Bessie Head

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Bessie Amelia Emery Head
Born(1937-07-06)July 6, 1937
South Africa
Died(1986-04-17)April 17, 1986[1]
NationalitySouth African

Bessie Amelia Emery Head, known as Bessie Head (6 July 1937 – 17 April 1986), though born in South Africa, is usually considered Botswana's most influential writer. She wrote novels, short fiction and autobiographical works.


Bessie Amelia Emery 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. It was claimed that her mother was mentally ill so that she could be sent to a quiet location to give birth to Bessie without the neighbours knowing. However, the exact circumstances are disputed, and some of Bessie Head's comments, though often quoted as straight autobiography, are in fact from fictionalized settings. After her mother killed herself, Bessie was raised by foster parents and later in a mission orphanage.[2]

Qualifying as a teacher in January 1957, she taught at a school in Clairwood, a suburb of Durban, then between 1958 and 1960 was employed as a journalist by The Golden City Post and Drum magazine.[3] She joined the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) in 1960.[3] On 1 September 1961 she married Harold Head.[3]

In 1964, abandoning her life in South Africa, she moved with her young son to Botswana (then still the Bechuanaland Protectorate) seeking asylum,[4] having been peripherally involved with Pan-African politics. It would take 15 years for Head to obtain Botswana citizenship. 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 people, 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.

Her early death in Serowe in 1986 (aged 48) from hepatitis came just at the point where she was starting to achieve recognition as a writer and was no longer so desperately poor.[citation needed]


Most of Bessie Head's important works are set in Serowe, in particular the three novels When Rain Clouds Gather (1968), Maru (1971), and A Question of Power (1973). One of her best works is When Rain Clouds Gather, in which she writes about a troubled young man called Makhaya who runs away from his birthplace, South Africa, to become a refugee in a little village called Golema Mmidi, in the heart of Botswana. Here he is faced with many challenges, one of which is the fact that Chief Matenge does not allow his presence in the village. He meets a white man named Gilbert and starts a whole new journey into the unknown.[citation needed]

Head also published a number of 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 Rain Wind. 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".[citation needed]

Head's work focused on the everyday life of ordinary people and their role in larger African political struggles. Religious ideas feature prominently at times, 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).[citation needed]

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.[citation needed]

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 then President Sir Seretse Khama, which led to a period in Lobatse Mental Hospital. A Question of Power is based partly on those experiences.[citation needed]

Honours and awards[edit]

In 2003 she was awarded the South African Order of Ikhamanga in Gold for her "exceptional contribution to literature and the struggle for social change, freedom and peace."[5]


In 2007 the Bessie Head Heritage Trust was established, along with the Bessie Head Literature Awards.[6] On 12 July 2007 the library in Pietermaritzburg was renamed the Bessie Head Library in her honour.[7]

The Bessie Head Papers are stored in the Khama III Memorial Museum in Serowe.[8]


  • When Rain Clouds Gather – London: Gollancz, 1968. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1969. Heinemann, 1987. Macmillan Education, 2006.
  • Maru – London: Gollancz, 1971. New York: McCall, 1971. Heinemann African Writers Series (101), 1972; 1987.
  • A Question of Power – London: Davis-Poynter, 1973. New York: Pantheon, 1974. Heinemann (AWS 149), 1974, 1986. Penguin Modern Classics, with an introduction by Margaret Busby, 2002; Penguin African Writers, 2012.
  • The Collector of Treasures and Other Botswana Village Tales – London: Heinemann, 1977. Cape Town: David Philip, 1977.
  • Serowe: Village of the Rain Wind – London: Heinemann, 1981. Cape Town: David Philip, 1981.
  • A Bewitched Crossroad: An African Saga – Johannesburg: Ad Donker, 1984.
  • Tales of Tenderness and Power, ed. Gillian Stead Eilersen – Johannesburg: Ad Donker, 1989. Oxford: Heinemann, 1990.
  • A Woman Alone: Autobiographical Writings, ed. Craig MacKenzie – Oxford: Heinemann, 1990.
  • A Gesture of Belonging: Letters from Bessie Head, 1965-1979, ed. Randolph Vigne – London: South Africa Writers. Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Heinemann, 1990. Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 1991.
  • The Cardinals. With Meditations and Short Stories, ed. Margaret J. Daymond – Cape Town: David Philip, 1993. Heinemann, 1996.
  • Imaginative Trespasser: Letters between Bessie Head, Patrick and Wendy Cullinan 1963-1977, compiled by Patrick Cullinan, with a personal memoir – Johannesburg: Wits University Press; Trenton, New Jersey: Africa World Press, 2005.
  • When Rain Clouds Gather and Maru, introduced by Helen Oyeyemi – London: Virago, 2010.

Further reading[edit]

  • Brown, Coreen, The Creative Vision of Bessie Head. Rosemont Publishing & Printing Corp., Massachusetts; Associated University Presses, New Jersey, London & Ontario. 2003.
  • Curry, Ginette. "Toubab La!": Literary Representations of Mixed-race Characters in the African Diaspora.Cambridge Scholars Pub., Newcastle, England.2007 [1].
  • Giffuni, C. "Bessie Head: A Bibliography," A Current Bibliography on African Affairs, Vol. 19(3), 1986–87.
  • 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, "Bessie Head", Fall 1996. Postcolonial Studies @ Emory.


  1. ^
  2. ^ Mary Ellen Snodgrass, "Head, Bessie (Bessie Amelia Emery Head)", Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire, Infobase Publishing, 2010, pp. 131-132.
  3. ^ a b c "Bessie Amelia Head, SA novelist dies", South African History Online, 17 April 1986.
  4. ^ "Bessie Emery Head", Encyclopædia Britannica.
  5. ^ "Profile of Bessie Head". S A National Orders. Archived from the original on 27 September 2007. Retrieved 26 April 2007.
  6. ^ Bessie Head Literature Awards.
  7. ^ "Msunduzi Municipal Library Services", Pietermaritzburg.
  8. ^ "Museum publishes Catalogue of the Bessie Head Papers", Bessie Head Heritage Trust.

External links[edit]