'm sending the kids over to get 10 minutes' peace in which to restore my equilibrium. It looks as if rain is threatening. Please send them back immediately so they won't get caught out in it. Any fiction at your house? I could use some light diversion.'


'I am only returning this tin in order to get these young folk out of my hair long enough pour faire my toilette. I've still cleaning up to do and I'm trying to collect my thoughts in preparation for the day's work. It looks like we face another scorcher today!'

And, very typical …

'This has been a very hectic morning! First, I was rushing to finish a few letters to send to you to post for me. Then it began to sprinkle slightly and I remembered you have no raincoat, so I decided to dash over there myself with the letters and the post key. At the very moment I was stepping out of the door, in stepped someone and that solved the letter posting problem, but I still don't know whether there is any mail for me. I've lost my P.O. Box key! Did the children perhaps drop it out of that purse when they were playing with it at your house yesterday?'

Or my son keeps getting every kind of chest ailment and I prefer to decide it's the worst …

'What's this about whooping cough! Who diagnosed it? Didn't you say he had all his shots and vaccinations? The D.P.T. doesn't require a booster until after he's five years old. Diphtheria—Pertussis (Whooping cough)—Tetanus is one of the most reliable vaccinations. This sounds incredible! You know all three of mine and I have had hoarse, dry coughs but certainly it wasn't whooping cough. Here's Dr Spock to reassure you!'

Sometimes too, conversations get all tangled up and the African night creeps all about and the candles are not lit and the conversation gets more entangled, intense; and the children fall asleep on the floor dazed by it all. The next day I get a book flung at me with vigorous exasperation …

'Here's C. P. Snow. Read him, dammit!! And dispel a bit of that fog in thy cranium. The chapters on Intellectuals and the Scientific Revolution are stimulating. Read it, dammit!!'

I am dazed too by Mr C. P. Snow. Where do I begin to understand the industrial use of electronics, atomic energy, automation in a world of mud huts? What is a machine tool? he asks. What are the Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution? The argument could be quaint to one who hasn't even one leg of culture to stand on. But it isn't really, because even a bush village in Africa begins to feel the tug and pull of the spider-web of life. Would Mr Snow or someone please write me an explanation of what a machine tool is? I'd like to know. My address is: Serowe, Botswana, Africa.

The trouble with the woman from America is that people would rather hold off, sensing her world to be shockingly apart from theirs. But she is a new kind of American or even maybe will be a new kind of African. There isn't anyone here who does not admire her. To come from a world of chicken, hamburgers, T.V., escalators and what not to a village mud hut and a life so tough, where the most you can afford to eat is ground millet and boiled meat? Sometimes you cannot afford to eat at all. Always you have to trudge miles for a bucket of water and carry it home on your head. And to do all this with loud, ringing, sprawling laughter?

Black people in America care about Africa and she has come here on her own as an expression of that love and concern. Through her too, one is filled with wonder for a country that breeds individuals about whom, without and within, rushes the wind of freedom. I have to make myself clear, though. She is a different person who has taken by force what America will not give black people. We had some here a while ago, sent out by the State Department. They were very jolly and sociable, but for the most innocent questions they kept saying: 'We can't talk about the government. That's politics. We can't talk politics.' Why did they come here if they were so afraid of what the American government thinks about what they might think or say in Africa? Why were they so afraid? Africa is not alive for them. It seems a waste of State Department's money. It seems so strange a thing to send people on goodwill projects and at the same time those people are so afraid that they jump at the slightest shadow. Why are they so afraid of the government of America which is a government of freedom and democracy? Here we are all afraid of authority and we never pretend anything else. Black people who are sent here by the State Department are tied up in some deep and shameful hypocrisy. It is a terrible pity because such things are destructive to them and hurtful to us.

The woman from America loves both Africa and America, independently. She can take what she wants from both and say: 'Dammit'. It is a most strenuous and difficult thing to do.

Bessie Head (Essay Date 1975)

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SOURCE: Head, Bessie. "Despite Broken Bondage, Botswana Women Are Still Unloved." In A Woman Alone: Autobiographical Writings, selected and edited by Craig MacKenzie, pp. 54-57. Nairobi, Kenya: Heinemann, 1990.

In the following essay, originally published in 1975, Head discusses the treatment of Botswanan women as chattel in spite of changes in their legal status.

In the old days a woman was regarded as sacred only if she knew her place, which was in her yard with her mother-in-law and children. A number of oppressive traditions, however, completely obliterated her as a thinking, feeling human being and she was exploited in all sorts of ways. So heavy is the toll of the centuries on the women of Botswana, that even with present-day political independence for the country, one finds that the few highly literate women of the country talk in uncertain terms of their lives and fear to assert themselves.

In strongly traditional societies there is a long thread of continuity between the past and the present and one often looks back to the past to explain the social maladies of the present. One of the earliest and surprisingly accurate views of Botswana society was recorded in 1805 by a German traveller,1 Dr W. H. C. Lichtenstein. Many an old man of the tribe will confirm Dr Lichtenstein's observations. About the position of women in the society, he recorded:

… The husband secures a livelihood by hunting, tending the cattle and milking the cows. When at home he only prepares hides and makes skin coats and cloth for himself and his wife. About the children he hardly cares … the gentler sex plays a very inferior part in the life of the tribe … It must not be overlooked that this servitude of women is not a consequence of tyranny by men, but due to certain causes, which ameliorate the lot of a Bechuana woman, although it might not be desirable according to our standards. The number of men is relatively small and they have to hunt and go to war, so naturally all the peaceful duties and occupations are done by women. Only such work as can suddenly be dropped and can be interrupted for some length of time, such as sewing of clothes, is done by men. All other work which has to be done continuously such as building, tilling of the soil, the making of pots, baskets, ropes and other household utensils is done by women. Two-thirds of the nation are women and even without any wars they would have to belong to the working class …

It has also been said that a true man in this world did not listen to the opinion of women; under polygamy women shared a husband with one or several other women and the custom of bogadi or the offering of a gift of cattle by her husband's family to her own family at the time of marriage, had overtones of complete bondage to a husband and his family and undertones of a sales bargain. But in spite of all this, women have experienced considerable emancipation in Botswana. Their emancipation has never been an applied or intellectual movement; it centres around a number of historical factors, not the least being the complicated and dominant role Christianity played in the political history of the country.

All the tribes in Botswana have a shared history so that it is possible to discuss changes that took place in broad terms. Unlike South Africa, Botswana had a benign form of colonial rule and invasion under the old British Bechuanaland Protectorate established in 1885. Colonial rule was benign for an odd reason—the country was grim and unproductive, subject to recurrent cycles of drought. The British had no interest in it, except as a safe passageway to the interior. British interest was focused on Mashonaland (now Rhodesia), which, they erroneously believed, held huge deposits of gold. Due to this, Botswana remained independent in a way; its customs and traditions were left intact and people's traditional rulers had a large say in governing their people. Thus, the real Southern African dialogues took place in Botswana. Christianity was a dialogue here, as was black people's ownership of the land and the retention of the ancient African land tenure system, as was trade.

It was about 1890 that the iron hand-plough was introduced into the country and this implement played a major role in lightening woman's burden as an all-round food producer. Formerly, women scratched at the earth with a hoe. When the iron plough was introduced it created a small social problem that could only be solved by the men. It was forbidden in custom for women to handle cattle so men were needed to inspan the oxen and pull the plough. Agriculture then became a joint task shared by a man and his family. The peaceful establishment of trade brought a new form of clothing into the country, 'European clothes', which was universally adopted.

Christianity then presented itself as a doctrine above all traditions and mores; a moral choice freely available to both men and women and it is in this sphere that all major social reforms took place. Attention has to be shifted briefly at this point to an area of the country where Christianity and all it implied became the major dialogue. It was in the Bamangwato area of the country, over the years 1866-1875 where a young chief, later known as Khama, The Great, suffered religious persecution from his father, Chief Sekgoma I, for making a complete and absolute conversion to Christian doctrine. This brought Khama into conflict with traditional African custom, which was upheld by his father. The act of suffering persecution for a belief eventually made Khama the victor in the struggle and the leading social reformer of the country. It could also be said of Khama that he was a compassionate man by inclination because some of his reforms, which must have been extremely difficult to initiate, appear to have been motivated entirely by compassion and this is no more evident than in his abolition of bogadi or the bride price.

It is significant that of the five major tribes of the country, only the Bomangwato and Batawana completely abolished bogadi. All the other tribes still adhere to the custom. People vehemently deny that bogadi is the 'purchase of women' and yet central to its functioning is human greed and the acquisition of wealth through cattle. Under bogadi marriages are so arranged as to retain cattle wealth within kinship groups, so that young girls were usually married to close relatives, a cousin, a father's brother's son.

Many poignant dramas were played out against this background. Marriage was superficially secure. Bogadi made a woman a silent slave and chattel in the home of her in-laws; if she was ill-treated by her mother-in-law or husband, she could not complain. Her parents were always anxious that she do nothing to destroy the marriage in case they lose the bogadi cattle offered at the time of marriage. Bogadi also bonded over to a woman's husband's family all the children she could bear in her lifetime. As frequently happened, her first husband died and should she acquire children from another man, those children too were claimed by her deceased husband's family. Bogadi was eventually abolished in Bamangwato country on these compassionate grounds: that each man ought to be the father of his own children. When Khama abolished bogadi, he also, for the first time, allowed women to lodge complaints against their husbands on their own and not through a male sponsor, as was required by custom.

Change and progress has always been of a gentle and subtle nature—the widespread adoption of Christianity gradually eliminated polygamous marriages. At independence in 1966, women were given the right to vote alongside men. They did not have to fight for it. But strangely, this very subtlety makes it difficult to account for the present social crisis. The country is experiencing an almost complete breakdown of family life and a high rate of illegitimate births among the children. No one can account for it. It just happened somewhere along the line. A woman's place is no longer in her yard with her mother-in-law but she finds herself as unloved outside the restrictions of custom, as she was, within it. When I first arrived in Botswana in 1964, women confided to me as follows: 'Botswana men are not nice. When you take up with a man he sleeps with you for two weeks, then he passes you on to his friend, who passes you on to his friend. That is how we live …'

Possibly two thirds of the nation are still women and about children procreated under such circumstances, the men hardly care.


1. W. H. C. Lichtenstein. Foundation Of The Cape & About The Bechuanas. A. A. Balkema: Cape Town, 1973.

General Commentary

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SOURCE: James, Adeola. "Bessie Head's Perspectives on Women." In Black Women Writers across Cultures: An Analysis of Their Contributions, edited by Valentine Udoh James, James S. Etim, Melanie Marshall James, and Ambe J. Njoh, pp. 13-38. Lanham, Md.: International Scholars Publications, 2000.

In the following essay, James discusses Head's analysis and interpretation of contemporary feminism in South Africa in her novels.


Bessie Head, who died prematurely in 1986 at the age of forty-eight years, is recognized today as one of Africa's leading writers. At the time of her death she had published three novels, a collection of short stories, a book based on oral traditions, and an historical book.1 Since her death, there have been further evidence of her fecund mind; another collection of short stories, a selection of her letters, and a full biography have been published.2 There are researches being done all over the world which will, eventually appraise us of the full stature of this dedicated, but enigmatic mind.

In studying Head's works, one thing that is most striking is her concern about the position of women under an oppressed traditional as well as the political system of colonization. The colonial period, though [it] gave power to the Africans, the experience of women did not change much. Head, in giving voice to the experiences of women, invokes a feminist criticism of her work, though she herself might have resisted this definition. Her objection, like that of many even today, would derive from the incorrect negativism attached to the term "feminist." A clear definition of my premise will make my purpose clear.

Feminists [are those who] believe that women have been locked off in a condition of lesser reality by the dominant attitudes and customs of our culture. We find these attitudes and customs reified in the institutions of literature and literary criticism.3

From the above definition we can understand that feminist criticism can be described as a mode of negation seen within a fundamental dialectic. The fundamental dialectic being the radical transformation of consciousness taking place at this time in history, almost everywhere in the world including Africa. What is generally referred to as "the women question" is the recognition of the necessity of restoring women to their place in history, recognizing that they have always been around though, ignored and denied voice. The feminist approach, when applied to the critique of Head's works, yields a rewarding result as I intend to prove in this chapter.

Chinua Achebe is one of the earliest writers in post-colonial Africa to give voice to the exploitation of Africa through colonialism and the ensuing tragic results of that experience. Indeed most of the first generation writers like Soyinka, Okot p. Bitek, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Okigbo and J. P. Clark, to name a few, attained renown through their powerful dramatization of the inescapable conflicts within African societies following the colonial encounter.

Literature should enlarge one's vision of life but for the first two decades of writing in Africa, literature has neglected the representation of men and women. Women were made invisible and voiceless or, at best, they were presented in stereotypical images. Women writers reversed the invisibility and voicelessness of women in literature and, in a general way, fought against the culture of silence in which African women were traditionally drowned. Most importantly, through their writing we begin to understand women's position on important issues about the African world view, history, politics, heritage, the Diaspora, love, bonding, and relationship.

The fundamental contribution of the African women writers is the location of the conflicts and the ultimate tragedy of Africa in the exploitation and deprivation of her women folk by men folk. Bessie Head, Ama Ata Aidoo, Buchi Emecheta, and Zulu Sofola have written boldly about this in the hope that they can add their voices to the recipe for change. Women writers have dramatized the double burden of their women folk. They are oppressed and exploited by the inhuman exertions of the twin mode of capitalism and colonialism. Underlying this, however, is the position of weakness to which women are traditionally relegated. Bessie Head clearly and unequivocally states:

The ancestors made so many errors and one of the most bitter-making things was that they relegated to men a superior position in the tribe, while women were regarded, in a congenital sense, as being an inferior form of human life. To this day women still suffer from all the calamities that befall an inferior form of life.

(p. 92)4

The personal is the political. The women writers have brought the female world into the public view in a way that men either have deliberately or inadvertently failed to do. Our women writers represent female experience from the woman's perspective and create complex and credible images of women as they come to terms with their lives as modern women in a continent that has been traumatized by slavery and colonialism, but is undergoing promising transformation.


