Bessie Head is one of my favorite African writers. Her books, though not numerous, have had a huge impact on both how I see Southern Africa and how I see myself in relation to a part of the world that I deeply cherish. In case you don’t know who Bessie Head is, here are some biographical details about her.
Bessie Head was born in 1937, in Natal, South Africa, to a white mother and a black father. Her mother was institutionalized in a hospital, under claims that she was mentally ill, as relationships between people of two different races were at the time illegal in South Africa. Her mother died in 1943 and Mrs. Head was given into foster care.
In 1964, after she was estranged from her husband, she left South Africa on exit permit for Serowe, Botswana. In Serowe, she would write all her major novels and stories: When Rain Clouds Gather (a fictionalized autobiography that focuses on the life choices of a South African refugee in Botswana) – 1966 -; Maru (a book I have yet to read, published in 1971), A Question of Power (a fascinating introspective quest that the author once called “a private philosophical journey to the sources of evil.”) – 1973 -; The Collector of treasures and Other Stories (a beautiful collection of short stories whose protagonists all live in the rural areas of Botswana) – 1977; Serowe: Village of the Rain Wind (which I’m currently reading) – 1981; and A Bewitched Crossroad (a book I consider a fascinating source for political and social commentary, despite the fact that the author had often denied having any interest in politics) – 1984.
Bessie Head died on April 17th 1986 when she succumbed to hepatitis, at age 49. Yet her writings will, without a doubt, inspire many generations to come, among them, even one random Romanian guy.
Well, here’s the thing. Despite the fact that Bessie Head was born in South Africa she is considered the most famous Botswana writer. Now, that is ironic because Head herself had her deal of troubles with the Botswanan government. In 1975 she wrote that “[n]othing can take away the fact that I hav never had a country; not in South Africa or in Botswana where I now live as a stateless person.”
That being said, Bessie Head was without a doubt one of the most prescient authors of hr generation. She dreamed of a free South Africa, of racial tolerance and a better future for all people living in Africa.
In the next couple of days I will compile a list of my favorite quotes from her work. For now, I just want to share with you what Bessie Head thought of the apartheid regime in South Africa long before the apartheid was over. Bessie Head wrote the following fragment in 1972:
It is impossible to guess how the revolution will come one day in South Africa. But in a world where all ordinary people are insisting on their rights, it is inevitable. it is to be hoped that great leaders will arise there who remember the suffering of racial hatred and out of it formulate a common language of human love for all people. Possibly too, Southern Africa might one day become the home of storyteller and dreamer, who did not hurt others but only introduced new dreams that filled the heart with wonder.
It is a shame that this great woman did not live to see her prediction come true. Yet there is still so much we can learn from her great work.