Bessie Head

Bessie Head

Bessie Emery Head (July 6, 1937 - April 17, 1986) is usually considered Botswana's most important writer. She was born in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, the child of a wealthy white South African woman and a black servant when interracial relationships were illegal in South Africa. Her mother was apparently mentally ill; the exact circumstances are disputed but it should be noted that some comments by Bessie Head, which are often quoted as if straight autobiography, are in fact from fictionalized settings.

Professional Life

She became a teacher, then a journalist for Drum in the 1950s and '60s.

Move to Botswana

She moved to Botswana (then still the Bechuanaland Protectorate) in 1964 as a refugee, having been peripherally involved with Pan-African politics. It took 15 years before Head was given Botswana citizenship.

Bessie Head settled in Serowe, the largest of Botswana's "villages" (i.e. traditional settlements as opposed to settler towns). Serowe was famous both for its historical importance, as capital of the Bamangwato tribe, and for the experimental Swaneng school of Patrick van Rensburg. The deposed chief of the Bamangwato, Seretse Khama, was soon to become the first President of independent Botswana.


Most of Bessie Head's important works are set in Serowe, in particular the three novels "When Rain Clouds Gather", "Maru", and "A Question of Power". She also published a number of short stories, including the collection "The Collector of Treasures". She published a book on the history of Serowe, the village she settled in - "Serowe: Village of the Rain Wind". Her last novel had the historical setting of nineteenth-century Botswana - "A Bewitched Crossroad".

Bessie Head's work , which emphasised the value of ordinary life and humble people, was more in touch with an earlier trend in African writing than many recent writers who have made overtly political comments. Her writing has endured nonetheless. Religious ideas feature prominently at times, as in the work "A Question of Power". It is interesting to note that Bessie 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). Her world view is, however, complex and cannot be easily summarised.

Most of her writing took place while she was in exile in Botswana. An exception is the early novel "The Cardinals" (published posthumously), written before she left South Africa.

In some ways Bessie Head remained an outsider in her adopted country, and some discern she had something of a love-hate relationship with it. At times she suffered mental health problems and on one occasion put up a public notice making bizarre and shocking allegations about the then President, Sir Seretse Khama, which lead to a period in Lobatse Mental Hospital. "A Question of Power" is based partly on those experiences.


Her early death in 1986 (aged 49) from hepatitis came just at the point where she was starting to achieve recognition and was no longer so desperately poor.


In July 2007 the library in Pietermaritzburg was renamed the Bessie Head library in honour of her.


* "When Rain Clouds Gather" (1968)
* "Maru" (1971)
* "A Question of Power" (1974)
* "Looking for a Rain God" (1977)
* "The Collector of Treasures and Other Botswana Village Tales" (1977)
* Serowe: Village of the Rain Wind (1981)
* "A Bewitched Crossroad" (1984)
* "A Woman Alone: Autobiographical Writings" (1990)
* "A Gesture of Belonging: Letters from Bessie Head, 1965-1979" (1991)
* "The Cardinals" (1993)


* 2003 - South African "The Order of Ikhamanga in Gold" for her "exceptional contribution to literature and the struggle for social change, freedom and peace."cite news | first= | last= | coauthors= | title=Profile of Bessie Head | date= | publisher=S A National Orders | url = | work = | pages = | accessdate = 2007-04-26 | language = ]


* Microsoft Encarta 98 Encyclopedia, 1993-97
* Ibrahim, Huma. "Bessie Head: Subversive Identities in Exile". (1996) Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia. ISBN 0-8139-1685-2
* Eilersen, Gillian Stead. "Bessie Head: Thunder Behind Her Ears - Her Life and Writings (Studies in African Literature)". (1995) Cape Town: James Currey, ISBN 0-85255-535-0; (1996) London: Heinemann
* Kate Bissell,, 16 Jan 2007.
* Walker, Alice. "The Temple of My Familiar".


External links

* [ Bessie Head Heritage]

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