Long ago, when the land was only cattle tracks and footpaths, the people lived together like a deep river, which was unruffled by conflict.…

(p. 1)5

What could be done? Nothing could sort out the world. It would always be a painful muddle.

(p. 109)6

These quotations are the opening and closing statements found in The Collector of Treasures. In a way they sum up the history of Africa, capturing succinctly what has happened to us over these last few centuries, the transformation from an "unruffled" life to "a painful muddle." Head's mature vision and painful personal experiences enabled her to analyze what is our tragedy. I believe she succeeds in taking us beyond the great statement of this tragedy dramatized in Things Fall Apart. Head takes us beyond colonial injustices, locating the problem of Africa in the sufferings and injustices endured by her women throughout the ages.

The first statement is from a story which celebrates the great love between two young people. Sebembele was willing to renounce his kingdom for the sake of a woman who loved him. It was acknowledged by all that Rankana was "a beautiful woman … she was gentle and kind and loving …" When Sebembele refused to bow to the machinations of his brothers and stood firmly by Rankana and his son, he won the respect of his people who "saw that they had a ruler who talked with deeds rather than words" (p. 5).

The second statement above is Thato's observation on the incredible muddle people make of their lives each day: she has just finished briefing her husband on happenings in the village and what a list of woes!

There's trouble again between Felicia and her husband … Rapula had taken up with a she been queen and arrived home dead drunk every other night and beat his wife because she complained and scolded.…

Reddock defines feminism as

the awareness of the oppression, exploitation and/or subordination of women within society and the conscious action to change and transform this situation.

Head was interested in changing the oppressive situation of women as she observed and experienced it in Africa. Before she could do this, her first step was to make us aware of the exploitation and subordination of the women. Hence, life for women, in all its ramifications, is her primary theme. Her analysis in novel after novel is detailed, clear and incisive as we will observe as I examine each work.

The Tragedy of Male Ego

"The Collector of Treasures," appropriately, the story that gives that collection of short stories its title, contains the most moving portraiture of a tragic, dignified, and most admirable woman. In analyzing her fate, the narrator gives us the most profound analysis of the tragedy of the African man, from which that of the woman cannot be divorced. As a central statement in Head's writing, one which is germane to the perspectives she presents on women, it deserves to be quoted in full. The author-narrator asserts that "there were really only two kinds of men in the society. The one kind created such misery and chaos that he could be broadly damned as evil." Having likened his behaviour to that of "the village dogs chasing a bitch on heat" describing graphically the repulsive excesses of the winner, she says "like the dogs and bulls and donkeys, he also accepted no responsibility for the young he procreated and like the dogs and bulls and donkeys, he also made females abort." She continues, "since that kind of man was in the majority in the society" and since, "he was responsible for the complete breakdown of family life," he could be analyzed over three time spans. What follows is a most gripping analysis of the tragic destruction of the African male ego, his attempt to recapture his sense of manliness by subjugating his female counterpart. This results in the chaos that we are familiar with. In explaining the present situation, Head takes us through the history of Africa seen in three different eras—the time of the ancestors, the colonial period and independence. She writes,

In the old days, before the colonial invasion of Africa, he was a man who lived by the traditions and taboos outlined for all the people by the forefathers of the tribe. He had little individual freedom to assess whether these traditions were compassionate or not—they demanded that he comply and obey the rules, without thought. But when the laws of the ancestors are examined, they appear on the whole to have been vast, external disciplines for the good of the society as a whole with little attention given to individual preferences and needs.

Of course, the rules of the ancestors are not faultless and one of the major errors they made is "that they relegated to men a superior position in the tribe, while women were regarded, in a congenital sense, as being an inferior form of human life."

The male ego was further destroyed in the colonial era, the period of migratory mining labour. Worse still, this form of labour destroyed family life—"it broke the old, traditional form of family life and for long periods a man was separated from his wife and children while he worked for a pittance in another land in order to raise the money to pay British Colonial polltax." The African man lost his self respect because he became "the boy of the white man."

Independence brought very little relief to his pain and the destiny of his people. Head writes:

African independence seemed merely one more affliction on top of the afflictions that had visited this man's life.

The thrust of Head's penetrating analysis is to seek the meaning of our history while showing how women have survived the massive onslaught on their beings. Whether it was during the time of the ancestors, the colonial period, or the independence period the male whose sense of self-worth has been destroyed always "turns to the woman in a dizzy kind of death dance of wild destruction and dissipation." As a result of this exploration Head's fictional world is peopled by women who have not only survived but have assisted the regeneration of their menfolk, paving the way for a new harmonious existence.

The Search for Spiritual and Physical Emancipation

When Rain Clouds Gather dramatizes emancipatory yearnings, the search for both physical and spiritual emancipation. For Makhaya, who leaves his mother in South Africa "in a state of complete collapse" to travel somewhere because "he could not marry and have children in a country, where Black men were called 'boy' and 'kaffir,' his search for liberation from political oppression is actively connected with greater spiritual enlightenment which he experiences in the course of his moral development living and working in Botswana. Another male, Gilbert, an Englishman, disengages himself from the country of 'nice, orderly queues' where everybody lines up for a place and position in the world (p. 28)." Like Makhaya, he is in search of fulfillment and a more meaningful existence. In the village of Golema Mmidi where he devotes himself to assisting 'in agricultural development and improved techniques of food production,' he finds a richer life. Both Makhaya's and Gibert's moral and spiritual development are linked with the lives of three women who become the focus of our attention in the novel, namely Mma-Millipede, Maria, and Pauline.

Mma-Millipede is the mother of the village, she recalls the West Indian mother (the mainstay of family life since slavery), and the traditional African grandmother who used to regulate the affairs of everyone. Mma-Millipede is described as "one of those rare individuals with a distinct personality at birth … she was able to grasp the religion of the missionaries and use its message to adorn and enrich her own originality of thought and expand the natural kindness of her heart (p. 63)." When Dinorego becomes acquainted with Makhaya's problems, the old man advises the younger one "you must approach my friend Mma-Millipede … she may help you to find the woman you seek, as she knows the heart of everyone (p. 91)." The unintrusive voice of the narrator makes an important observation about Mma-Millipede. She

had traced two distinct relationships women had with men in her country. The one was a purely physical relationship. It caused no mental breakdown and was free and casual each woman having 'six or seven lovers, including a husband as well. The other was more serious and more rare. It could lead to mental breakdown and suicide on the part of the woman.'7

She prefers the other one, reasoning that

it was far better to have a country of promiscuous women than a country of dead women.

(p. 91-2)

With such a pragmatic attitude she looks after the interest of all who come within her orbit of activities. She senses Maria's interest better than her father and through her intervention both Gilbert and Maria are able to achieve fulfillment.

Similarly, she guides Makhaya through bitterness, hatred, and despair to accept all men as his brothers. He observes that "the old woman had a fire inside her that radiated outward and he could feel it and it warmed him.…He liked this direct people-caring and this warm fire in an old woman (p. 121)." In this enriching exchange, Makhaya begins to assume "new mental outlooks." Once he is spiritually opened up he is able to say to Paulina "perhaps, I'll find out what love is as we go along together (p. 147)." His voyage towards self-discovery, personal and spiritual regeneration, is complete in his union with Paulina and he observes:

All his life he had wanted some kind of Utopia, and he had rejected in his mind and heart a world full of ailments and faults. He had run and run away from it all … loving one woman had brought him to this realization: that it was only people who could bring the real rewards of living: that it was only people who give love and happiness.

(p. 152)8

Gilbert's life is less agonizing because of his belonging to a race that is on the giving end of oppression and therefore, immuned to it. Nevertheless, if he were to experience the new dispensation of spiritual awakening he too had to leave his accustomed comfort. For when life is too selfishly smooth, it could kill with its boredom and monotony. Mma-Millipede adores Gilbert "as she identified him with her own love of mankind."

It is Mma-Millipede's task to direct the young to develop a creative attitude that nurtures life. She does this with a loving heart and genuine generosity.

Maria is regarded by her father as "a difficult daughter." Old Dinorego had led Makhaya into the village in the hope that he might prove to be a suitable suitor for his daughter.

Maria appears in the novel on very few occasions. She is of significance only in relation to the fulfilling relationship that emerges between herself and Gilbert. Through his friend Makhaya, Gilbert affirms that life might have something more to offer than "running away from it." He confesses that ninety per cent of the time he doesn't want a woman. "Then also there's that ten percent when I'm lonely, but I don't know of any woman who'd go for the ten percent. (p. 29)." Maria "was one of those women who had a life of her own" she is "a preoccupied self-absorbed woman," with "an almighty air of neatness and orderliness about her … her small black eyes never seemed to gaze outward, but inward." She is a woman of few words. Such a woman is able to transform "the ten percent" of life that a very busy man like Gilbert could share [with] her. Maria is presented as the typical housewife who is industrious. Apart from keeping her home she joins in the agricultural projects organized by her husband and Makhaya. She discharges her responsibility towards her community; at the cattle post, she takes on the responsibility of cooking for the men, and for Paulina's household as well. Her reaction on the occasion of the tragic death of Paulina's son is the only positive one. She observes:

… death was like trying to clutch the air, and you had to let it be and slowly let it pass aside, without fuss and indignity. Instead, you had to concentrate the mind on all that was still alive and treat it as the most precious treasure you had ever been given.

(p. 153)

She is a woman of action rather than words. Her affirmation of life is contained in her reply to her husband who informs her during the terrible drought that "even the trees were dying, from the roots upwards." Maria said

No, you may see no rivers on the ground but we keep the rivers inside us. That is why all good things and all good people are called rain. Sometimes we see the rain clouds gather even though not a cloud appears in the sky. It is all in our heart.

(p. 157)

Maria encapsulates women's spiritual strength and deep hope that life will last in spite of temporary setbacks.

Paulina bridges the age gap between Mma-Millipede and Maria and forms the last in Head's images of well-grounded women, portrayed with positive and life-enhancing spirits. Paulina is industrious, in addition "she was daring and different" which make all the other women follow her leadership. What sets her apart most significantly is her ability to think and analyze. Paulina, unlike the other women has no permanent lover or husband. The women come to admit that the reason why Paulina dominated them all was because she was the kind of woman who could not lie to men (p. 86). She fears "the untrustworthiness of men with no strength or moral values." Intuitively she feels something is wrong with a whole society which "had connived at producing a race of degenerate men by stressing their superiority in the law and overlooking how it affected them as individuals (p. 86)."

Paulina, the narrator says:

Was not like the women of Golema Mmidi, although she had been born into their kind of world and fed on the same diet of their maize porridge by a meek, repressed, dull-eyed mother.

(p. 18)

She is distinguished by a superior education and by retaining since childhood a "fresh, lively curiosity." What we remember most about this dignified woman is her natural ability to lead. Gilbert's request that she should get one hundred women organized into a tobacco-growing cooperative receives a "generous smile from her. Later it is largely through her effort that this project, which transformed the lives of the village women who have never worked for money, succeeded. What are most memorable about her are her controlled and courageous stance in time of tragedy, when her son dies alone at the cattlepost; most importantly, her ability to question radically old and popularly accepted practices in the man/woman relationship.

She was aware of her physical need but she would not yield to having lovers because of a "blind and intense desire" to own and possess a man to herself. "But in a society like this" she asks "which man cared to be owned and possessed when there were so many women freely available?" She objected to "the excessive love-making" which was purposeless and aimless, "just like tipping everything into an awful cess-pit where no one really cared to take a second look. Paulina "was too proud a woman" to be treated like a "cess-pit" she wanted "a man who wasn't a free for-all."

Following this line of thoughts to its conclusion she adds,

No doubt, the other women longed for this too because intense bloody battles often raged between women and women over men, and yet, perversely, they always set themselves up for sale to the first bidder who already had so many different materials in his shop that he was simply bored to death by the display.

(p. 104)

Botswana men no longer cared. In fact a love affair resulting in pregnancy was one sure way of driving a man away and it was a country of fatherless children now.

(p. 111)

Wisdom then lies in self control and certain understanding among the women to prevent the exploitation the men are permitted because of their weakness and disunity.

Paulina's concern is not for herself alone. Her own experience enables her to empathize with the suffering of women in a society in which

Every protection for women was breaking down and being replaced by nothing. And there was something so deeply wrong in the way a woman had to live, holding herself together with her backbone, because, no matter to which side a woman might turn, there was this trap of loneliness. Most women had come to take it for granted, entertaining themselves with casual lovers. Most women with fatherless children thought nothing of sending a small boy out to a lonely cattle post to herd cattle to add to the family income. But then, such women expected life to give them nothing. And if you felt the strain of such a life, all the way down your spine surely it meant that you were just holding on until such time as a miracle occurred? And how many miracles an ordinary woman needed these days. Paulina sighed bitterly and deeply.…

(p. 111)

In the creation of Paulina, Head presents one of her most touching and profoundest characters. The circumstances of her life, her interrelationships with others, are real ones that any reader can identify with, so compelling and truthful are they. In her creation, Head further shows that feminism is not a creation of the misguided western-educated African woman. You don't have to read too much to learn where your shoes are hurting.

There are certain areas of Paulina's attitude that need changing as well. She forbids Makhaya to help her in preparing the meal saying "Don't touch the fire. 'It's woman's work'." Most African men and women will agree with this sentiment. However, in their journey together towards enlightenment Makhaya teaches Paulina the new way. He says to her, "It's time you learned that men live on this earth too. If I want to make tea, I'll make it, and if I want to sweep the floor, I'll sweep it (p. 130)."

Makhaya was thankful for Paulina's love which "was like a warm sun on all the shadows of his life." At the same time he notes that "a woman's life was a clutter of small everyday things—of babies, gossip, pots, food, fires, cups, and plates (p. 142)." Is Makhaya suggesting that the African woman too deserves a better life? The love that developed between Paulina and Makhaya gives the reader an opportunity to see an enlightened, symbiotic relationship in action. At the end Makhaya is able to affirm that "loving one woman had brought him to this realization, that it was only people who could bring the real rewards of living, that it was only people who give love and happiness (p. 152)."

