Monday, July 08, 2013

247. Tales of Tenderness and Power by Bessie Head*

Tales of Tenderness and Power (144) is a collection of twenty-one short stories by the South African-born Botswana writer Bessie Head published posthumously by Heinemann African Writers Series (1989). All the stories, with the exception of three were published in various magazines prior to her demise. In this collection, the beauty and tenderness of Bessie's writings, her keen observation, and her ability to relate her environment to occurrences in lives of the people come to the fore. She does not set out to tell a totally fictitious tale as fiction is sometimes interpreted to be; she writes about the lives of real people who lived those lives - their hardships, their aspirations, their fears, their hopes - in as direct a manner as possible. In addition, some of the stories are are not stories at all but historical, but not necessarily ancient, narratives.

The story has been arranged to begin with why and how she wants to tell her stories. It then moves on gradually to describe neighbourhoods in South Africa and Botswana and through that opens up to the politics. The politics also begin with the traditional rulers and then transitions to national politics.

The anthology opens with Let me tell a story now... in which Bessie argued about why she writes the kind of stories she writes or more specifically the (racial) themes she writes about. She however is not oblivious of the ideal situation, where she would simply tell stories and be damned with colour, black or white. But it happened that the ideal is far from her grasp, an utopia that the happenings of the time (even today) loudly contradicts. Bessie might never have believed that her native South Africa would be free, that the shackles of oppression and apartheid (which are the same thing, by the way) would be broken in less than a decade when she died in 1986. 
If I had to write one day I would just like to say people is people and not damn White, damn Black. Perhaps if I was a good writer I could still write damn White, damn Black and still make people live. Make them real. Make you love them, not because of the colour of their skin but because they are important as human beings. [Let me tell a story, 17]
But most writers' works are usually influenced by the environment in which they live. They replicate, reflect, project the occurrences and incidences of their times into their works, consciously or unconsciously; more so for an author like Bessie Head whose entire life - birth, life, death - was a direct result of the diabolical and inimical political system South Africa operated at the time. She was a product of a supposed 'illegal' union between a native Black man and a White woman; her mother was incarcerated in a psychiatric institution for suspicion of psychosis (because of the incident) until her eventual death; she was herself made to live in several foster homes and not until a cruel principal of a missionary school inform her that her foster parents were not her real parents, she had always thought so. She was given an exit only visa with a caveat not to return to South Africa and she lived in poverty with her son in Serowe, a village in Botswana, for fifteen years before the government offered her citizenship.

Thus, these indelible marks of discrimination, evil, and extreme human wickedness  from both political and religious figures offered Bessie a unique understanding of the soul and mind of people, which she shares in all her writings. Knowing what the politicians are up to, and how the people turn upon themselves in their frustrations, made it impossible to stick to the ideal.
Well there it is. I would like to write the story of the man and his wife who never took the train, but I can't. When I think of writing any single thing I panic and go dead inside. Perhaps it's because I have my ear too keenly attuned to the political lumberjacks who are busy making capital on human lives. Perhaps I'm just having nightmares. Whatever my manifold disorders are, I hope to them sorted out pretty soon, because I've just got to tell a story. [Let me tell a story, 18]
This set the pace for a fantastic collection of short stories set in either in Botswana or South Africa traversing wide-ranging themes of politics - traditional, apartheid, independence; religion; love; history - South African, and Botswana; and traditional communal life and the cycle of change. Though these themes are varied, Head's realist approach to storytelling is present in each one of them.

Oranges and Lemons is a story about life in a neighbourhood in South Africa. It looks at the influence of apartheid on the character of men and women in the township; the frustrations that result from it; the crime that results when a mass of individuals are struggling for a living and for absent opportunities. In that quiet neighbourhood, where everybody knew everybody and where crime is common, a certain kind of balance was established which if disturbed indicated the onrush of far bigger problems.

In Snowball, Bessie Head used a character to tell the story of the life of a whole community. Here, she shared her ideas of religion, that one could still be open-minded even if religious. She is disgusted by religious dogmatism and all these are portrayed by Snowball, an ex-convict turned Christian.

Sorrow Food tells of how politics is practiced - as a means of robbing the people under the cover of representing their interests. Politics breeding crooks or the crooks entering politics; people with little or no chance of making it in other fields suddenly find themselves in politics. Most often those who fought against the oppressors and later became the oppressors.

Botswana was not colonised as most African countries were; they were a British Protectorate and had fairly been a peaceful country even if they shared border with one of the most oppressive countries on the continent. Consequently, the people never witnessed or suffered the numerous torturing most Blacks in other countries, especially those in southern African, suffered at the hands of the colonialists. This made their sentimentality towards independence different from that which other African countries, like South Africa, attached to liberation. Chibuku Beer and Independence set on the eve of Botswana's independence showed this lack of euphoria or enthusiasm. The people are described as being quiet, somewhat morose; there is no jubilation because they do not want to upset the white folks. They pride themselves in the fact that they are different. In the midst of this is a group of South African students discussing the political realities of the southern Africa region and whether the new Botswana leader is an African nationalist or would succumb to the dictates of the colonialist. This is also the subject in Tao. So reserve were the people of Botswana that there were those who thought that the government aids the colonialists in its fight against the African nationalists.

