Apartheid, Bessie Head, Botswana, colonialism, Maru, Serowe, South Africa
“I am building a stairway to the stars. I have the authority to take the whole of mankind up there with me. That is why I write.” – Bessie HeadTitle: Maru Author: Bessie Head Binding: Paperback Genre: Fiction Publisher: Heinemann This Edition: Pearson Educational Limited (Heinemann AWS Classics-2008)
First Publication Date: 1971 by Victor Gollancz Limited Reason for reading: To Celebrate Bessie Head; and as part of my African Reads Maru
Two best friends, more like blood brothers, Maru and Moleka become fast and sworn enemies over the love of one woman, Margaret Cadmore, a Masarwa who has come to the village of Dilepe to take up a teaching position.
Born by the roadside (of all places, perhaps to reinforce her insignificance as person of the Masarwa tribe) Margaret is adopted by a white wife of a missionary, Margaret Cadmore, whose name young Margaret bears. She rises above intense racial discrimination to become a teacher in Dilepe. And that is where she becomes the subject of much interest, intrigue, hatred plots and counter plots to run her out-of-town because the ‘authorities’ can just not stand their children being taught by a lowly slave.
The racial prejudice is very palpable and Margret’s discovery that her own Masarwa people in this remote Botswana village are treated as outcasts only sets her more determined to stand up proudly and affirm her heritage. And she does this in her quiet and unassuming way so that her loneliness even while basking in the friendship offered by Dikeledi, the daughter of the Chief of Dilepe, only adds to the mystery surrounding her being.
The complicated love story and intrigue perpetuated by Maru, Dikeledi’s brother and Moleke, Dikeledi’s boyfriend who does not requite her love serves as a backdrop against which the more poignant themes of racial hatred and categories, traditional caste systems and the effects of colonialism on the African people are highlighted.
Margaret also serves as catalyst for change in Dilepe. Moleka wants to marry Margaret, but is fearful of going against the prejudices in his village. Maru, the man with vision, sees that marriage with Margaret is an opportunity to change the prejudices and racial divisions among the people in Botswana.
Maru is one big flashback without chapters and this makes for an easy and fast read. There is a bit of mysticism and or surrealism involved here; but for me that makes the novel more African than anything since Africa is a whole big mystery.
Having said that I must say that though I admired the character of Maru, I did not endorse his ‘caveman tactics’ of how he eventually got Margaret to marry him. But then that could be debatable.
It is significant to mention that when Maru was published in 1971, Bessie Head was seriously ill with depression and delusions and she snapped.
Maru comes highly recommended for all overs of African literature and lovers of brilliant blend of complicated plot, surrealism and intrigue.
The Woman Bessie Head
Bessie Head would have turned 76 on the 6th of July 2013. In celebrating her life and works, Kinna Reads is hosting this special event on her blog from July 6 to 12. Kindly do a hop over for more.
Brief Life History
Bessie Amelia Head (nee Emery) never knew her real parents: she was born in a psychiatric hospital in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, to a wealthy but unstable white woman and a black servant at a time when interracial relationships were illegal in South Africa. Her maternal family had Bessie Head’s mother declared mentally ill in order to remove her pregnant mother from apartheid white society. Bessie was given up for adoption as an infant then at age 13, taken to an orphanage. By age 18, she’d been subjected to humiliation, cruelty, racial segregation and gender discrimination by racist white society and its affiliated institutions. She also had to worry about her own “delicate nervous balance”.
Bessie left apartheid South Africa in 1964, and never returned to the land of her birth. She settled in Serowe, Botswana where she lived the rest of her life. For most part, Bessie Head suffered from mental illness and was frequently hospitalized for bouts of depression. Her life was a traumatic one and she drew heavily upon her own personal experiences for her novels. At the time of her death in 1986, she had become a famous writer known all around the world.
Her Final Days
The following words culled from Kinna’s moving tribute sums up Bessie’s last days:
Sometime in 1985, suddenly, came murmurings of a woman writer, living in Botswana and struggling to survive. She was on the verge of bankruptcy, she was sick, she was estranged from her family, she was brilliant, she was Bessie Head. To my young mind, the entry of Bessie Head into my life was marked with alarm, dismay, panic and pain. The murmuring rose to a crescendo. Then in early 1986, just as suddenly, came the announcement of her death. It’s hard to express the effect, on me, of finding Bessie Head in the circumstance which I did and losing her so suddenly. After all I never met her. But the fact of Bessie Head’s death, and the circumstances surrounding her last years in Botswana, has always unsettled me.