Paulina is Head's presentation of ideal womanhood, the maturing influence of suffering and an unflagging ability to look life straight in the face without giving up the struggle to change it.

In the presentation of these three female characters—Mma-Millipede, Maria, and Paulina—Head portrays women as life-givers, life-preservers and life-transformers. The authorial voice paying homage to the women for transforming village-life by their work in the tobacco cooperative comments,

No men ever worked harder than Botswana women, for the whole burden of providing food for big families rested with them. It was their sticks that threshed the corn at harvesting time and their winnowing baskets that filled the air for miles and miles around with the dust of husks, and they often, in addition to broadcasting the seed when the early rains fell, took over the tasks of the men and also ploughed the land with oxen.

(p. 97)

Their successful elimination of the retrograde chief Matenge "a Solomon stalking the land in his golden Chevrolet" (p. 173) is an indication of the miracle that could happen when women are united. In a male-dominated world, Head is pointing to the channels of change.


In Maru, her second novel, Head presents a woman's version of racial problem in Africa. She tells an interviewer that "Maru was a thesis against racialism.… It is an examination of racial prejudices but I used black against black instead of white against black." The novel describes the experience of a Masarwa, an untouchable who was found and raised by a white missionary. In dramatizing this story, Head exposes the senseless prejudices that separate us. Though Head's stated focus is on racial prejudice, the novel offers some clear perspectives on the position of women in Africa. Women are the sufferers but in their suffering they find the grace to become the agent of change. Margaret, the protagonist, highlights this in her own statement when she remarks "There was no word to explain the torture of those days, but out of it she had learned" (p. 102).9 The woman may be a victim of prejudice, yet it is through her positive attitude that she leads her people through the process of reexamination and ultimate change. This meaning is enclosed in Margaret's painting. Commenting on Margaret's work, in one of the central passages of the book, Maru remarks:

She chose her themes from the ordinary, common happenings in the village as though those themes were the best expression of her own vitality. The women carried water buckets up and down the hill but the eye was thrown, almost by force, towards the powerful curve of a leg muscle, resilience in the back and neck, and the animated expressions and gestures of the water-carriers as they stopped to gossip … Look! Don't you see! We are the people who have the strength to build a new world!

(p. 107-108) [Italics are supplied]

This is not Maru's voice per se, but that of the omniscient narrator paying tribute to the African woman as she emerges through suffering, endurance and struggle into the dawn of a new world.

A Question of Power

It is Head's conviction that the new world cannot be created without excruciating suffering. This is the conviction dramatized in A Question of Power, the most powerful of Head's writing at the same time the most enigmatic. A Question of Power, is Head's version of "life-writing in the feminine," where her protagonist, Elizabeth struggles to define herself as a subject through figuring out her life story in different versions. It is in this novel that we encounter Head's most sustained effort to put the African experience in the context of her own world view. She writes:

In my novel, A Question of Power, I was extremely bothered to define evil. I was looking for answers all along to questions of exploitation. And I was looking for balances; that is, if we have to live with good and evil we ought to present them as they really are.10

It is not without significance that Head focuses her exploration of evil on the life of one woman. It is through Elizabeth that the fundamental question of exploitation and suffering is fleshed out. Head combines the physical with the psychic in dramatizing through Elizabeth's life, the Biblical verse "For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places" (Ephesians 6:12). In this statement, Paul might have been directing his warnings at men; in Head's view, however, it seems that women, particularly Black women, are the ones who face this devastating apocalyptic struggle.

There are four unforgettable women in A Question of Power, Elizabeth, Kenosi, Birgette, and Camilla. All four serve as counterpoints to one another revealing the author's views on the experiences of women.

It is Elizabeth's story for we encounter the other characters in relation to her need of them or in her reaction to them. The plot of the novel is the evolution of Elizabeth's soul. This is gathered from the opening paragraphs of the book. Sello wonders

how often was a learner dependent on his society for his soul-evolution?… It had always been like this, for him—a hunger after the things of the soul, in which other preoccupations were submerged.…To him love was freedom of heart.

(p. 11)

The narrator informs us that

A woman in the village of Motabeng paralleled his [Sello's] inner development. Most of what applied to Sello applied to her, because they were twin souls with closely-linked destinies and the same capacity to submerge other preoccupations in a pursuit after the things of the soul.

(p. 11)

Sello and Dan were the two sides of Elizabeth. Her spiritual struggle with these evil powers made her suffer mental breakdown twice. Recurrent in her subconscious Sello and Dan become hallucinatory symbols turning her life into a nightmare. "Dan" she says "understood the mechanics of power. From his gestures, he clearly thought he had a wilting puppet in his hands." (p. 13) Sello is her guardian angel, he tells her "love isn't like that; Love is two people mutually feeding each other" (p. 14). This thought or idea is to occur again and again guiding Elizabeth throughout her soul-journey until she is able to make that ultimate "sharp, short leap to freedom."11

Elizabeth narrates how she became a pawn in the hands of Sello, Dan, and Medusa. She was born in South Africa. It was at a mission school where she was placed in her childhood that the inauspicious circumstances surrounding her birth were callously revealed to […] her

Your mother was insane. If you're not careful you'll get insane just like your mother. Your mother was a white woman. They had to lock her up, as she was having a child by the stable boy, who was a native.

(p. 16)

This was her first rude awakening to "the details of life and oppression in South Africa."

For a few years she quietly lived on the edge of South Africa's life. She spent some time living with Asian families, where she learnt about India and its philosophies, and some time with a German woman from "whom she learnt about Hitler and Jesus and the Second World War." A year before her marriage she tentatively joined a political party. It was banned two days later and in the state of emergency which was declared she was searched and briefly arrested.

Elizabeth married "a gangster just out of jail," who said he had thought deeply about life while in prison. But soon women were complaining of being molested by him. After a year, Elizabeth picked up her small boy and walked out of the home. Through a newspaper advertisement she got a teaching post in Botswana and she took "an exit permit, which like her marriage, held the never return clause." The above are the necessary data Elizabeth herself provides for the reader to understand her circumstances. The source of her nightmarish existence are the circumstances of her birth in an oppressive racist society, where being Black tantamounts to a congenital sickness, and a disastrous marriage that barely lasted a year. Both spell out her double yoke. Elizabeth learns to defend herself by resorting to madness. She suffered periodic mental breakdowns.

Elizabeth says that it was in Botswan "where, mentally, the normal and the abnormal blended completely" in her mind. "It was barely three months after her arrival in the village of Motabeng when her life began to pitch over from an even keel, and it remained from then onwards at a pitchedover angle." (p. 21). The bulk of the narrative is about Elizabeth's agony, her baptism by fire which prepared her for the knowledge of the truth. Her dream images include Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and Oriental gods—Medusa, Osiris, Buddha, and "the brotherhood of man." In her clear moments she makes revealing statements about her experiences. For example, she welcomes her suffering in this thought:

It seemed to her as though all suffering gave people and nations a powerful voice for the future and a common meeting-ground … the Gods turned out on observation to be ordinary, practical, sane people, seemingly their only distinction being that they had consciously concentrated on spiritual earnings.

(p. 31)

Sometimes she resented the agony. For example looking at her son she thought:

Journeys into the soul are not for women with children, not all that dark heaving turmoil. They are for men, and the toughest of them took off into the solitude of the forests and fought out their battles with hell in deep seclusion. No wonder they hid from view. The inner life is ugly.

(p. 50) (Italics are mine)

Elizabeth survived to become a strong, powerful spiritual being, well grounded in the things of the spirit. She, like Tutuola's Palm-wine drunkard, has been to the land of the dead and is back armed not only with insight but with a remedy for triumphant living. Lawrence's famous poem12 provides the words to express that triumphant feeling welling up in her soul:

Not I, but the wind that blows through me! A fine wind is blowing the new direction of time. If only I let it bear me … if only, most lovely of all, I yield myself and am borrowed by the wind that takes its course through the chaos of the world … Oh, for the wonder that bubbles into my soul.

(p. 205)

Elizabeth tells us how she survives her ordeal:

It wasn't any kind of physical stamina that keep her going, but a vague, instinctive pattern of normal human decencies combined with the work she did, the people she met each day and the unfolding of a project with exciting inventive.

(p. 146)

Elizabeth's survival was aided by three other women encountered in A Question of Power. Through their interaction with Elizabeth we learn a lot about female bonding,13 a central concept in feminist ideology. One woman alone cannot survive the onslaught of exploitation and abuse often meted out to women, but with the aid of other women, healing, and self affirmation are realized.

We encounter two Danish ladies in the novel. Camilla is evil whilst Brigette, on the other hand, counteracts her as a benevolent force. Both act as foils for Elizabeth. Camilla who is working as an Agricultural Officer in Botswana, is a negative influence on Elizabeth. She reminds her of the hypocrisy and arrogance of whites in South Africa. She recoils from her who she refers to as "the half-mad Camilla woman" and "Rattle-tongue." In her portrayal Bessie Head presents the image of a frustrated and insensitive woman who needs to acquire humility. Through the openness of Elizabeth and Brigette, she is redeemed.

Brigette is the opposite of Camilla. Elizabeth finds in her a twin soul, a kindred spirit with whom she could relate. Their brief contact is a symbiotic experience of spiritual growth. Talking to Elizabeth Brigette says "Life is such a gentle, treasured thing. I learn about it every minute. I think about it so deeply." (p. 81) She agrees with Elizabeth's comments on suffering in South Africa that "the faces of the oppressed people are not ugly" even though the torturers become more hideous day by day. "Who is the greater man—the man who cries, broken by anguish, or his scoffing, mocking, jeering oppressor?" (p. 84) Elizabeth asks rhetorically. Birgette agreeing says to Elizabeth

You say everything I have in my own heart.… But I cannot express myself so well because I have never suffered. I see suffering. It hurts me.

She is not renewing her contract because the suffering she sees around her affects her emotionally.

Birgette is a correction of the impression one gets from Camilla. It is not true that one only becomes sensitive to suffering for having suffered. What is necessary is an openness and sympathetic attitude towards life. Of course, the society nourishes this, hence the major difference Elizabeth identifies between herself and Birgette is not race but the fact that one belongs to a progressive society whilst the other belongs to a morally decadent one. She surmises:

The human soul is alone in the battle of life. It is helped … by profoundly moral social orders, such as Moses established for the Jews.…The questions of tenderness, love, appeal, compassion, truth, still lie within.

(p. 86)

While Birgette enables Elizabeth to work out answers to some fundamental questions that have bothered her Kenosi was an agent of life and regeneration. Her simple outlook on life is nourished by the humaneness of the society in which she was raised. That society exalts life above all things.

Kenosi came into Elizabeth's life at a time when she was approaching a mental breakdown and she was concerned about her son's well being in the event of her illness. Kenosi, who was about Elizabeth's age had no difficulty loving the little boy. "It was a way of village life.… Children were caressed and attended to, their conversations were listened to with affectionate absorption" (p. 88). Elizabeth was to look back at Kenosi's sudden appearance as "one of the miracles or accidents that saved her life" (p. 89). Observing her closely Elizabeth remarks:

Her movements were extraordinarily quiet, soft, intensely controlled.…She was really an exceedingly beautiful woman in strength and depth of facial expression, in knowingness and grasp of life; its joys, its expected disillusionment. She was really the super-wife, the kind who would keep a neat, ordered house and adore in a quiet, undemonstrative way both the husband and children.

Perhaps Kenosi's statement about herself is a clue to her beautifully coordinated life—"I work with my hands," she said, proudly. "I have always worked. I do any kind of work." Kenosi and Elizabeth became business partners, working miracles in the production of all kinds of fresh vegetables, even growing "Cape Gooseberries" in Botswana and gradually introducing the peasant women there to profit oriented economy.

After one of Elizabeth's crises, when "her head exploded into a thousand fragments of fiery darkness"' and she lay in bed for two days barely conscious, Kenosi came around. She sat down on a chair beside the bed. "She was silent, self-contained alertly practical." She was concerned about the rain storm which caused water to overrun the beds of tomatoes. She later said to Elizabeth, "you must never leave the garden … I cannot work without you." This quiet expression of affection and need for her jolted Elizabeth out of her mental stupor. She thought "the way this woman brought her back to life and reality!"

Elizabeth indirectly pays full tribute to Kenosi in attributing to her both her full recovery, mental sanity as well as a new vision of life. She says, at sunset when work with Kenosi at the garden was over and everything was peaceful it was then she began to jot down the fragmentary notes "such as a ship-wrecked sailor might make on a warm sandy beach as he stared back at the stormy sea that had nearly taken his life." It is at this point that she sings her "Magnificent" referred to earlier "Not I, but the wind that blows through me!" Her song glorifies bonding between women which enables them to survive.

Elizabeth's presentation in A Question of Power is Bessie Head's most sustained and complete dramatization of her philosophy of "sanctifying affliction" and her conviction about women's strength.

The Collector of Treasures

Bessie Head's final fictional work is a collection of short stories entitled The Collector of Treasures. The short story is a flexible form which allows the writer a quick and focused treatment of chosen themes. A number of memorable female characters emerge in The Collector of Treasures which is a collection of thirteen moving short stories. Together the stories become a drawing together of all the various images of women that we have encountered in Head's fictional world. There is Dikeledi whose pride, independence, and appetite for living act as a catalyst for others. There is Life whose rebellious spirit leads her to challenge the social order of the patriarchal and racist community in which she lives. We have women of all ages, traditional women who under the burden of custom, have learnt to survive and take care of their needs. But we also encounter the beer drinkers who find marriage boring and enslaving. Through this group the writer explores the negative tendency among modern women and the degenerating influence of prostitution.

