On the Bessie Head trail

Stephen Gray recently attended a conference in Botswana in honour of South African writer Bessie Head, who settled there

Gaborone, June 17-18

Few remember the first round of this event. In April 1976, when she was still alive and with only half her work done, Bessie Head was invited here to the University of Botswana. In those days the campus was hardly so affluent and chic: just temporary blocks and a beerhall. Down on the famous railway she came, from her adopted home in Serowe, to meet the department of English’s workshop assembled about the phenomenon of her.

A portly refugee stuck in the Kalahari sandveld, she was leading the way to a new topic in literature: describing the inner African life. Although she had no further education and was wary of intellectuals piggybacking on her efforts, she nevertheless was producing the unprecedented novels and short stories that stopped that dusty region in its tracks. In another 10 years her brilliance was burnt out, and she was dead.

This time round it is the department’s first-ever international conference, all devoted to her memory, with keynote speakers, triple sessions and the works. There is an element of catching up, for in 1996 the University of Singapore pipped them to it with the first-ever full-blown Head conference. Another is rumoured to be at the University of the Western Cape next year. To lend weight to this one, most of the Bessie Head scholars are here: Desire Lewis, Edwin Thumboo, Dorothy Driver, Huma Ibrahim, David Kerr, Craig MacKenzie, Felix Mnthali and Bernth Lindfors from the University of Texas.

The atmosphere is exactly right, for we are at Head’s “bewitched crossroads” and, as in a treasury, the Botswana Collection in the library holds all her works. Clearly that chain-smoking, liquor-chugging autodidact did manage to communicate widely and enduringly.

Part of the proceedings are devoted to English as a teachable medium. Here Head’s use of grammar is more emulated than her goals, as Setswana-speakers can be far too polite to disapprove in public of her frank ways. All those flailing tribal penises and radiating vaginas in her work - going too far, still taboo.

Yet Head herself had the knack of interviewing her subjects to reveal all. Her documentary Serowe: Village of the Rain Wind (1981) is a masterly transcription of African intimacy. Sheena Gardner of Warwick University takes off from her comments on customary naming to report on new trends in Botswana society: Elizabeth or Dikeledi, Lucky or Lesego, Nelson or Nick? Bessie fused both strains, becoming Mma-Heady.

The discipline has become so jargonised one wonders if Bessie would have grasped the heck of all such buzz. Strategies, interventions, rearranging signifiers and tropes before they bound off like antelopes. Legacies of othering and dehegemonising marginalities. As hybridity is the flavour of the year, being mixed-race and sexually ambivalent, not to mention on and off sane, Head was nothing if not hybridised. But she also liked to subvert all such discourse by speaking plain English.

Friday April 19

The fitting conclusion of a day-trip to her Serowe, four hours by bus to the north. To Khama’s country, where the Bamangwato capital was settled in 1902. Here Bessie lived her last 22 years, close to half her life.

Serowe is said to be the largest traditional village, intact, south of the Sahara. When Head first arrived, she wrote (in The New African, December 1965): “By chance, I fled to this village and stopped awhile. I have lived all my life in shattered little bits. Somehow, here, the shattered little bits began to come together. There is a sense of wovenness, of the wholeness of life here.”

She describes Serowe often: “A ring of low blue hills partly surrounds us. They look like the uncombed heads of old Botswana men, dotted here and there with dark shapes of thorn-trees.” Slowly it became her magical focus. At the end she noted: “I shall leave a chunk of myself here because I think of myself as a woman of Southern Africa - not as a black woman, but as ordinary and wryly humble.”

And so we proceed down the dirt past the Saints Gallery Church, through leaning agaves, to the slope of Botalaote cemetery, reserved for ordinary Serowans. We are to lay a wreath at the boulder of Serowe rock that is her tombstone. Her grave is surrounded by nonagenarians. Donkeys watch us.

Nearby a flourishing “green tree”, the rubbery one used for hedges. The director of the Khama III Memorial Museum, Scobie Lekhutile in his embroidered outfit, explains: it is also called the breast-feeding mother, because its sap is milky.

Head listed among those things she loved “the hours spent collecting together my birds ...” and they are still assembled: glossy starlings, rollers, drongos, a spiral of crows rising peacefully into the blue.

At the Good Hope Store we turn off to Swaneng Hill School in the ward five miles out of the centre, where Patrick van Rensburg’s famous brigades built her house. It is indeed very small, whitewashed, pokey. Still the dust road sweeps past the door. Here she wrestled her mad demons round to manageable dingbats.

I had hoped for a garden of “ditamatis”, “pamkins”, her golden Cape gooseberries, but the drought has taken them all. Her son Harold still lives there and greets us. She called her home “Rain Clouds”, awaiting those spectacular summer deluges.

To the Khama museum itself. Originally a trader’s store in the lee of a koppie, when it opened in 1985 it was called Serowe Museum. Thanks to Danish volunteer workers, this old tin Red House of 1910 has been restored from the foundations up, even with fancy glass door-panes, primarily to house the Khama family records.

The museum’s other key collection is the BHP one - the Bessie Head Papers they soon purchased. These are stored in huge, spick and span, insect-repellent boxes. Scholars who come to consult them may even stay over in the rondavels alongside. Curator Patricia Bannalotlhe knows personally each of the 2 000, the reviews, the jackets, the foreign editions. She has exhibited for us just a fraction of their photographic mementoes.

Then lunch at the ramshackle Serowe Hotel, to which Head would cycle for a hot plate and cold beer. Fried chicken again. Our dear visiting Japanese lady, translator of Head, has a new film in her camera. The waitress is instructing us in pronunciation. Instead of saying cheese, we get it right this time: Se-roo-we.

And then all together: Poo-la!

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