Saturday, July 08, 2017

Botswana: The Collector of Treasures, by Bessie Head

This is an older book than many I have read so far, initially published in 1977. Bessie Head was born in South Africa in 1937, the daughter of a rich white woman and an African servant, at a time when interracial relationships were illegal in South Africa. She did not move to Botswana until early adulthood, but is widely regarded as a Botswanan author. At the time she moved there in 1953, it was still the Bechuanaland protectorate.

The stories in The Collector of Treasures depict the county in its early days of independence, and show the tensions that arose out of the conflict between traditional values, the legacy of colonialism, the teachings of Christianity and the move towards modernity. They are simple tales of village life, written from a perspective that seems that of a person who is somewhat of an outsider. There is a deep sympathy displayed for the status of women, who are not treated well by men in these stories. In many cases, the men might promise marriage to a girl, get her pregnant, and then abandon her - or marry her, but take other wives and girlfriends on the side. Sometimes the women in these stories take to violence to protect themselves, and this is treated in a very matter-of-fact way and appears to be taken as natural.

While the tales are simple, the writing is skilful and there are some beautiful descriptive passages, for example

For those who were awake, it took the earth hours to adjust to daylight. The cool and damp of the night slowly arose in shimmering waves like water and even the forms of the people who bestirred themselves at this unearthly hour were distorted in the haze; they appeared to be dancers in slow motion, with fluid, watery forms.

The Collector of Treasures was published by Heinemann in their African Writers Series.

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