The men come off badly as the ones who help to destroy homes. In the most moving story which gives the collection its title, Dikeledi is the beautiful soul who collects treasures. She suffers but never looses hold of her dignity, her warmth, friendship, and eagerness to share draw people towards her. Her imprisonment is a symbol of physical and psychological imprisonment of women, their emasculation by the inimical systems. Head, however, portrays through Dikeledi that even in prison, in an anti-heroic situation, a woman can still achieve heroic proportion. This is very important because it is the first time we encounter an anti-heroic heroine in African Literature. Achebe and most of our writers, present Aristotelian heroes but Head's anti-hero is made heroic.


The three identified preoccupation's that direct as well as empower Head's fictional world are the dehumanizing of Black people in South Africa, the experiences of women under oppression and the individual's struggle for self-liberation. All three impinge on one another, for Head has identified the cause of African men's inhuman treatment of their women to be due to the frustration of history.14 Disadvantages of history, however, are not sufficient excuse for the continuity of decadence. Like Paul Thebolo, the men must seek within themselves "the power to create themselves anew." Each of the novels has dramatized a spiritual journey towards liberation. In some of them this spiritual journey involves a man, however, his agent of vision leading him towards self fulfillment is a woman. The highest compliment paid to womanhood in her works is the creation of Elizabeth. Through her sufferings she emerges as the visionary of a new world. The challenge to continue to affirm human goodness in spite of everything. Like Dikeledi our lives must be filled "with treasures of kindness and love" gathered in our inter-action with one another.

The message that comes through her fictions is that living is a spiritual journey towards liberation and greater enlightenment: that suffering sanctifies the oppressed whilst it disfigures the oppressor. But the great leap to personal freedom is not reserved for one race alone. It is what makes one really human. These are not new themes, in fact, they are the most popular themes of literature from its very beginning in Oral Traditions and the great European and oriental literary tradition through to the most significant and revolutionary literature of our time being produced in the Third World. What is significant about Bessie Head's work is that she focuses on women, whereas the protagonists of the great novels that come to mind—Don Quixote, Robinson Crusoe, and A Hundred Years of Solitude—are men. Head's treatment of her theme, the formal precision and assuredness with which her novels are executed make them compulsory reading.

We are impressed by her narrative strategies such as the use of symbols15 the orality of the language of her ordinary people recreating the real life speech style in the African villages: the lively dialogue and the unintrusive voice of the omniscient narrator which directs our response rather than interfere with the narrative process. All these blend together making for the resonance of the main message which echoes throughout all her works. Her main message is that

… all suffering gave people and nations a powerful voice for the future and a common meeting-ground.16

In all her writing women's sufferings leave their imprint on our consciousness. At the same time they are portrayed as the ones "who have the strength to build a new world." Head allows us to experience the difficulties and struggles of her female characters, eventually to enable us to celebrate their victories as women who surmount their oppressed situations.

Head's work proves conclusively the statement that: Individual awareness and consciousness of their subordinate position has always existed among individuals or groups of women. It is only when this becomes evident through collective action by large numbers of women that it can be said that a feminist movement exists.17

Do I dare to suggest that women writers like Bessie Head have paved the way for the emergence of strong feminist movements in our continent that will transform our lives.


  1. When Rain Clouds Gather. 1968. Penguin Books Ltd.: U.K.

    Maru, 1971. Heinemann: London.

    A Question of Power. 1974. Heinemann: London.

    The Collector of Treasures and Other Botswana Village Tales. 1977. Heinemann: London.

    Serowe Village of the Rain Wind. 1991. Heinemann: London.

    A Bewitched Crossroads. 1984. A. D. Donker Ltd.: Cape Town, South Africa.

  2. Eilersen, Gillian Stead ed. 1989. Tales of Tenderness and Power. A. D. Donker: Cape Town, South Africa.

    Mackenzie, Craig. ed. 1990. A Woman Alone: Autobiographical Writings. Heinemann: Oxford.

    Vigne, Randolph ed. 1991. A Gesture of Belonging. Heinemann: London.

    1993. The Cardinals, with Meditations and Short Stories. M. J. Daymond: Cape Town.

    Eilersen, Gillian Stead. 1995. Bessie Head: Thunder Behind Her Ears. David Philip Publishers Ltd.: South Africa.

  3. Donvan, J. 1989. Feminist Literary Criticism. University of Kentucky Press. p. 74.
  4. 1977. The Collector of Treasures. All page references are to the Heinemann ed.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Rhoda Reddock. 1988. "Feminism and Feminist Thought: An Historical Overview" in Gender in Caribbean Development. P. Mohamed and C. Shepherd (ed.). UWI.
  8. Nichols, Lee (ed.). 1981. Conversations with African Writers. Voice of America: Washington D.C.
  9. 1971. All page references are to Maru. Heinemann: London.
  10. Nichols, Lee (ed.) Op. cit.
  11. 1974. All page references are to A Question of Power. Heinemann: London.
  12. Lawerence, D. H. 1960. "Not I, Not I, But the Wind That blows Through Me!" in The Faber Book of Modern Verse ed. Michael Roberts: London.
  13. Bonding among women is a familiar theme in the writings of African Americans. It is found in Alice Walker's The Color Purple, Toni Morrison's Beloved, and Paule Marshall's Praise Song For the Widow. It occurs in Ama Ata Aidoo's Changes as well. Bonding is related to the theme of healing which is the essential difference between Western feminist literature and the womanist alternative adopted by Black writers.
  14. The Collector of Treasures. pp. 91-93.
  15. In Maru as in To The Light House by Virginia Woolf, Margaret Cadmore's painting is the most eloquent representation of her thought and helps to clarify the message of that novel. In A Question of Power, the womb, the images of Buddha, Medusa are some of the significant symbols.
  16. A Question of Power. p. 31.
  17. Rhoda Reddock, Op. cit.

Title Commentary

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Last Updated on June 12, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 12582


SOURCE: Driver, Dorothy. “Reconstructing the Past, Shaping the Future: Bessie Head and the Question of Feminism in a New South Africa.” In Black Women’s Writings, edited by Gina Wisker, pp. 160-87. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993.

In the following essay, Driver discusses Head’s treatment of the “new” woman in South Africa in her short stories in The Collector of Treasures.

Black women have long operated at a disadvantage. Now you as the storyteller are going to shape the future.

Bessie Head1

Given Bessie Head’s vehement feminist claim in The Collector of Treasures (1977) that in Botswanan society women are ‘of no account’ or are treated like ‘dogs’,2 her story ‘Snapshots of a Wedding’ seems surprisingly muted. Its subject is the marriage between a young man and a school-educated woman, called Neo for ‘new’. After an idyllic opening—the wedding takes place at the ‘haunting, magical hour of early dawn’ (p. 76)— the story begins to establish the specific voices which make up the community. ‘This is going to be a modern wedding’ (p. 76), says one of the relatives of the groom. One of the bride’s relatives responds: ‘Oh, we all have our own ways…. If the times are changing, we keep up with them’ (pp. 76-7). Uneasy about the marriage, the female members of the community instruct Neo in her duties: ‘Daughter, you must carry water for your husband. Beware, that at all times, he is the owner of the house and must be obeyed. Do not mind if he stops now and then and talks to other ladies. Let him feel free to come and go as he likes’ (p. 79).

At such a point, the story may seem to be less about the community’s desire to ‘keep up with’ women like Neo than about forms of control. Even though she will be keeping her job as a secretary, rather than being ‘the kind of wife who went to the lands to plough’ (p. 80), Neo adjusts in other ways to community demands, becoming less aloof and more engaged in the life of the village. The community despises Neo for her ‘conceit and pride’ (p. 77) and appreciates the ‘natural’ Mathata, who is ‘smiling and happy’ (p. 78) despite her impregnation and abandonment by the man whom Neo is going to marry. This opposition—whereby the educated woman is conceited and the uneducated woman content—is one of the givens of the story.

There are suggestions of an ironic stance being taken in the text towards this rural community’s construction of a dutiful wife: the phrase ‘we all have our ways’ may seem sinister to some readers, and so may the manner in which the relatives ‘nod their heads in that fatal way, with predictions that one day life would bring [Neo] down’ (p. 77). The reference to the sacrificial ox— ‘unaware of his sudden and impending end as meat for the wedding feast’ (p. 76)—offers itself as a veiled allusion to the bride about to be sacrificed, and the fact that the marriage takes place at the police camp adds to the coercive undertones.

But these hints of the sinister or coercive can in the end only be part of the repressed of the text. The community of women exhort Neo to obedience in terms of the idyllic, which is in itself a marker of authorial sympathy—even yearning—in Head’s writing: ‘The hoe, the mat, the shawl, the kerchief, the beautiful flute-like ululating of the women seemed in itself a blessing on the marriage’ (p. 80). Moreover, the final command ‘Be a good wife! Be a good wife!’ (p. 80), given by the aunt, is placed in the context of ritual and habitual gesture which form so important a part of Head’s presented world. The aunt pounds the ground in a gesture symbolic of the act of pounding the newly-laid floor of the young couple’s dwelling and, just before this, an old woman dashes towards Neo and chops at the ground with a hoe, symbolising the agricultural work which traditionally falls to women. Such acts—pounding floors, smearing walls, thatching roofs—contribute throughout Head’s collection of stories to a harmonious village atmosphere, for they belong to a life made up of group activities and the sharing of tasks. The very congruence in this story between the aunt’s gestures of pounding, the old woman’s gestures of hoeing and the words themselves might add to the atmosphere of coercion lurking in the story’s subtext. However, in the story’s smooth return to the opening atmosphere of idyll, the village women deny the possibility of the existence of ‘new’ women who are other than ‘good’ wives.

Head expressed her attitude to the subjection of women in strong terms:

In the old days a woman was regarded as sacred only if she knew her place, which was in her yard with her mother-in-law and children. A number of oppressive traditions, however, completely obliterated her as a thinking, feeling, human be ing and she was exploited in all sort of ways. So heavy is the toll of centuries on the women of Botswana, that even with present-day political independence for the country, one finds that the few highly literate women of the country talk in uncertain terms of their lives and fear to assert themselves.3

This would seem to invite an ironic reading of ‘Snapshots of a Wedding’, with the narrator characterised as a ‘village narrator’, as Sara Chetin suggests, morally quite distinct from the writer herself.4 There are no formal indications, however, that the third-person narrator is intradiegetic, and the very covertness of the narrative position suggests ‘reliability’.5 The motive behind an ironic reading is presumably the need to account for the sharp reference on the part of the primary narrator to Neo’s ‘conceit and pride’. In my own reading, however, the narrative voice is intricately structured around the writer’s personal and political anxieties and desires.

The ‘new’ woman appears in expanded form under the name Life, in the short story of that name. The way she is depicted will help clarify Head’s relation to modern women and the community, as well as to feminism. Life, who returns to her village from Johannesburg after an absence of many years, represents the world of urban capitalism, its commercial ethic particularly evident in the contamination of sex by money. In the rural world, sex flows freely (‘People’s attitude to sex was broad and generous’—[p. 39]); in the world introduced by Life, money flows freely and sex becomes unfree—paid for by the men, and then paid for, in a different way, by Life. When she marries Lesego, he demands fidelity, and kills her when she disobeys.

This might have been a story about a ‘new’ woman coming into a world which is characterised by male ownership of the female body, and trying to insist—within a tradition of feminism— that her body is her own. But this is not, quite, the story Head writes, although in one important respect a feminist judgement is being made: the brief prison sentence Lesego is given for killing an unfaithful wife stands in obvious and sharp contrast to the death sentence delivered on Dikeledi in ‘The Collector of Treasures’ for killing the husband who abuses her and leaves her to feed, clothe and rear their children alone. Life is associated with the beer-brewers, ‘a gay and lovable crowd who had emancipated themselves some time ago’ (p. 39). The term ‘emancipated’ puts them in their place: it is offered with as much sharp disfavour as the term ‘hysterical’ (p. 42), used in relation to Life’s behaviour. Life exhibits ‘the bold, free joy of a woman who had broken all the social taboos’ (p. 40); the gaiety of the beer-brewing women is similarly out of bounds. They may have emancipated themselves from the commands ‘Do this! Do that!’ (which echo the commands under which Neo has been told to live) but this leaves them with ‘a language all their own’ (p. 39), divorced from the codes, gestures and rituals by which a culture knows itself.

Thus ‘Life’, like ‘Snapshots’, seems to become a vehicle for the rejection of all that Head takes women’s emancipation to be. Yet both stories are more complex than this, for in their refusal of contemporary models of emancipation (as Head chooses to represent them) another possibility is opened up.

In ‘Snapshots of a Wedding’ the ‘new’ woman is drawn back into a community by means of a series of gestures which make up the community’s way of constructing a world. The exhortation to hoeing is ‘only a formality’ (p. 79) (the women know that Neo already has a secretarial job, and do not expect her to hoe). This reference to ‘formality’ suggests that the words ‘Be a good wife! Be a good wife!’ themselves be placed in the context of what Head called, elsewhere, the ‘courtesies’ of community life.6

In ‘Life’ the direction of Head’s thinking in this regard becomes clearer. The villagers recall a world of communality—the task-sharing marks a barter economy—but they are also caught in a world of barely flourishing peripheral capitalism, whose figure is the set of anaemic calves owned by Lesego. Even before Life’s arrival ‘the men hung around, lived on the resources of the women’ (p. 39). The farmers and housewives, a group of women set apart from the beer-brewers, and called ‘the intensely conservative hard-core of village life’ (p. 39), admire Life’s independence, for they live in a world where only men ‘built up their own, individual reputations’ (p. 41). But they turn away from her when she becomes a prostitute, in a moment important in the story as a whole, not least because it prefigures one of the story’s closing moments. This is a comment made to Lesego by Sianana: ‘Why did you kill that fuck-about? You had legs to walk away’ (p. 46). Like Sianana, the ‘conservative’ women are marginal to the plot, whose focus falls on a drama enacted between the ‘new’ woman and characters not fully representative of rural society, as Head sees it—Life as against Lesego, not Sianana; in accord with the beer-brewers, not the farmers and housewives. But their response, as we shall see, is crucial.

