Head, Bessie: Primary Sources

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SOURCE: Head, Bessie. "The Woman from America." In A Woman Alone: Autobiographical Writings, selected and edited by Craig MacKenzie, pp. 31-36. Nairobi, Kenya: Heinemann, 1990.

In the following essay, originally published in 1966, Head describes her friendship with an American woman who had married a Botswanan and moved to Head's village.

This woman from America married a man of our village and left her country to come and live with him here. She descended on us like an avalanche. People are divided into two camps. Those who feel a fascinated love and those who fear a new thing. The terrible thing is that those who fear are always in the majority. This woman and her husband and children have to be sufficient to themselves because everything they do is not the way people here do it. Most terrible of all is the fact that they really love each other and the husband effortlessly and naturally keeps his eyes on his wife alone. In this achievement he is seventy years ahead of all the men here.

We are such a lot of queer people in the Southern part of Africa. We have felt all forms of suppression and are subdued. We lack the vitality, the push, the devil-may-care temperament of the people of the north of Africa. Life has to seep down to us from there and that pattern is already establishing itself. They do things first, then we. We are always going to be confederators and not initiators. We are very materialistically minded and I think this adds to our fear. People who hoard little bits of things cannot throw out and expand, and, in doing so, keep in circulation a flowing current of wealth. Basically, we are mean, selfish. We eat each other all the time and God help poor Botswana at the bottom.

Then, into this narrow, constricted world came the woman from America like an avalanche upon us. Some people keep hoping she will go away one day, but already her big strong stride has worn the pathways of the village flat. She is everywhere about because she is a woman, resolved and unshakeable in herself. To make matters worse or more disturbing she comes from the West side of America, somewhere near California. I gather from her conversation that people from the West are stranger than most people, and California is a place where odd and weird cults spring up every day. For instance, she once told me about the Church-of-the-Headless-Chicken! It seems an old woman bought a chicken but the place where she bought it was very haphazard about killing and plucking fowls. They did not sever the head properly and when the old woman brought the chicken home and placed it on the kitchen table, it sprang up out of the newspaper and began walking about with no head and no feathers—quite naked. It seems then that the old woman saw a vision, grabbed the chicken and ran next door to a neighbour who had been bedridden for many years, and, in great excitement, told him the strange happening. The poor old bed-ridden neighbour leapt from the bed, healed of his ailment and a miracle had been performed. The story spread like wild-fire and in a matter of hours money was collected, a congregation formed and the Church-of-the-Headless-Chicken was born. The chicken was interviewed by many newspapers and kept alive for some months on soluble food mixture dropped into its open gullet!

Then, another thing too. People of the West of America must be the most oddly beautiful people in the world; at least this woman from the West is the most oddly beautiful person I have ever seen. Every cross current of the earth seems to have stopped in her and blended into an amazing harmony. She has a big dash of Africa, a dash of Germany, some Cherokee and heaven knows what else. Her feet are big and her body is as tall and straight and strong as a mountain tree. Her neck curves up high and her thick black hair cascades down her back like a wild and tormented stream. I cannot understand her eyes though, except that they are big, black and startled like those of a wild free buck racing against the wind. Often they cloud over with a deep, intense brooding look.

It took a great deal of courage to become friends with a woman like that. Like everyone here I am timid and subdued. Authority, everything can subdue me; not because I like it that way but because authority carries the weight of an age pressing down on life. It is terrible then to associate with a person who can shout authority down. Her shouting matches with authority is the terror and sensation of the village. It has come down to this. Either the woman is unreasonable or authority is unreasonable, and everyone in his heart would like to admit that authority is unreasonable. In reality, the rule is: If authority does not like you then you are the outcast and humanity associates with you at their peril. So, try always to be on the right side of authority, for the sake of peace, and please avoid the outcast. I do not say it will be like this forever. The whole world is crashing and inter-changing itself and even remote bush villages in Africa are not to be left out!

