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Against All Odds: The Life And Times Of Bessie Head

By Abigail George

When Bessie was 12, after she had completed four years of primary school, the authorities moved her to St. Monica’s Home for Coloured Girls, an Anglican boarding-school in Durban. At first, Bessie tried to run away and go home. Later, she began to appreciate the wealth of books and knowledge that the school offered. At the end of her second year, she endured the first great trauma of her life. The authorities abruptly told her that she was the daughter of a white woman, not Nelly Heathcote, and that she would not be allowed to return to her former home for the Christmas holidays. The young teenager was devastated and withdrew into herself.


Around 1969, Head also began to suffer symptoms of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.


Many of Bessie Head’s works are set in Serowe, including the novels When Rain Clouds Gather (1968), Maru (1971), and A Question of Power (1973). The three are also autobiographical. When Rain Clouds Gather is based on her experience living on a development farm, Maru incorporates her experience of being considered racially inferior, and A Question of Power draws on her understanding of what it was like to experience acute psychological distress.


Head also published several short stories, including the collection The Collector of Treasures (1977). She published a book on the history of Serowe, the village she settled in, called Serowe: Village of the Rainwind. Her last novel, A Bewitched Crossroad (1984), is historical, set in 19th-century Botswana. She had also written a story of two prophets, one wealthy and one who lived poorly called “Jacob: The Faith-Healing Priest”. Her work is included in the 1992 anthology Daughters of Africa, edited by Margaret Busby.


Head’s work focused on the everyday life of ordinary people and their role in larger African political struggles. Religious ideas often featured prominently, as in the work A Question of Power. Head was initially brought up as a Christian; however, she was later influenced by Hinduism (to which she was exposed through South Africa’s Indian community).


Most of her writing took place while she was in exile in Botswana, having left South Africa in 1964. An exception is the novel The Cardinals (published posthumously in 1993), set in South Africa.


In some ways, Head remained an outsider in her adopted country, and some discern she had something of a love-hate relationship with it. She struggled with mental illness and suffered a major psychotic episode in 1969, which led to a period of hospitalisation in Lobatse Mental Hospital. A Question of Power, which Bessie Head considered as “almost autobiographical” was written after this episode.


Her work focused on the everyday life of ordinary people and their role in larger African political struggles. Religious ideas often featured prominently, as in the work A Question of Power. Head was trained as a 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.


Although Bessie Head refused to accept the title of ‘feminist’, the social position of women clearly remains one of the central themes of her texts. Through her portraits of strong and resilient women, Head challenges women’s subjugated position and claims their humanity as important members of society. Her three novels and numerous other works were all written in Botswana where she died in 1986 at the young age of 49. Drawing on her experience as a racially mixed person growing up without a family in South Africa, Head’s writing often dealt with poor and abused black women and their experiences of racism and sexism. Even though she is considered as a writer from Botswana, she was born in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa as Bessie Amelia Emery.


Sadly, her mother killed herself and Bessie was raised by foster parents, and later was put in an orphanage.


The author married Harold Head in 1961. Through the nonlinear narrative of Elizabeth’s mental breakdown, Bessie Head takes us on an allegorical tour through South African history. While Elizabeth literally struggles to save herself from the demons of her madness, Head allegorically works through a diagnosis of apartheid-era political problems. Head’s brief marriage came to an end in March 1964 when she and her son acquired one-way exit visas to Serowe in neighbouring Botswana. Without a passport allowing her to return to South Africa, Head and her son were declared refugees in Botswana.


Head was born of an illegal union between her white mother (who was placed in a mental asylum during her pregnancy) and black father (who then mysteriously disappeared). She suffered rejection and alienation at an early age. In 1977, Head attended the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program, to which only a select number of writers from all over the world are invited.


Much of Head’s work was influenced by Mahatma Gandhi, and she said she had “never read anything that aroused my feelings like Gandhi’s political statements”. Head was strongly inspired by Gandhi and the way he clearly described present political issues. Reading his papers, Head was amazed by the work and concluded that Gandhi must be “God as a man”.


In 2003, she was posthumously awarded the South African Order of Ikhamanga in Gold for her “exceptional contribution to literature and the struggle for social change, freedom and peace.” The Werda School in Durban, South Africa, which was known as the St. Monica’s Diocesan School for Girls when Head attended it, has a memorial wall dedicated to her. In 2007, the Bessie Head Heritage Trust was established, along with the Bessie Head Literature Awards. On 12 July 2007 the library in Pietermaritzburg was renamed the Bessie Head Library in her honour.


The Bessie Head Papers are stored in the Khama III Memorial Museum in Serowe.






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