The final word on the drama between Life and Lesego takes the form of a drunken song sung by the beer-brewing women about two worlds colliding. The worlds they refer to are the worlds we have seen in conflict: contemporary South Africa (Life) and contemporary Botswana (Lesego). The words they sing come from a song sung by Jim Reeves, a cowboy-type, like Lesego, as well as a voice from a corrupt world. There is no consolation to be drawn from either world; neither can offer the writer the future she wants. Her solution is to go [into] the world represented by the marginal characters, which functions as a sign of the past. It becomes the writer’s business to reconstruct this past, and to depict it more fully, in subsequent stories. ‘Snapshots of a Wedding’ also alludes to this project, pointing to the way the ‘past’ tries to contain the educated woman. The complexity of the concept of containment, suggesting incorporation and expansion as well as limitation and control, precisely reflects the precariousness of Head’s literary-political project.

Head is under no illusion regarding the position of women in pre-industrial, pre-colonial Southern Africa. Any nostalgic indication of a conservative past is not intended to revive an old world where women were systematically marginalised, but to reject a new world—‘Johannesburg’, in this story—where individualism flourishes, but where neither men nor women can rely on having importance as individuals, where a section of the population lives a privileged existence, but where whole groups of people can be consigned to a life of material and psychological wretchedness, and where Life’s apparently carefree slogan— ‘live fast, die young, and have a good-looking corpse’ (p. 40)—is both in itself the sign of entrapment in a world fundamentally hostile to women, and the heritage of a capitalist consumer culture, ‘glaring paltry trash’.7 ‘Life’ may be read, then, as a justification of Head’s refusal to accept models of emancipation from the modern world. She wants not to see choice in terms of what is offered by two versions of the present, but to cut another route, taking the past as point of departure.

It is of course true that the text’s use of the term ‘hysterical’ itself recalls the hysterical anxiety on the part of patriarchal culture towards women who have managed to break free of its rule; the congruence set up in the text between emancipation and sexual immorality or prostitution also betrays this hysterical response. Moreover, the conflation of ‘feminism’ and ‘Johannesburg’ or the world dominated by ‘white’ South Africa has its own political dangers: rebellious Black South African women are often slapped down as ‘white’.8 Nevertheless, it is worth taking seriously Head’s desire to circumvent the package offered by the present, not only because the particular ways in which her writing returns to the past reveal a version of feminism other than that represented by the ‘new’ woman, not only because it is true that European models have often been hostile to Africa, but also because the route through the past corresponds, mutatis mutandis, to the direction being taken by other contemporary South African writers. Ellen Kuzwayo, for instance, has said that Black thinking on women would have developed differently were it not for the stultifying effect of laws entrenching ‘ethnicity’, many of which artificially elevate male authority over women: in this regard she constructs a certain version of the past in order to inform, like Head, the present and the future.9

Head’s particular strategy is also symptomatic of the ‘double allegiance’ of African women writers to liberation from neo-colonialism on the one hand and to a feminist consciousness on the other. 10 One kind of reading may simply insist that this ‘double allegiance’ manifests itself in ambivalence and contradiction, but another kind of reading may see an altogether different shape emerging, finding its own precarious balance in a way which refuses the false polarity of national struggle and feminist struggle. Looking at some of the choices Head made through her writing career, and focusing particularly on the construction of the relation between women and community in some of the stories in The Collector of Treasures, her last published fiction, I intend in this essay to point to a certain feminism which, albeit by another name, is in the process of being forged in Black Southern Africa.

Community, Orality and the Question of Women

Speaking of her early life in apartheid South Africa, Head says:

Twenty-seven years of my life was lived in South Africa but I have been unable to record this experience in any direct way, as a writer…. It is as though, with all those divisions and signs, you end up with no people at all. The environment completely defeated me, as a writer. I just want people to be people, so I had no way of welding all the people together into a cohesive whole.11

Using writing as ‘some kind of shrine to go to—some means of spiritual survival’,12 Head made a home for herself out of what she saw as Botswana’s potential to be a ‘cohesive whole’. Her ideal community is characterised above all by continuity: temporal continuity, where the past is recalled in the present, with the sense of a continuing and secure future; continuity between people, where neighbours are truly neighbours and not identified and thus separated in terms of class and race; and continuity between economic existence and natural surroundings, or, in Marxist terms, between the individual and the mode of production. The need to idealise certain aspects of the Botswanan community is a personal and political need which does not prevent her from recognising that real-life Botswana falls short of this ideal, but does lead her to optimistic conclusions in the novels that precede The Collector of Treasures.

Her first novel, When Rain Clouds Gather (1969),13 finds its main fictional dynamic in an abuse of chiefly power, and its resolution in rural resilience and co-operation on the part of the people. The next novel, Maru (1971),14 presents the racist attitudes in Setswana society towards the Basarwa (the San, once called ‘Bushmen’ in white South African discourse) whom the text identifies as ‘the slaves and downtrodden dogs of the Batswana’ (p. 18). Resolution is provided through romantic love—the chief offers an example to his people by marrying Margaret, a Masarwa—and the implication that a new community is in the making. The marriage gives hope to the Basarwa: ‘a door silently opened on the small, dark airless room in which their souls had been shut for a long time. The wind of freedom … turned and flowed into the room’ (p. 126).

In Head’s first two novels the main focus is on feudal class relations in the first novel and tribal or race relations in the second: the question of gender is subordinated to the question of relations between chiefly authority, community leaders, and people. However, When Rain Clouds Gather does allude to problems regarding the patriarchal objectification and marginalisation of women, and offers as a model a particular male/female relationship which is not marked by neglect or abuse. It is worth looking at this novel and the next in some detail, as they reveal crucial problems and issues in Head’s specifically feminist concerns.

The question of gender in When Rain Clouds Gather is addressed in the context of the breakdown of family structure under the system of migrant labour, with the text suggesting that the development of family feeling in men, and specifically romantic love, might help reinstate family life. This proposition is buttressed by the possibility of material improvement: the agricultural work that the women perform (under male direction) will eventually restore fertility to an overgrazed land and thus relieve the country of poverty. Head sees the need for men to develop feeling towards both family and community: the harmony of the second depends on the harmony of the first. Interestingly, only part of the necessary consciousness is rooted in the past (old tribal customs forced Makhaya ‘to care about children’—p. 119) and so it needs to combine with a newer strain, the capacity for romantic, monogamous attachment: ‘In this way Makhaya differed from all African men’ (p. 172). Makhaya is also uncharacteristic in treating women as his equals, and in his non-tribalism. He is a man of the future, who has made a specific break with the past: ‘It was only once his father died that he was able to come forward with his own strange Makhaya smiles and originality of mind’ (p. 124).

At one point in the text, after a comment about women who are ‘dead’ because of their habitual abjection, the narrator suggests that ‘even if a door opened somewhere’ most women would not be able to grasp their freedom (p. 126). Only Paulina offers the hint of an exception; Maria, a woman composed of two selves, subordinates her feminist self to a self ‘soft’, ‘meditative’ and obedient (pp. 101, 103). In Maru a door is opened, but not on the question of gender. This is to say that the ‘wind of freedom’ which blows through the door is directed only at the Basarwa. The wind that Margaret feels, as woman, is a ‘strong wind’ (p. 103) blowing, as it were, in the opposite direction: towards a vision of romantic love which materialises in a marriage which promises to be the site of domestic subjection.

This signals, of course, a subtextual interest in gender. Yet, in a fascinating textual and ideological complication, Margaret’s (like Dikeledi’s) subordination within the ideology of romantic love cannot be addressed for fear of disturbing the function romantic love plays in the novel. Romantic love sets the world in motion in Maru, on both the realistic and allegorical planes of the story: Moleka is urged into monogamy, which heralds a new existence for women, and Maru is given an occasion for solving racism. Love also sets in motion the power of creativity which surges through the text in various forms: in the creation myth with its neo-Lawrentian sun/moon/earth symbolism, and (to speak of compassion rather than romantic love) in the artistic vision of Margaret Cadmore II, which differs from the coldly scientific vision of the first Margaret Cadmore. It is true that the women characters in Maru escape the deathly docility of oppressed women referred to in the earlier novel: they are both teachers, Margaret is also an artist, and in certain respects they know how to speak and think for themselves. Yet, even with the particular status given Dikeledi and Margaret within the framework of romantic love and monogamous marriage, which means that they are not consigned to ‘some back room’ (When Rain Clouds Gather, p. 124), the novel cannot help but give a sense of their subordination: Margaret because of the shift from financial and psychological independence, and Dikeledi because of the pain of loving more than she is loved. While this inequality is in an interesting way balanced by Margaret’s ability to look away from Maru, for she also loves Moleka, the text keeps such meanings submerged, along with the whole question of gender. Some of them emerge in A Question of Power (1974),15 Head’s third novel, where humiliation, dependence and pain become the major topic. This makes all the more imperative the careful definition of romantic love that will take place in The Collector of Treasures if Head’s social vision of family and community is to be possible.

But the particular anguish of A Question of Power goes deeper than this, for it records what Head has pointed to as a growing and finally devastating recognition that cruelty and lack of compassion could exist as readily in Botswana as in South Africa, and could, equally, be a part of her own psyche: ‘there is a line that forms the title of the book—if the things of the soul are really a question of power then anyone in possession of the power of the spirit could be Lucifer’.16 The particular forms taken by the ‘madness’ of the narrative self in this novel dramatise the artificial divisions or splits at war in the racist, sexist social order. The text’s affirmative ending— which reads more like an act of will than an organically conceived resolution—is again constructed around the sense of community, which (appropriately to Head’s general project) is emphatically placed as vision rather than reality: ‘[falling asleep, Margaret] placed one soft hand over her land. It was a gesture of belonging.’17

After this novel of personal breakdown, Head moved away for a while from fiction, with its particular inward-turning, and began to collect oral tradition, as if needing by this means to bring community and communality once again to the foreground. She collected and transcribed the set of oral accounts that would make up Serowe: Village of the Rain Wind (1981);18 some of these would later provide the germs for the short stories in The Collector of Treasures. 19 (Though published later, Serowe precedes The Collector of Treasures. )

Despite these close links, the books differ from each other in two major ways, both of them of import for the argument being developed in this essay. One difference is the writer’s insertion of women into the presented world. With the exception of the anecdote that produces ‘Heaven is not Closed’ , the oral accounts give virtually no sense of women’s presence. The other difference concerns the question of orality. Even as the record of oral accounts, Serowe retains little connection with orality, since the performative element is missing: the gestures, expressions and movements of the oral tale-teller are silenced in the literal transcription. In The Collector of Treasures, however, Head strives, as writer, to recreate that sense of performance. We need to look at this process first, before we turn to the textual incorporation of women.

As part of their artistic reconstruction of the oral tradition, Head’s texts incorporate into the ontology of the presented world both storyteller and audience, setting up one or more subordinate narrators—distinct from the authorial narrator—as well as a group of listeners. Through these devices the reader is invited to adopt a spatio-temporal perspective within that world, becoming part of the community. This is a common device in regional literature which intends to seduce the outside metropolitan reader into its world, and is employed by writers as diverse as William Faulkner and Ama Ata Aidoo. Head’s stories often reconstruct the gestures around the act of storytelling, referring to the postures, positions and physical responses of both storyteller and audience, and thus continue to reinforce the sense of a community gathering together to tell and to hear a tale.

In a slightly different way, Head’s writing recalls the oral tradition by incorporating into the collection: (a) genealogy, or epic history; (b) proverbs and sayings; and (c) gossip and community responses to events and people. These three devices draw attention to the continuing presence and contemporary reconstruction of community voice and community values, reminding the reader that in a culture with no written history, no codified legal system, no written text books, it is word-of-mouth accounts, passed from generation to generation, in a process of frequent debate, which provide history, entertainment, education and law. For the first story in the collection the narrator draws on community memory in order to present the genealogy of the Taloate people, who broke away from the Monamapee people, thus placing the written text within the oral tradition, that ‘ancient stream of holiness’ (Collector of Treasures, p. 11) referred to in her story ‘Heaven is not Closed’.

Head also sometimes incorporates proverbs and sayings into her narrative, in a way comparable to, although considerably less often and less explicitly than, Chinua Achebe in Things Fall Apart, where the male speakers deploy the proverb in order to reach back to traditional wisdom for their authority. In ‘Jacob: the Story of a Faith-Healing Priest’, Head has a woman speaker reach back for her authority. Johannah needs to justify herself in the face of accusations from her relatives about having entered a number of sexual relationships: ‘At last Johannah was allowed to speak. She raised her hand proudly and quoted an old proverb: “I agree with all that has been said about me…. But I am a real woman and as the saying goes the children of a real woman do not get lean or die”’ (p. 30). And she later repeats: ‘the children of a real woman cannot fall into the fire’ (p. 31).20

Probably the most noticeable example of orality in Head’s texts is the constant use of ‘they said’, ‘they exclaimed’ and so on, which give the impression of everyone talking, having their say: a community of volubility. The standard trajectory of Head’s stories is to open with a wide-angle focus on the community, to close in on individuals within that community, and to end with a focus on community again, so that the individual voice typically emerges from and then slips back into communality. The voice of the (impersonal, virtually invisible) authorial narrator is generally taken over by one or more voices within the community, or what I call here a community voice. Only in two stories is the primary narrator placed explicitly apart from the community; but in ‘The Special One’ she is represented as a visitor being drawn into the village community, despite her initial remoteness and confusion, and in ‘Jacob: the Story of a Faith-Healing Priest’ as the one gathering together the voices that will make up the full (written) story.

The implicit disjunction between literary and oral voice notwithstanding, there is as little reminder as possible in the stories generally of the literary as opposed to the oral, for Head’s representation of the storyteller and storytelling involves a refusal both of the authorial authority and the authorial creative function that typically mark the literary text (I refer to the general realist tradition, within which Head writes). The shift is of course not to a modernist disappearance of the author and her replacement by the individual subject, but to an impression of communal creativity and communal response. In this regard there is a marked similarity between Head and other Black South African writers, although the particular strategies are very different: Noni Jabavu, for instance, whose project in The Ochre People21 is virtually to repress the individual by means of the communal, and Ellen Kuzwayo, whose Call Me Woman22 flips back and forth between the voice of the autobiographical subject and the voices, or lives, of other South African women.

