Maru, one of the Totems or chiefs in his African village of Dilepe and soon to be the village’s paramount chief, is the title character of Bessie Head’s novel, but it is Margaret Cadmore, a member of the Bushman tribe and thus an untouchable in his society, who changes Maru’s personal history and that of her tribe as well when she comes to teach school in Dilepe.
Because she is a Bushman or a Masarwa, Margaret is as looked down upon as the village’s stray dog, with tin cans tied to its tail as a form of torment by the cruel boys of the village. Margaret’s mother dies on the day that Margaret is born, and her corpse lies untouched by the roadside until Margaret Cadmore, a white missionary, issues orders that it be buried and takes the motherless baby into her home, giving it her name and an education. The young Margaret is rejected and even spit upon by her prejudiced classmates, and in her loneliness she turns to the world of her books, thus becoming an excellent student. She realizes early that survival is difficult for a Bushman, and thus she prepares her mind and soul to help her fight the battles that are inevitable because of the color of her skin. Her outstanding academic record wins for her a teaching job in Dilepe, where, her tribal background unknown, she could easily pass as a “coloured,” a person of mixed white and African blood and thus at least marginally acceptable to the African society. Yet she chooses instead to state openly that she is a Masarwa. Her willingness to declare openly her heritage wins for her the love and respect of Dikeledi, with whom she teaches, and she also becomes the object of the love of the two most powerful men in the village: Maru, Dikeledi’s brother, and Moleka, his best friend. Maru is blessed with rare insight into the human heart; thus, he accurately predicts, even before Margaret’s arrival, that a woman will eventually end the friendship between him and Moleka that neither thought could ever end.
Both Maru and Moleka are well-known for their amorous exploits, but Margaret’s arrival quickly turns the whole of Moleka’s attention in her direction. Moleka loves Margaret from the moment he sees her. He feels something in his chest go “bang,” but it is she who clutches her heart. There is an instant communication between them that needs no words. Moleka knows immediately that a part of his life has ended and that he has chosen a different path. When gossip runs rampant because a Masarwa has been hired to teach the village children, Moleka proves his absence of prejudice by asking his own Masarwa servants to sit down at table with him for a meal. He is ready to defy the whole...
(The entire section is 700 words.)