It was inevitable though that this woman and I should be friends. I have an overwhelming curiosity that I cannot keep within bounds. I passed by the house for almost a month, but one cannot crash in on people. Then one day, a dog they have had puppies and my small son chased one of the puppies into the yard and I chased after him. Then one of the puppies became his and there had to be discussions about the puppy, the desert heat and the state of the world, and as a result of curiosity an avalanche of wealth has descended on my life. My small hut-house is full of short notes written in a wide sprawling hand. I have kept them all because they are a statement of human generosity and the wide care-free laugh of a woman who is as busy as women the world over about things women always entangle themselves in—a man, children, a home … Like this …

'Have you an onion to spare? It's very quiet here this morning and I'm all fagged out from sweeping and cleaning the yard, shaking blankets, cooking, fetching water, bathing children, and there's still the floor inside to sweep, and dishes to wash and myself to bathe—it's endless!'

Or again …

'Have you an extra onion to give me until tomorrow? If so, I'd appreciate it. I'm trying to do something with these awful beans and I've run out of all of my seasonings and spices. A neigh-bour brought us some spinach last night so we're in the green. I've got dirty clothes galore to wash and iron today.'


'I'm sending the kids over to get 10 minutes' peace in which to restore my equilibrium. It looks as if rain is threatening. Please send them back immediately so they won't get caught out in it. Any fiction at your house? I could use some light diversion.'


'I am only returning this tin in order to get these young folk out of my hair long enough pour faire my toilette. I've still cleaning up to do and I'm trying to collect my thoughts in preparation for the day's work. It looks like we face another scorcher today!'

And, very typical …

'This has been a very hectic morning! First, I was rushing to finish a few letters to send to you to post for me. Then it began to sprinkle slightly and I remembered you have no raincoat, so I decided to dash over there myself with the letters and the post key. At the very moment I was stepping out of the door, in stepped someone and that solved the letter posting problem, but I still don't know whether there is any mail for me. I've lost my P.O. Box key! Did the children perhaps drop it out of that purse when they were playing with it at your house yesterday?'

Or my son keeps getting every kind of chest ailment and I prefer to decide it's the worst …

'What's this about whooping cough! Who diagnosed it? Didn't you say he had all his shots and vaccinations? The D.P.T. doesn't require a booster until after he's five years old. Diphtheria—Pertussis (Whooping cough)—Tetanus is one of the most reliable vaccinations. This sounds incredible! You know all three of mine and I have had hoarse, dry coughs but certainly it wasn't whooping cough. Here's Dr Spock to reassure you!'

Sometimes too, conversations get all tangled up and the African night creeps all about and the candles are not lit and the conversation gets more entangled, intense; and the children fall asleep on the floor dazed by it all. The next day I get a book flung at me with vigorous exasperation …

'Here's C. P. Snow. Read him, dammit!! And dispel a bit of that fog in thy cranium. The chapters on Intellectuals and the Scientific Revolution are stimulating. Read it, dammit!!'

I am dazed too by Mr C. P. Snow. Where do I begin to understand the industrial use of electronics, atomic energy, automation in a world of mud huts? What is a machine tool? he asks. What are the Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution? The argument could be quaint to one who hasn't even one leg of culture to stand on. But it isn't really, because even a bush village in Africa begins to feel the tug and pull of the spider-web of life. Would Mr Snow or someone please write me an explanation of what a machine tool is? I'd like to know. My address is: Serowe, Botswana, Africa.

The trouble with the woman from America is that people would rather hold off, sensing her world to be shockingly apart from theirs. But she is a new kind of American or even maybe will be a new kind of African. There isn't anyone here who does not admire her. To come from a world of chicken, hamburgers, T.V., escalators and what not to a village mud hut and a life so tough, where the most you can afford to eat is ground millet and boiled meat? Sometimes you cannot afford to eat at all. Always you have to trudge miles for a bucket of water and carry it home on your head. And to do all this with loud, ringing, sprawling laughter?