One consequence of the authorial limitation of authority and the focus on community response is an invitation to the reader to share in the dramatic conflict around which the story pivots. Michael Thorpe, who also looks at Head’s constructed kinship with the village storyteller of the oral tradition, attempts to come to terms with the various contradictions in Head’s stories by arguing that ‘the [authorial] narrator seems often to be telling the story as an exploration, as a way to develop or even question her own understanding’.23 It is hard to say whether she is developing her own understanding by dramatising community responses, but certainly through this dramatisation Head reveals a desire not to construct the stories as an expression of moral judgement, and thus, I suggest, refuse to cast herself as outsider, as part of the world of missionaries, colonial legislators and judges and what she on one occasion calls the ‘lily-white artist’.24

But even if Head as author of the literary text disappears behind the voice of the community and its varying and often uncertain intellectual and emotional responses, this does not mean that we do not periodically hear an authorial attitude at odds with the patriarchal communal voice. The opening story of the collection, ‘The Deep River’, heralds the concern with gender evident in many of the stories. Tracing the emergence of individual desire from the single ‘face’ (p. 1) of the people, the story represents the individual as specifically anti-patriarchal: young Sebembele falls in love with the woman possessed but not loved by his father. This picks up the father-son difference referred to earlier in relation to When Rain Clouds Gather, confirms that the concept of community has all too easily referred to a patriarchal community whose idea of cohesiveness depends on the subjection of women, and suggests that the idea of community will be differently defined.

Often the authorial attitude is explicit. Some of the critical statements regarding the community’s treatment of women were mentioned at the start of the essay. ‘The Collector of Treasures’, the title story, provides the most extended feminist statement, commenting on both pre-colonial and post-colonial times. Correspondingly, then, in view of her overall project, we shall see Head taking particular pains in this story to close the distance between feminist writer and oral community. In the collection as a whole she takes pains to represent the voices of women, and often ‘hears’ in these voices the origins of her own feminist voice.

The Voices of Women: Reconstructing Community

The feminist intervention in ‘The Collector of Treasures’ reads as follows. In the pre-colonial African world women were regarded ‘in a congenital sense, as being an inferior form of human life’ (p. 92). By diminishing customary paternal authority, colonialism has also neutralised paternal responsibility, and in the process has helped entrench anti-female behaviour:

The colonial era and the period of migratory mining labour to South Africa was a further affliction…. It broke the hold of the ancestors. It broke the old, traditional form of family life…. [The man] became ‘the boy’ of the white man…. Men and women, in order to survive, had to turn inwards to their own resources. It was the man who arrived at this turning point, a broken wreck with no inner resources at all…. [I]n an effort to flee his own inner emptiness, he spun away from himself in a dizzy kind of death dance of wild destruction and dissipation.

(p. 92)

In general, Head’s solution to the problems posed for women in such a community is to reconstruct patriarchalism by inserting or reinserting women into oral tradition, and thus both giving women a central moral place in communal life and creating a different kind of community. This process of reconstruction will also involve, as we shall see towards the end of this chapter, the creation of a different kind of male figure, who modifies the nature of the patriarchal community.

‘The Wind and a Boy’ concerns itself, particularly poignantly, with the idea of a woman trying to take charge of a story. The grandmother artfully incorporates into her storytelling that British novel which marks the start of the novelistic tradition, for she tells a wonderful story about Robinson Crusoe as a hunter who serves the community by killing an elephant. The grandmother, Sejosenye, is the Black and female Daniel Defoe; her grandson’s name Friedman marks him as an emancipated version of the enslaved Friday. However, Friedman is killed within the ambit of an altogether uglier story: by ‘progress’ (p. 75) in the form of a ‘small green truck’ (p. 74) driven by a man with ‘neither brakes on his car nor a driving licence’ (p. 75): ‘And thus progress, development, and a pre-occupation with status and living-standards first announced themselves to the village. It looked like being an ugly story with many decapitated bodies on the main road’ (p. 75). When she learns of his death Sejosenye says, ‘Can’t you return those words back?’ (p. 74), and spends the rest of her life feverishly singing and talking to herself, as if still desperately hoping to substitute her own story for someone else’s version of progress.

In ‘Kgotla’ the focus is on people having their say, with the woman’s moral authority voiced at the end of the story. Women were traditionally not allowed into the kgotla, the seat of tribal administration or council where court activities traditionally take place and, after the establishment of colonial rule with its magistrate’s court, the ‘people’s place’ (p. 62), where ‘people could make their anguish and disputes heard’ (ibid.). Under the leadership of Khama (Kgama III: 1875-1923) women were allowed for the first time to come to court to lodge a complaint personally rather than through a male sponsor. 25 Head observed that Khama gave women a ‘feeling … that they could talk for themselves’.26 Women are still excluded from being judges, but since, as the male judges admit, ‘we can never settle cases at kgotla’ (p. 68), it is noteworthy that the woman called Rose, who has had an unfair informal judgment passed on her by the community, is now in a formal setting able to produce her own words of generosity and commitment to the well-being of the community, thus providing a settlement accessible neither to the male judges nor her extended family nor the ‘bureaucratic world’ (p. 62) bequeathed by British rule, which had ‘no time to listen’ (p. 61).

In ‘The Deep River’ the oral account produced by the old men at the end of the story characterises the whole story as a piece of genealogy, or epic history. As the Africanist historian Basil Davidson notes, ‘There is scarcely a modern African people without a more or less vivid tradition that speaks of movement from another place. Younger sons of paramount chief would hive off with their followers, and become paramount themselves in a new land.’27 Epic history such as this is typically narrated by men.28 Head, as woman writer, thus takes over the epic, inserting women into a tradition which has excluded them. (Head later added A Bewitched Crossroad 29 to her historical oeuvre.)

What difference does the woman’s voice make? At the very least, its presence invites one to take a critical perspective on patriarchalism. Within the general community the different values given to ‘woman’ become the sign of the community’s internal differences: the new community is defined as one in which women are valued for more than their reproductive capacities. Nevertheless, the fact that difference speaks itself in the following way—some say ‘A man who is influenced by a woman is no ruler. He is like one who listens to the advice of a child’ (p. 3), others say ‘Let him keep her’ (ibid.), as if women were in some sense still like dogs—betrays the marks of the same: the romantic resolution continues to place woman as object rather than subject.

The ending of the story offers comment on the romantic resolution. Echoing Moleka’s insistence in Maru that ‘[attractive] women like you are the cause of all the trouble in the world’ (p. 83), this story ends:

The old men there keep on giving confused and contradictory accounts of their origins, but they say they lost their place of birth over a woman. They shake their heads and say that women have always caused a lot of trouble in the world.

(p. 6)

As the men see it, the story is thus one of loss rather than reparation, and the ‘account’ with which women are now credited is simply one of blame, the inverse of the romantic idealisation of women (in both moves they are the objects against which men define themselves and towards which they yearn). In this way ‘The Deep River’ puts under scrutiny its own romantic ending as well as, by implication, those of the earlier novels to which it indirectly alludes.

The resolution of the plot is provided by the marriage and the establishment of a new community, with the closure of the story represented as a patriarchal account. This juxtaposition (again) casts doubt on whether attitudes to women in the new community differ at all from the old. But, as I have suggested, only in one sense is this the story’s last word: the story is ultimately written not by the old men but by the writer, a woman, who presides over all the tale-telling in the text, gathering, shaping, invisibly narrating, occasionally commenting, and taking to print. A gap thus opens up in ‘The Collector of Treasures’ between the oral account, defined here as a patriarchal account, and the written account which questions it, with the act of representation—the representation of women, and of romantic love—posing itself as an issue straddling that gap.

The writer’s interest in elevating the voices of women, which she does in many of the subsequent stories, is in part an interest in reconstructing a male-dominated community. In this way Head heralds the current interest in South African literary and political life in hearing the voices of women. But the problem of the relation between men and women remains, even if women become more vocal, if the representation of women does not change: if, in other words, women still define women in terms of the patriarchal symbolic system, thus confirming themselves as the signs of the feminine as it is patriarchally conceived, however much the presence of women’s voices seems otherwise to contradict such conceptions. The pressure on women in terms of the liberation struggle has been and still is enormous: men have spoken out publicly about the need for women to ‘re-encourage’ them rather than to deflate or ‘castrate’ them, as if continuing the damage done by white racist rule.30 Head’s contribution in the face of this difficulty is to define masculinity in different terms, but at the same time to find the roots for this new masculinity in the past itself, as discussion of her ‘new man’, generally called her ‘great man’, will show.

The ‘Great Man’/The ‘New Man’

The period of reading and research in between writing A Question of Power and The Collector of Treasures, a period during which Head makes a turn from personal to community focus and also attends more carefully and explicitly to the position of women in the community, is also marked by Head’s developing respect for Khama the Great, in whom she found qualities which cohered with what she had already been dreaming of in a figure like Makhaya. In a lengthy interview Head gave in 1983, there are fascinating links to be detected between what Head sees as the contribution of Khama the Great and the processes of her own creativity. Most obviously, Head’s strong response to what she called Khama’s ‘balancing act’31 offers itself as a model for her own literary project as it unfolds in The Collector of Treasures. In her view, Khama adopted a number of new practices from the ‘West’ without disrupting the continuity of traditional life, and managed to resist what Cecil Rhodes was planning for Botswana, thus saving the country ‘from what happened to South Africa’.32 More subtly, Khama functions as the god-like figure who replaces the ‘Lucifer’ referred to in relation to A Question of Power, affirming Head’s vision of god-on-earth, and turning the author’s potentiality for destructiveness on to the path of creativity and good.33

The great man, for Head, is one who is able to reform custom and tradition without losing the customary ‘courtesies’. By this Head means more than ritual or social gesture; ‘courtesies’ refers above all to a consciousness of the community which expresses itself in community service and personal responsibility to family as well. The observance of such ‘courtesies’ helps forge in people an awareness of their own continuity, which involves an awareness of history, accessible through Botswana rather than South Africa, where the history is primarily one of ‘land-grabbing wars and diamond- and gold-rushes’, with ‘whole breaks’ instead of a ‘beautiful pattern’ of human coexistence.34

Besides being primarily concerned with the welfare and dignity of others, men and women alike, Head’s great man has a ‘broader view of life’ which is the gift of the literary artist, too, who has ‘the biggest view possible’;35 this view enables both man and writer to stand against racism, she says, and against sexism, as her fiction implies. Interestingly, Head suggests that this ‘broader view’ is developed from influences outside Botswana, even from South Africa, which ‘with all its horrors, creates international sorts of people. They identify with the problems of mankind in general, rather than their own.’36 She also says, ‘It’s not so much a question of being black as of having got control of life’s learning.’ All this, in her view, accounts for her literary contribution: the ‘broader view’ brought in from outside, along with her own freedom from particular customs and traditions, given the specific dislocations of her childhood as well as her foreignness in Botswana: ‘I shape the future with this cool stance.’37

What Head means by ‘life’s learning’ is not explicitly clarified, but—in view of her literary and other references—I conclude that it implies an interest in ideas, what she once called a ‘life of the mind’,38 as well as book-learning of a particular kind: the agricultural knowledge that Gilbert brings to Botswana is the obvious example here. Head’s alignment with the figure of the ‘great man’ who can solve Botswana’s social problems is evident in her first novel, in the figure of Makhaya, a man from South Africa, de-tribalised and in search of a better world. Some contribution is made through his links with the communal past, to which he can make certain crucial adjustments of his own, given his ‘broader [external] view’; other contributions are made through his absorption of Gilbert’s university education and agricultural research.

But if Head is herself her own ‘great man’, she is also his creator. She makes clear that when these great men do not exist in reality they must be produced. Speaking of Maru she says: ‘A Botswana chief is not going to marry a Masarwa and publicly make it a huge thing like that. But he was created to do it…. We don’t walk around with gods in our heart. We have to have a character like that to solve racialism.’ And speaking of the anecdote from which she wrote ‘The Collector of Treasures’, she says, ‘that’s why the basic plot I borrowed from life. Now, when I actually wrote that story I mentioned all these things. I borrowed it exactly more or less as it happened, but there’s a huge, majestic man that moves into the story— now he’s going to solve all the problems.’ The writer clearly distinguishes between the collected story and the invented story, the original taken from the reality that the oral tradition offers (a story from the community), with her version adding what reality fails to provide: ‘you’ve got to solve a problem…. [Paul Thebolo] is juxtaposed against a man who has low animal tendencies— but the problem is it is all too much of a reality in the society, and the story wasn’t entirely invented in my own head.’39

The language here bears out the terms with which Maru was discussed, Head in both cases distinguishing between reality and literary invention. Perhaps fancifully, but in tune I think with the unconscious logic of Head’s thinking, my imagination has been caught by the use of her own surname in the phrase ‘in my own head’, whose juxtaposition against ‘all too much of a reality’ emphasises—her projected image as a writer who invents what is not provided by the oral and experienced material offered her in her village community, and who is engaged in the detached judgement that the word ‘shaping’ must imply. At the same time Head is anxious not to be seen as the ‘lily-white artist’ removed from communal life and its oral tradition. The ‘writing of books’, Head claimed, is like ‘baking bread and peeling potatoes’.40 Thus adjusting at least some of her references to ‘life’s learning’, her stories take pains to reintegrate writing into such everyday acts, to make the figure of the artist a part of communal action and communal expression, and thus to make her fictional resolutions seem organic to the community rather than brought out of the ‘head’ of a remote outsider.

This is one of the contributions of The Collector of Treasures, offered, I think, as a kind of propitiation for her outsider status, and her learning, and—in the title story of the collection—as a screen for the radical way in which she rewrites the community.

