Today’s short story review is of The Lovers also from the anthology of short stories, Tales of Tenderness and Power, written by Bessie Head, one of Africa’s best known women writers who was born in South Africa in 1937.
The Lovers, a historical tale written in 1977, is Bessie Head’s version of Botswana’s only great love legend about two young people, Keaja and Tselane, who allowed themselves to be carried away by their passions and thus threw their community into chaos. They were expelled from the village and they disappeared altogether. A terrible fear grew that a hill nearby had opened and swallowed them.
“The love story so haunted me that I could find no peace until I had written my story of it. Sanely, a hill could never open up and swallow people so my story dwells on what happened before the lovers disappeared so mysteriously.” P 11 (Introduction)
Significantly, in writing about what happened before the disappearance of the two lovers, Bessie Head examines the traditional institution of marriage in Botswana, laying bare the unpleasantness of arranged and forced marriages and ultimately, polygamous marriages. Keaja’s mother is chosen for his father who has no say in the matter and though his parents marriage is fraught with disappointment and resignation, tradition or custom demands that Keaja’s wife is chosen for him. As he tells Tselane on the first day he meets her,
“I don’t think I approve of arranged marriages. My father would never have married my mother had he had his own choice. He was merely presented with her one day by his family and told that they were to be married and there was nothing he could do about it.” P 86
Keaja’s mother also hates her son deeply and bitterly. She vents the frustrations of her loveless marriage on her only son by hitting him at the least provocation, hurling stones at him and scratching him all over his body. Keaja’s response like his father’s is to ignore her and bear this inhuman treatment with stoicism. In contrast, though from a polygamous home, Tselane enjoys a happy relationship with not her mother, but her mother’s rival and the second wife to her father. The two are almost girlish in their affection for each other.
Bessie Head portrays a rigid society that thrives on regulations and taboos applicable to men and women as guidelines on how to live fruitful and productive lives. Initiation rites of passage are performed for both sexes to ensure fruitfulness for the women and productivity for the men. A delicate balance has to be preserved between a woman’s reproductive cycle and the safety of her community. It can therefore be seen that the community has no room for emotions. The dynamics of village life is founded on customs that thrive on logic, order and orderliness even in the sterile relationships between the sexes. Any personal unhappiness is suppressed and smothered, like the unhappiness in the marriage of Keaja’s parents. The same delicate balance that has to be preserved rears its head where Tselane cannot enjoy a normal mother-daughter relationship, but rather finds a listening ear in her mother’s rival who also sees this unique affection as a get-away from a husband whose interest in his wives is limited to his meals.
Against this background Keaja and Tselane’s ‘illicit’ love and the resultant pregnancy challenge the status quo and seeks to destroy all that the people and the customs hold dear. Thus their banishment is greeted by all with a sigh of relief; for now the wrong has been righted.
The Lovers is a short enjoyable read, and serves as an example of Bessie Head’s excellent prowess as a story-teller. I will recommend the anthology to all lovers of African literature, especially celebrating with female writers.
The author died tragically early, in 1986, leaving behind her a fine collection of literary works. Tales of Tenderness and Power was the first of her works to be published in 1989 posthumously.