Wednesday, April 11, 2012

153. Maru by Bessie Head

Title: Maru
Author: Bessie Head
Genre: Fiction
Publisher: AWS Classics
Pages: 103
Year of First Publication: 1971
Country: Botswana/South Africa

In this book Bessie Head tackled an incipient but dangerous problem that Africans are not eager to confront but which had been the bane of the continent, stalling every development and fomenting and precipitating civil wars. Almost every crisis in Africa is either caused by this or act as a catalyst. It led to the electoral crisis in Kenya, the genocide in Rwanda, the Liberian war, the Ivorian crisis and more. Racism has been amongst us and has retarded our progress so much so that had it being eliminated a larger portion of our problems would have been solved concomitantly. For instance, if there were no internal racism (mostly referred to as tribalism or ethnicism) most forms of corruptions would be no more.

Today in every country, there are those who think the country belongs to them and look upon all others (tribes) as inferior and squatters deserving only the crumbs. This problem had become pronounced due to the great diversity within Africa's gene pool so that in a country the variation among people is as much as there are of ethnic or tribal groups. And because politics is about power and numbers corrupt politicians have fallen on this - whipping up sentiments, making ignorant and absolutely stupid ethically-biased statements.  In Botswana, the Masarwa tribe is one of those that have suffered extreme racial segregation. Even when the larger population were struggling against the western racialism they kept the Basarwa (or the Bushmen, their name itself deeply derogatory) as slaves. According to the Tswana people the Basarwa people cannot think, the very argument used against them by the western segregationists; they are considered not different from animals and are counted as part of the animals that inhabit the Kalahari. In this book, Bessie Head shows what a Basarwa (a girl in this case) can do when given the opportunity apart from hunting, gathering, herbal medicine and the art they are known for and the slaves the end up becoming. This is the subject matter of Bessie Head's novella Maru.

A Basarwa woman died after giving birth to a daughter. But because she is a Basarwa and an untouchable the people called on Margaret Cadmore, a white teacher, to attend to the thing. She also taught her several things including literature and art.She also taught her several things including literature and art. Margaret took the daughter and named her after herself, having had no child of her own. The young Margaret had to endure discrimination at school and had it not been her adopted mother, who ensured that she put those who laughed at her in their proper places, life would have been highly unbearable for her. And even though her colour could have allowed her to blend and be passed for a half-caste - a product of a black and white parents, which is itself considered as an abnormality but still above the Masarwa people - Margaret insisted on identifying herself with her people the first time she found out who she was and the meaning of the name of her people.

Fortunately for young Margaret she was a good student and with a British for a mother - albeit adopted - her English and the tonality of her voice was excellent. After she completed training college and her adopted mother left for her home country, young Margaret would be posted to a Delipe to teach at the Leseding School. There she met Dikeledi, the late chief's daughter, also a teacher at the school; the two quickly struck acquaintance. 

Dikeledi was in love with Moleka, a womaniser notorious for changing women like clothes and sending her rejects fleeing town or walking the streets talking to themselves. He had eight children with eight different women and there was no end in sight. Moleka found a place for Margaret. When Dikeledi got to know that Margaret was Masarwa she was amazed and advised her to keep it quiet as no one would suspect it, but she wouldn't hear of it. On the first day at school the head-teacher was all over himself, having already concluded that she was a half-caste, until he got to know that Margaret was a Masarwa and that was when the problem began. Afraid of parents revolting against this, of their children being thought by one of those things, he set out to devise a plan that would make life so much uncomfortable for Margaret so that she would leave by herself or get her sack, regardless of the fact that she had the best grades (in fact, he had started doubting if she never received help along the way and had sworn to investigate this matter).

Moleka had been taken in by Margaret's beauty, politeness, and mannerisms. He was now like a mad man. As a man of importance, he couldn't go out with one of the Masarwa people, what would people say about him? This dilemma glazed his eyes so much so that he saw through Dikeledi. The first thing he did was to release all his Masarwa slaves. And when the head-teacher prep Margaret's students to laugh at their teacher and ask her if she were a Masarwa and if so how could she teach them (the situation was saved Dikeledi whose no-nonsense attitude and education turned her into a somewhat strong woman) Moleka invited the head teacher into his house and invited him to eat with them all, including the recently-released Masarwa slaves. Infuriated the head-teacher left and fled the town.

Dikeledi's brother and heir-apparent, Maru, who had been away when Margaret made her entry into Dilepe was informed of all the happenings in the village by his spy, Ranko. Maru would also work on an elaborate plan that would entwine Dikeledi to Moleka and free him to whisk Margaret away.

This is a love story of some sorts but it is not romance-filled, even by 1970s African standards and the focus is not on building a suspense as to what would happen. The story begins with Maru married to Margaret; thus, the story is more about exposing how the Masarwa people are treated. Though the means by which Margaret was married, without her explicit consent for she loved Moleka (because Maru never showed any sign of love), bothered me. However, like most of Bessie's works there were a bit of surrealism in it where Maru and Margaret dreamt the same dreams. This is believed to be the activity of Maru's totems. Narrated in one long flashback, without chapters or numbered sections, in two parts, this is a fast read; it does away with any unnecessary issues and addresses what the author wants to say.

This is the most accessible of all three of Bessie Head's stories I have read. The importance of this story lies in the fact that even today the Masarwa are being discriminated against. There are stories of their total extinction and the loss of a culture, carefully preserved, because their lands have been found to contain diamonds.
About the author: Click here to read about Bessie Head.


  1. But Nana, I don't know what happened to me but I think the long flash back put me off. However, from what you've written, it looks like I would have to go back to it again. I stopped after the first part. Maybe I was not in the right mood...! Relevant theme she's written about, I think.

    1. I guess she wasn't about telling a suspenseful story. It's more about putting out the plight of the Basarwa people.

  2. Sounds interesting. I used to see Bessie Head's novels in my mother's book shelf but they looked rather severe. I may need to visit my mom soon . . .

    1. Bessie's books are always a great read. One that is very challenging is A Question of Power.

  3. You make a great point about the importance of stories like this that discuss the internal racism between groups of people. Glad to see you enjoyed this read.

    1. Amy, this is very important. It's a pity that we shout racism based on colour and practice another based on origin within the same colour band. Recently in Ghana, there has been an utterance by a politician that makes this book very important. In fact, in an article I wrote for a newspaper on that issue, I quoted a portion of this book.

  4. This Books explains the tragedy that befell the minds of the Racially discriminating as a ordeal to society.

    1. Yes, it is. It's sad that we talk about racism when we abuse and discriminate among ourselves.


Help Improve the Blog with a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Featured post

Njoroge, Kihika, & Kamiti: Epochs of African Literature, A Reader's Perspective

Source Though Achebe's Things Fall Apart   (1958) is often cited and used as the beginning of the modern African novel written in E...