‘The Collector of Treasures’

‘The Collector of Treasures’ focuses on the work done by women’s hands: Dikeledi, for instance, is good at knitting, sewing, weaving baskets and thatching. Then the text focuses, too, on the hands themselves, the beautiful hands of this creative woman: ‘she had soft, caressing, almost boneless, hands of strange power—work of a beautiful design grew from those hands’ (p. 90). With these hands, she says, she ‘fed and reared [her] children’ (p. 90). And with these hands, ‘with the precision and skill of her hard-working hands’ (p. 103) Dikeledi castrates her husband.

Given the implicit connections between creativity and the work that hands do, castration here signifies the creative and constructive rather than the destructive act. Dikeledi has another skill: ‘she had always found gold amidst the ash, deep loves that had joined her heart to the hearts of others…. She was the collector of such treasures’ (p. 91). That ‘The Collector of Treasures’ is the title for the collection as a whole extends the referent of that phrase, even as it is used in this story, to the figure of the author herself: also a ‘collector of treasures’, whose heart has been ‘joined’ through her writing to the ‘hearts of others’, and who has also found gold amidst the ash. If Dikeledi is admired for ‘the pattern she had invented in her own head’ (p. 90), so now is the writer.

The connection between writer and creative character makes its conscious or semi-conscious emergence when Head speaks about first hearing the anecdote that provides the source for the story: ‘it was so shocking to me, it was actually the first time I had ever heard of a man dying like that. When the relative told me, the first thing that I felt was the knife going through me. I even put my hand out.’41 Initially, her response suggests an identification with the corrupted male figure who is being destroyed, himself destroyer of family life. But she also says that she puts her hand out, as if to take hold of that knife, which suggests an identification with Dikeledi. And, in fact, character and writer are linked, for the writer’s characterisation of Paul Thebolo carries hints of metaphorical castration. Just after Garesego has been literally castrated, Thebolo steps ‘out of the dark’ (p. 103), with ‘a tortured expression’ (ibid.) on his face, and for a moment words fail him. Of course in the full metaphorical meaning of the term he is not ‘castrated’: the writer associates him throughout the story with power, in the positive sense, and even specifically with the power of virility (he is man enough for two women, the text tells us, but also man enough not to have to prove himself in that way). But, given the representation of Thebolo as kind, gentle and compassionate, a man who is not afraid to bind himself romantically to a single woman and who does not define his masculinity in a way that leaves mothering to women, The-bolo functions in the story as a ‘feminised’ hero, something like Makhaya in When Rain Clouds Gather.

Dikeledi stands as a figure for the author, then, and the castrating act is to be seen here as an equivalent of the writerly act. Or, to put it another way, the writerly act camouflages itself as a community act, as just one of the expressive acts women perform in a world that comes to the writer through the oral tradition. Having represented herself as the male god-like figure associated in her mind with Khama the Great, as I suggested earlier, Head takes this link further: ‘what was beautiful about the man was that he would slice any harmful … eliminate … but keep’. The lexical choices here recall and extend the word ‘slice’ used for Garesego’s genitals; the horror of that act still remains, as the hesitancy of expression suggests (the ellipses mark the hiatuses in Head’s original speech).42

Why am I labouring this connection between Head and Dikeledi, and Head and the ‘great man’ curative figure, the social healer who comes in with elements from an imagined world which are the products to some extent of the Botswanan past and to some extent of an outsider’s experience and detachment? There are two reasons: one to do with understanding the precariousness of Head’s literary project as a ‘balancing act’, and the other to do with the question of feminism in South Africa today; the route that it tends to take through the African past, rather than the corrupted present; the oblique, courteous manner in which it takes up its feminist voice; the merging of the individual voice with the voice of the community; and the continual elevation of community. Like ‘Life’ and ‘Snapshots of a Wedding’, ‘The Collector of Treasures’ is a tale about the modern world which has lost the values of the communal world. But here the modern world is represented not by ‘conceited’ or ‘hysterical’ women, but by the way Dikeledi’s life has been ruined by Garesego. Moreover, in this world, neighbours shun Dikeledi, which means that (apart from her idyllic relations with Thebolo and Kenalepe) she does not live in communality.

Then it is also about an ideal world, which the writer has constructed as a vision of the (reconstructed) past. The relationship between Dikeledi, Kenalepe and Paul is built on barter, neighbourliness and task-sharing, with paternal responsibility and romantic love put forward as the two major components of Head’s feminist vision. We even almost shift back into a world of polygyny, for Kenalepe suggests that Dikeledi become Thebolo’s unofficial second wife, taking over the conjugal duties that Kenalepe, pregnant, does not wish to perform, and experiencing a sexual pleasure Dikeledi’s husband was too brutish to make possible. Kenalepe offers her husband to Dikeledi, proposing (in small) a kinship system where women are the negotiators rather than the objects of exchange. Nevertheless, this textual direction into the (idealised and redirected) polygynous past is deflected, and the nuclear family, bound by monogamous romantic love and paternal responsibility, is maintained as one of the elements of Head’s idyll.

Within these two tales there are two acts: literal castration and feminisation. The act of castration is the solution of a group of women in the world. Given to Head through the oral tradition, it may thus be placed in a communal world; moreover, all the women in the prison have killed their husbands. But it keeps them imprisoned: if they form a happy community of women within the wider community, they are also set apart, kept in a space characterised by high walls and an anxious male warder who insists that the women stand with their hands at their sides: ‘He does not mind anything but that. He is mad about that’ (p. 90). The act of feminisation is the solution offered by the literary artist, pointing to a new world premised on what Head sees as the best of the old (task-sharing, barter, communal cohesion) and the best of the new (romantic love, nuclear family, monogamy, greater value and voice for women, men stripped of their phallic egos). Although the act of writing is not referred to, it becomes associated, through the association of feminisation with castration, with the other creative acts I have mentioned, and thus characterised as a communal act, where writing is linked to thatching and knitting and weaving, the acts women perform in their construction of home and community. Thus the writer defines herself not as a writer who stands outside the community, but as a figure within. However much the act of writing may look like an extraneous act—for it produces what is not produced by a rural, predominantly pre-literate community—it becomes, in this story, part of the oral/communal act. And so it is that the writer places herself within a community, reconstructed in terms of a feminism whose origins are now not outside, but inside.

In ‘The Special One’ the first-person narrator makes its only extended appearance,43 and in certain ways the device functions to blur the separation made in this essay, largely on the basis of Head’s own statements, between the literary, individual and feminist voice and the oral, communal and patriarchal voice. It is not, at first, the narrator but one of the rural characters who says ‘women are just dogs in this society’ (p. 81). Marked as an outsider to the community, the peripheral narrator comes to take that belief as her own, as if she has been educated by this woman’s story. In this way Head establishes a feminist voice as organic to the community, which is now—in general terms—largely defined by the voices and judgements of women.

The question of representation is raised, as I have said, in ‘The Deep River’. Women are viewed by one section of the male population in terms of their reproductive functions, and then by another section as the objects of romantic love, which simply leads to their being finally placed in the patriarchal shuttle between praise and blame. Head’s incorporation of women’s voices and women’s views means that women can no longer be considered ‘of no account’. Conservative her project certainly remains, for although it expands and adjusts the nature of community and family to make a more hospitable space for women, it also calls upon the feminine in its conventional idealised associations: in ‘Kgotla’, for instance, Rose is valued for her self-sacrifice to the larger good of the extended family, and in ‘Jacob’ the proverb Johanna brings forward from the past defines her as ‘real woman’ precisely through her motherhood.

Yet such moments of representation need to be seen in the context of Head’s careful redefinition of masculinity in precisely the terms accorded the feminine: generosity, compassion, self-sacrifice and motherliness. These are the community ‘courtesies’ being demanded of both men and women. Head’s new men in The Collector of Treasures eschew greed and power, and are characterised by generosity and humility, like Tholo in ‘Hunting’ and Thebolo in ‘The Collector of Treasures’ in their realised forms, and like Sian-ana in ‘Life’ and Friedman in ‘The Wind and a Boy’ in their potential. For specific textual indications that Head’s characterisation of such men is to be read as a feminising act, beyond the subtle metaphor set up in ‘The Collector of Treasures’, we may go to the story ‘Hunting’, where one of the villagers says of Tholo: ‘I don’t know whether he is a girl or what’ (p. 105). And, reversing the conventional literary situation where men are the poets and women the poems, Thebolo in ‘The Collector of Treasures’ is ‘a poem of tenderness’ (p. 93).

Thinking again of the construction of community in ‘Snapshots of a Wedding’, any authorial correction that might await this community would involve Neo’s husband, in the terms offered by ‘The Collector of Treasures’ and ‘Hunting’. Neo herself has been defined as ‘good wife’, and the story makes clear that this function is to be seen in communal rather than simply familial terms. Life, in ‘Life’, cannot be contained by the community in this way, for she lacks—like Head’s damaged modern men—the resources to see village life as anything but a ‘big, gaping yawn’ (p. 43). Head’s feminism directs itself away from any tendency in middle-class feminist practice to take male access to power and independence as its model; individualism is defined as ‘conceit’, unacceptable in both women and men. Given Head’s de facto relation with the Botswanan community, this approach must involve repressing—or containing—certain aspects of herself.

Noni Jabavu, also writing about the problem posed to the community by modern manners in men and women (in the Eastern Cape rather than Botswana) refers to the ‘chasms [that] yawned before you’ if your ‘personal inclinations and habits’ of privacy ‘tended against the principle’ of sociability, which she glosses as an ‘exposure to the public gaze’.44 The topic is slightly different, and the points of departure and destination are too, for throughout The Ochre People Jabavu represents herself as obedient to patriarchal rules about women. Yet what binds Head and Jabavu, and Kuzwayo as well, is their recognition of the risk people take when they separate themselves from the demands made in the name of community, for this leaves them without a social structure by which to know themselves. Although Head and Jabavu accept the cost of this communal incorporation, the word ‘yawn’ in both cases betrays a semi-conscious resistance, and briefly points to the gap that necessarily exists between modern, cosmopolitan, highly educated writer and rural, conservative, pre-literate community.

To what extent are Head’s women freed from the grip of patriarchal ideology? Even in ‘The Collector of Treasures’, within the idealised world created between Dikeledi, Kenalepe and Paul, Dikeledi and Kenalepe still sit ‘on the edge’ (p. 95) of male political debate about colonialism and independence, listening but never participating, although they go over the discussions themselves the next day. Perhaps at this moment, despite the idealised representation in other respects, Head feels herself limited by social reality. As Miriam Tlali has explained regarding her own writing, her women characters play a supportive role to their husbands not because she thinks women ought to, but because in reality they are not allowed to come to the forefront.45 However much Head’s women characters are brought to the forefront, their voices preside over rural communal and familial concerns, and do not extend into the politics of modern life.

The main project of this essay has been to listen to the contribution being made by Head to the question of feminism, and to recognise some aspects of the personal and political desire that lies behind some of her textual decisions and strategies. But it must also be said that an ideological gap keeps opening up between Head as writer (that is, the position formulated in her texts) and myself as (white, urban, post-Lacanian) critic, precisely over the representation of women as mothers and wives, over the ideological place of family and community, and over the definition of feminism itself, to say nothing of the difficulty of translating Head’s vision into an urban environment and making it speak in the face of contemporary political realities, however, much I yearn, like her, to find a place in Africa no longer marked by ‘all those divisions and signs’.


1. ‘Bessie Head: Interviewed by Michelle Adler, Susan Gardner, Tobeka Mda and Patricia Sandler’, in C. MacKenzie and C. Clayton (eds), Between the Lines (Grahamstown, S. Africa: National English Literary Museum, 1989) p. 11.

2. Bessie Head, The Collector of Treasures and Other Botswanan Village Tales (London: Heinemann Educational, 1977) pp. 3, 83.

3. Bessie Head, ‘Despite Broken Bondage, Botswana Women are Still Unloved’, The Times, 13 August 1975, p. 5.

4. While Chetin’s analysis of The Collector of Treasures is interesting and useful, her desire to read Head’s narrator as a ‘village narrator’ and her general focus on myth (‘around which all our lives are constructed’) mean that she is not engaged with the specificities of the writer’s relation with the village community, which I need to look at as part of a political debate. Another difference between Chetin’s approach and mine is that she is interested in the ‘distinctly ambiguous, unresolved tone’ in Head’s writing, whereas my interest lies in tonal precariousness, which again involves political intentions (S. Chetin, ‘Myth, Exile and the Female Condition: Bessie Head’s The Collector of Treasures’, Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Vol. 24, no. 1 (1989) pp. 132, 115, 114).

5. S. Rimmon-Kenan, Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics (London: Methuen, 1983) p. 103.

6. ‘There were so many things in African custom and tradition that are good. You had to offer life certain courtesies’ (MacKenzie and Clayton (eds), Between the Lines, p. 16).

7. ‘The cheap, glaring paltry trash of a people who are living it up for themselves alone dominates everything’ (Bessie Head, ‘African Story’, Listener, vol. 88, no. 2279 (1972) p. 736).

8. Kirsten Holt Peterson quotes a South African woman speaking as follows:

In South Africa the question of Western feminism, encroaching into the minds of the African women is a very, very sensitive question, particularly for the African man. Anytime you ask him to do something, to go and fetch the child today, or something like that he says: ‘Look, you are already a feminist. You are a white woman and a feminist.’ It is thrown into your face in the same way in which Communist is thrown into the face of the blacks in South Africa.

K. H. Peterson (ed.), Criticism and Ideology: Second African Writers’ Conference, Stockholm 1986 (Uppsala: Scandinavian Institute of African Studies, 1988) p. 185

Like most other South African (and African) women writers, Head did not call herself a feminist. But this was not for fear of being called ‘white’: ‘I do not have to be a feminist. The world of the intellect is impersonal, sexless…. I have worked outside all political and other ideologies, bowing to life here and there and absorbing all that I felt to be relevant, but always fighting for space and air. I needed this freedom and independence, in order that my sympathies remain fluent and responsive to any given situation in life’. (‘Writing out of Southern Africa’, New Statesman, 16 August 1985, p. 22)

9. Ellen Kuzwayo has spoken of the way the South African government has capitalised on the traditions and customs of Black South Africans in an interview with Beata Lipman (B. Lipman, We Make Freedom (London: Pandora Press, 1984) p. 18). For further discussion of Kuzwayo’s feminism, in relation to Black Consciousness, see D. Driver, ‘M’a-Ngoana O Tsoare Thipa ka Bohaleng—The Child’s Mother Grabs the Sharp End of the Knife: Women as Mothers, Women as Writers’, in M. Trump (ed.), Rendering Things Visible: Essays on South African Literary Culture (Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1990) pp. 225-55.