Black people in America care about Africa and she has come here on her own as an expression of that love and concern. Through her too, one is filled with wonder for a country that breeds individuals about whom, without and within, rushes the wind of freedom. I have to make myself clear, though. She is a different person who has taken by force what America will not give black people. We had some here a while ago, sent out by the State Department. They were very jolly and sociable, but for the most innocent questions they kept saying: 'We can't talk about the government. That's politics. We can't talk politics.' Why did they come here if they were so afraid of what the American government thinks about what they might think or say in Africa? Why were they so afraid? Africa is not alive for them. It seems a waste of State Department's money. It seems so strange a thing to send people on goodwill projects and at the same time those people are so afraid that they jump at the slightest shadow. Why are they so afraid of the government of America which is a government of freedom and democracy? Here we are all afraid of authority and we never pretend anything else. Black people who are sent here by the State Department are tied up in some deep and shameful hypocrisy. It is a terrible pity because such things are destructive to them and hurtful to us.

The woman from America loves both Africa and America, independently. She can take what she wants from both and say: 'Dammit'. It is a most strenuous and difficult thing to do.


SOURCE: Head, Bessie. "Despite Broken Bondage, Botswana Women Are Still Unloved." In A Woman Alone: Autobiographical Writings, selected and edited by Craig MacKenzie, pp. 54-57. Nairobi, Kenya: Heinemann, 1990.

In the following essay, originally published in 1975, Head discusses the treatment of Botswanan women as chattel in spite of changes in their legal status.

In the old days a woman was regarded as sacred only if she knew her place, which was in her yard with her mother-in-law and children. A number of oppressive traditions, however, completely obliterated her as a thinking, feeling human being and she was exploited in all sorts of ways. So heavy is the toll of the centuries on the women of Botswana, that even with present-day political independence for the country, one finds that the few highly literate women of the country talk in uncertain terms of their lives and fear to assert themselves.

In strongly traditional societies there is a long thread of continuity between the past and the present and one often looks back to the past to explain the social maladies of the present. One of the earliest and surprisingly accurate views of Botswana society was recorded in 1805 by a German traveller,1 Dr W. H. C. Lichtenstein. Many an old man of the tribe will confirm Dr Lichtenstein's observations. About the position of women in the society, he recorded:

… The husband secures a livelihood by hunting, tending the cattle and milking the cows. When at home he only prepares hides and makes skin coats and cloth for himself and his wife. About the children he hardly cares … the gentler sex plays a very inferior part in the life of the tribe … It must not be overlooked that this servitude of women is not a consequence of tyranny by men, but due to certain causes, which ameliorate the lot of a Bechuana woman, although it might not be desirable according to our standards. The number of men is relatively small and they have to hunt and go to war, so naturally all the peaceful duties and occupations are done by women. Only such work as can suddenly be dropped and can be interrupted for some length of time, such as sewing of clothes, is done by men. All other work which has to be done continuously such as building, tilling of the soil, the making of pots, baskets, ropes and other household utensils is done by women. Two-thirds of the nation are women and even without any wars they would have to belong to the working class …

It has also been said that a true man in this world did not listen to the opinion of women; under polygamy women shared a husband with one or several other women and the custom of bogadi or the offering of a gift of cattle by her husband's family to her own family at the time of marriage, had overtones of complete bondage to a husband and his family and undertones of a sales bargain. But in spite of all this, women have experienced considerable emancipation in Botswana. Their emancipation has never been an applied or intellectual movement; it centres around a number of historical factors, not the least being the complicated and dominant role Christianity played in the political history of the country.

All the tribes in Botswana have a shared history so that it is possible to discuss changes that took place in broad terms. Unlike South Africa, Botswana had a benign form of colonial rule and invasion under the old British Bechuanaland Protectorate established in 1885. Colonial rule was benign for an odd reason—the country was grim and unproductive, subject to recurrent cycles of drought. The British had no interest in it, except as a safe passageway to the interior. British interest was focused on Mashonaland (now Rhodesia), which, they erroneously believed, held huge deposits of gold. Due to this, Botswana remained independent in a way; its customs and traditions were left intact and people's traditional rulers had a large say in governing their people. Thus, the real Southern African dialogues took place in Botswana. Christianity was a dialogue here, as was black people's ownership of the land and the retention of the ancient African land tenure system, as was trade.

It was about 1890 that the iron hand-plough was introduced into the country and this implement played a major role in lightening woman's burden as an all-round food producer. Formerly, women scratched at the earth with a hoe. When the iron plough was introduced it created a small social problem that could only be solved by the men. It was forbidden in custom for women to handle cattle so men were needed to inspan the oxen and pull the plough. Agriculture then became a joint task shared by a man and his family. The peaceful establishment of trade brought a new form of clothing into the country, 'European clothes', which was universally adopted.

Christianity then presented itself as a doctrine above all traditions and mores; a moral choice freely available to both men and women and it is in this sphere that all major social reforms took place. Attention has to be shifted briefly at this point to an area of the country where Christianity and all it implied became the major dialogue. It was in the Bamangwato area of the country, over the years 1866-1875 where a young chief, later known as Khama, The Great, suffered religious persecution from his father, Chief Sekgoma I, for making a complete and absolute conversion to Christian doctrine. This brought Khama into conflict with traditional African custom, which was upheld by his father. The act of suffering persecution for a belief eventually made Khama the victor in the struggle and the leading social reformer of the country. It could also be said of Khama that he was a compassionate man by inclination because some of his reforms, which must have been extremely difficult to initiate, appear to have been motivated entirely by compassion and this is no more evident than in his abolition of bogadi or the bride price.

It is significant that of the five major tribes of the country, only the Bomangwato and Batawana completely abolished bogadi. All the other tribes still adhere to the custom. People vehemently deny that bogadi is the 'purchase of women' and yet central to its functioning is human greed and the acquisition of wealth through cattle. Under bogadi marriages are so arranged as to retain cattle wealth within kinship groups, so that young girls were usually married to close relatives, a cousin, a father's brother's son.

Many poignant dramas were played out against this background. Marriage was superficially secure. Bogadi made a woman a silent slave and chattel in the home of her in-laws; if she was ill-treated by her mother-in-law or husband, she could not complain. Her parents were always anxious that she do nothing to destroy the marriage in case they lose the bogadi cattle offered at the time of marriage. Bogadi also bonded over to a woman's husband's family all the children she could bear in her lifetime. As frequently happened, her first husband died and should she acquire children from another man, those children too were claimed by her deceased husband's family. Bogadi was eventually abolished in Bamangwato country on these compassionate grounds: that each man ought to be the father of his own children. When Khama abolished bogadi, he also, for the first time, allowed women to lodge complaints against their husbands on their own and not through a male sponsor, as was required by custom.

Change and progress has always been of a gentle and subtle nature—the widespread adoption of Christianity gradually eliminated polygamous marriages. At independence in 1966, women were given the right to vote alongside men. They did not have to fight for it. But strangely, this very subtlety makes it difficult to account for the present social crisis. The country is experiencing an almost complete breakdown of family life and a high rate of illegitimate births among the children. No one can account for it. It just happened somewhere along the line. A woman's place is no longer in her yard with her mother-in-law but she finds herself as unloved outside the restrictions of custom, as she was, within it. When I first arrived in Botswana in 1964, women confided to me as follows: 'Botswana men are not nice. When you take up with a man he sleeps with you for two weeks, then he passes you on to his friend, who passes you on to his friend. That is how we live …'

Possibly two thirds of the nation are still women and about children procreated under such circumstances, the men hardly care.


1. W. H. C. Lichtenstein. Foundation Of The Cape & About The Bechuanas. A. A. Balkema: Cape Town, 1973.