10. See C. B. Davies, ‘Introduction: Feminist Consciousness and African Literary Criticism’, in C. B. Davies and A. A. Graves (eds), Ngambika: Studies of Women in African Literature (Trenton, N. J.: Africa World Press, 1986) p. 1.

11. B. Head, ‘Some Notes on Novel Writing’, New Classic, vol. 5 (1978) p. 30.

12. Quoted in J. Marquard, ‘Bessie Head: Exile and Community in Southern Africa’, London Magazine, vol. 18, nos. 9 and 10 (1978) p. 54.

13. B. Head, When Rain Clouds Gather (London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1987). Page references to this novel are given in the essay itself.

14. B. Head, Maru (London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1972). Page references to this novel are given in the essay itself.

15. B. Head, A Question of Power (London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1974).

16. Quoted in Marquard, ‘Bessie Head’, p. 53. In ‘Some Notes on Novel Writing’, Head says ‘I found myself in a situation where there was no guarantee against the possibility that I could be evil too’ (p. 31).

17. Head, A Question of Power, p. 206. Head noted that she balanced the ‘inward turning’ of the book by incorporating ‘an everyday world where a little village gets on with its everyday affairs and is interested in progress and development’ (‘Bessie Head’, in L. Nichols (ed.), Conversations with African Writers (Washington, D.C.: Voice of America, 1981) p. 54).

18. B. Head, Serowe: Village of the Rain Wind (London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1981).

19. See Craig MacKenzie, ‘Short Fiction in the Making: the Case of Bessie Head’, English in Africa (Grahamstown), vol. 15, no. 1 (1988) pp. 17-28.

20. Bessie Head gives formal acknowledgement to C. L. S. Nyembezi, Zulu Proverbs (Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 1954), which draws attention to the frequent incorporation of proverbs in her writing, but I am referring here to the self-conscious use of proverbs by characters in dialogue. In ‘Life’ Head presents a saying in the making: ‘I’m not like Lesego with money in the bank’ (Collector of Treasures, p. 41).

21. N. Jabavu, The Ochre People (London: John Murray, 1963).

22. E. Kuzwayo, Call Me Woman (Johannesburg: Raven Press, 1985).

23. M. Thorpe et al., Essays in African Literature (Mysore, India: Center for Commonwealth Literature and Research, University of Mysore, 1978) p. 414.

24. MacKenzie and Clayton (eds), Between the Lines, p. 24.

25. For a discussion of Khama’s revisions regarding the kgotla see I. Schapera, Tribal Innovators: Tswana Chiefs and Social Change, 1795-1940 (London: University of London, The Athlone Press, 1970) p. 93. Schapera also discusses Khama’s abolition of bogadi (p. 93) and his revision of the laws of inheritance for women (pp. 144-5). Head refers to these changes in ‘Bessie Head’, in MacKenzie and Clayton (eds), Between the Lines, p. 16. Schapera is probably her source.

26. MacKenzie and Clayton (eds), Between the Lines, p. 16.

27. Quoted in Thorpe, p. 416, n. 71.

28. Research by Harold Scheub and A. C. Jordan shows a gender division in the oral tradition: epic history is typically narrated by men, generally as part of public performance, whereas the narrative fictional tale is the domain of women, and told in a domestic setting. See A. C. Jordan, Tales from Southern Africa (Berkeley, Cal.: California University Press, 1973) pp. 1-2; H. Scheub, The Xhosa Ntsomi (London: Oxford University Press, 1975) pp. 5-6, 12. The division is not rigid, except in the obviously significant case of public performance. Elizabeth Gunner confirms that although women do participate in the genre of the praise poem, closely linked to the epic, their recital-performances are conducted in the company of women. See E. Gunner, ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience: Women as Composers and Performers of Izibongo, Zulu Praise Poetry’, in C. Clayton (ed.), Women and Writing in South Africa: A Critical Anthology (Johannesburg: Heinemann, 1989) pp. 13, 16.

29. B. Head, A Bewitched Crossroad (New York: Paragon House, 1986).

30. The term ‘re-encourage’ comes from V. February in conference discussion, November 1986: ‘South African Literature: Liberation and the Art of Writing’ Special Issue of Dokumente Texte und Tendenzen, vol. 7 (1987) p. 79. A similar point has been made by the psychologist N. C. Manganyi, Being-Black-in-the-World (Johannesburg: Spro-cas/Ravan, 1973) pp. 10-11. This desire for support is what lies behind the accusations of ‘white-ism’ referred to earlier.

31. MacKenzie and Clayton (eds), Between the Lines, p. 16.

32. B. Fradkin, ‘Conversation with Bessie’, World Literature Written in English (WLWE), vol. 17, no. 2 (1987) p. 432.

33. Bessie Head wrote:

I have used the word God in a practical way in my books. I cannot find a substitute word for all that is most holy but I have tried to deflect people’s attention into offering to each other what they offer to an Unseen Being in the sky. When people are holy to each other, war will end, human suffering will end…. I would propose that mankind will one day be ruled by men who are God and not greedy, power-hungry politicians.

(‘Writing out of Southern Africa’, p. 23)

34. MacKenzie and Clayton (eds), Between the Lines, p. 11.

35. Ibid., p. 13.

36. Fradkin, ‘Conversations with Bessie’, p. 429.

37. MacKenzie and Clayton (eds), Between the Lines, p. 13.

38. Quoted in Marquard, ‘Bessie Head’, p. 51. At various times in interviews and essays Head refers to reading Russian novelists and Indian philosophers, as well as historians and anthropologists of Southern Africa. Among the writers she singles out for mention and/or quotes from are Bertolt Brecht, Chinua Achebe, D. H. Lawrence, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Olive Schreiner. When Rain Clouds Gather shows her own keen interest in agricultural research.

39. See MacKenzie and Clayton (eds), Between the Lines, pp. 19, 14, 13. However, I have quoted from the original transcript of the taped interview, held at the National English Literary Museum (NELM), Grahamstown, since this is a slightly fuller and more faithful version. See pp. 17, 11, 10 of typescript held at NELM. In ‘Writing out of Southern Africa’ Head says, ‘I would propose that mankind will one day be ruled by men who are God and not greedy, power-hungry politicians…. Only then can the resources of the earth be cared for and shared in an equitable way among all mankind’ (p. 23).

40. Ibid., p. 24.

41. Ibid., p. 14.

42. I have again quoted from the original transcript of the taped interview (p. 13; See note 39 above). The published version edits the original to read, ‘So he would eliminate, but keep’ MacKenzie and Clayton (eds), p. 16.

43. It is one of the contentions of this essay that the first-person point of view lies behind the authorial narrative situation of all the stories in the particular sense that Head as writer has collected and shaped these tales. What I mean here is made clear in ‘Jacob: the Story of a Faith-Healing Priest’, although instead of using the first-person pronoun the text uses the word ‘you’, in order to camouflage the first-person relation with the story: ‘There is a point in the story when you begin to doubt …’; ‘you lean forward eagerly … [and] ask …’; ‘So you say, almost violently …’ (p. 25).

44. Jabavu, The Ochre People, p. 132.

45. ‘Miriam Tlali: Interviewed by Cecily Lockett’, in MacKenzie and Clayton (eds), Between the Lines, p. 75.

Further Reading


Abrahams, Cecil, ed. Tragic Life: Bessie Head and Literature in Southern Africa. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 1990, 131 p.

Collection of essays that explore Head’s personal life, politics, and spirituality.

Eilersen, Gillian Stead. Bessie Head: Thunder behind Her Ears: Her Life and Writing. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 1995, 312 p.

Covers Head’s life and development as a writer, with information on her travels abroad.


Bazin, Nancy Topping. “Venturing into Feminist Consciousness: Two Protagonists from the Fiction of Buchi Emecheta and Bessie Head.” SAGE: A Scholarly Journal on Black Women 2, no. 1 (spring 1985): 32-36.

Analyzes budding African feminist concerns in novels by Buchi Emecheta and Head.

Flockemann, Miki. “Breakdown and Breakthrough? The Madness of Resistance in Wide Sargasso Sea and A Question of Power.MaComère 2 (1999): 65-79.

Explores the relation of living in exile to the search for identity and, ultimately, to madness in Wide Sargasso Sea and A Question of Power.

Ibrahim, Huma. Bessie Head: Subversive Identities in Exile. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1996, 252 p.

Posits that women of third-world countries are inherently subversive, examining Head’s works in this context.

———, ed. Emerging Perspectives on Bessie Head. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 2003, 326 p.

Collection of essays representing the most recent scholarship on Head.

MacKenzie, Craig. Bessie Head. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1999, 140 p.

Thematic analysis of each of Head’s works, including those published posthumously.

Matsikidze, Isabella P. “Toward a Redemptive Political Philosophy: Bessie Head’s Maru.World Literature Written in English 30, no. 2 (autumn 1990): 105-109.

Explores Maru to find evidence of Head’s political philosophy as it appears in her fiction.

Ola, Virginia U. “Women’s Role in Bessie Head’s Ideal World.” Ariel 17, no. 4 (October 1986): 39-47.

Examines Head’s celebration of the life of the individual woman in her novels.

Osei-Nyame Jr., Kwadwo. “Writing between ‘Self’ and ‘Nation’: Nationalism, (Wo)manhood, and Modernity in Bessie Head’s The Collector of Treasures and Other Botswana Village Tales.Journal of the Short Story in English, no. 39 (autumn 2002): 91-107.

Argues that Head, despite her unusual parentage and lack of family history, was not constrained in her writing by her sense of “otherness” in male-dominated black African society.

Taylor, Carole Anne. “Tragedy Reborn(e): A Question of Power and the Soul-Journeys of Bessie Head.” Genre 26, nos. 2-3 (summer-fall 1993): 331-51.

Explores Head’s use of the genre of tragedy in A Question of Power, specifically as it relates to African women’s suffering.


Additional coverage of Head’s life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: African Writers; Black Literature Criticism; Black Writers, Eds. 2, 3; Concise Dictionary of World Literary Biography, Vol. 3; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 29-32R, 119; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 25-82; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 25, 67; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 117, 225; DISCovering Authors Modules: Multicultural; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Exploring Short Stories; Feminist Writers; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; Short Stories for Students, Vols. 5, 13; Short Story Criticism, Vol. 52; World Literature and Its Times, Vol. 2; and World Writers in English, Vol. 1.

Further Reading

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 500


Abrahams, Cecil, ed. Tragic Life: Bessie Head and Literature in Southern Africa. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 1990, 131 p.

Collection of essays that explore Head's personal life, politics, and spirituality.

Eilersen, Gillian Stead. Bessie Head: Thunder behind Her Ears: Her Life and Writing. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 1995, 312 p.

Covers Head's life and development as a writer, with information on her travels abroad.


Bazin, Nancy Topping. "Venturing into Feminist Consciousness: Two Protagonists from the Fiction of Buchi Emecheta and Bessie Head." SAGE: A Scholarly Journal on Black Women 2, no. 1 (spring 1985): 32-36.

Analyzes budding African feminist concerns in novels by Buchi Emecheta and Head.

Flockemann, Miki. "Breakdown and Breakthrough? The Madness of Resistance in Wide Sargasso Sea and A Question of Power." MaComère 2 (1999): 65-79.

Explores the relation of living in exile to the search for identity and, ultimately, to madness in Wide Sargasso Sea and A Question of Power.

Ibrahim, Huma. Bessie Head: Subversive Identities in Exile. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1996, 252 p.

Posits that women of third-world countries are inherently subversive, examining Head's works in this context.

——, ed. Emerging Perspectives on Bessie Head. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 2003, 326 p.

Collection of essays representing the most recent scholarship on Head.

MacKenzie, Craig. Bessie Head. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1999, 140 p.

Thematic analysis of each of Head's works, including those published posthumously.

Matsikidze, Isabella P. "Toward a Redemptive Political Philosophy: Bessie Head's Maru." World Literature Written in English 30, no. 2 (autumn 1990): 105-109.

Explores Maru to find evidence of Head's political philosophy as it appears in her fiction.

Ola, Virginia U. "Women's Role in Bessie Head's Ideal World." Ariel 17, no. 4 (October 1986): 39-47.

Examines Head's celebration of the life of the individual woman in her novels.

Osei-Nyame Jr., Kwadwo. "Writing between 'Self' and 'Nation': Nationalism, (Wo)manhood, and Modernity in Bessie Head's The Collector of Treasures and Other Botswana Village Tales." Journal of the Short Story in English, no. 39 (autumn 2002): 91-107.

Argues that Head, despite her unusual parentage and lack of family history, was not constrained in her writing by her sense of "otherness" in male-dominated black African society.

Taylor, Carole Anne. "Tragedy Reborn(e): A Question of Power and the Soul-Journeys of Bessie Head." Genre 26, nos. 2-3 (summer-fall 1993): 331-51.

Explores Head's use of the genre of tragedy in A Question of Power, specifically as it relates to African women's suffering.


Additional coverage of Head's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: African Writers; Black Literature Criticism; Black Writers, Eds. 2, 3; Concise Dictionary of World Literary Biography, Vol. 3; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 29-32R, 119; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 25-82; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 25, 67; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 117, 225; DISCovering Authors Modules: Multicultural; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Exploring Short Stories; Feminist Writers; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; Short Stories for Students, Vols. 5, 13; Short Story Criticism, Vol. 52; World Literature and Its Times, Vol. 2; and World Writers in English, Vol. 1.

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Head, Bessie (Short Story Criticism)