Bessie's politics was not limited to the national level. She also discussed local-level politics especially as they relate to chieftaincy issues. Because all institutions of power are human institutions, issues of struggle for control are common, even at the traditional level. Sometimes the struggle becomes fatal, leading to the death of one party, usually the less wicked or more humane one. In A Struggle of Power, the more humane Davhana had to escape the town because he wanted to live. This is similar to A Period of Darkness, which is somewhat based on the history of the Tswana people. In spite of this, the author commented that people had always lived with true democracy because the people held their leaders (chiefs) to account or that the people are more important than the chief because they can live without him but he cannot rule without them. In both stories, the struggle for power succumbed to the people's will to determine who would lead them. In the first story, the people migrated and left the chief in limbo, and to rule over the empty space, to the one they believed and could trust; in the latter, the people murdered the murderous and wayward king.
But in that brief pause a triumphant statement was made - that people had always held a position of ascendancy in matters of government, that people had always lived with the glimmerings of a true democracy. [A Period of Darkness, 83]
The General is about a leader who morphed into a dictator and was overthrown in a coup. Thus, Bessie seemed to project into the present the story of the people who killed their evil chief. In this and A Period of Darkness, Bessie shows that the will of the people should prevail either in every form of governance system (post-independence democracy or traditional kingdoms) and that in all situations where the peoples' common interest are suppressed and neglected by a few individuals who appropriate the wealth and freedoms only to themselves, then the people must come together to oppose any of such authority.

Son of the Soil is a historical account of the genesis of suppression and oppression of blacks in South Africa and the imposition of apartheid, with footnotes and references. It is a heart-wrenching story of how a people were suddenly dispossessed of their land and made to become squatters and non-paid labourers on their own lands. Bessie referenced several laws that were put in place to ensure the total subjugation of the black man. An Act of Parliament passed on a day in June 1913 reads:
No Native shall have the right to hire or purchase farm, grazing or ploughing rights from a landowner. Any landowner who hires or purchases (sic) farm, grazing or ploughing rights to a Native is subject to a fine of 100 pounds or six month's imprisonment. All Native squatters on white farm land should be immediately evicted with their livestock and consigned to the road immediately the order of eviction is given. Cattle so evicted should remain without food or water till they are sold by their Native owner. A Native may lawfully find employment under a white farmer. Once a wager-earner, a Native's cattle may henceforth work for the landowner, free of charge... No Native may wander about without a proper pass. A Native's pass must be signed by a white employer to prove he is in legal employment. A Native's basic wage as a farm laboureer shall be one shilling per day; a Native's basic wage as a mine labourer shall be one shilling and six pence per day...' [Son of the Soil, 120]
In this story, Bessie discussed how the Boers inclination and principle was to oppress and dehumanise the black man. This led to a division of South Africa between the British and the Boers; however, the unification that followed the civil war saw the Boer principle of subjugation gradually constitutionalised and which finally ended in the institution of apartheid and the natives were taken out of the constitution. Personally, the post-apartheid leaders of South Africa and the governing African National Congress (ANC) - including Nelson Mandela - would be analysed by posterity on the extent to which they solve the thorny land issue.

Discrimination and oppression birth resistance. It is said that when the frog is overfilled with water, it would at all cost croak. Hence, not all blacks folded their hands in between their thighs and stared infinitely into space; similarly, not all of them chose or accepted the non-violent posture as a means of lifting the people or fighting that humongous oppressive system. In The Coming of the Christ-Child some of the black political activists were fed-up with the docile non-violent attitude towards the struggle for black liberation. The few blacks who have had some form of education were perhaps unprepared to sacrifice their ivory-towered position to the cause and so fully advocated non-violence in the face of violence. However, there were those who were eagerly anti-non-violence and were prepared to meet violence with violence. In response to one of such pleadings, one of such folks who would later form his own organisation argued:
I wish that the truth be told ... Our forefathers lived on this land long before the white man came here and forced a policy of dispossession on us. We are hardly human to them! They only view us as objects of cheap labour! Why is the word violence such a terrible taboo from our side! Why can't we state in turn that they mean nothing to us and that it is our intention to get them off our backs! How long is this going to go on? It will go on and on until we say: "NO MORE" ... Gentle men! I am sick of the equivocation and clever talk of this organisation. If anyone agrees with me, would they please follow me... [The Coming of the Christ-Child, 137]
The young-man who retorted scathingly has been identified as Robert Sobukwe, the founder of the Pan-African Congress (PAC). The PAC with communist leanings was to be a splinter political organisation (more probably the African National Congress). The two organisations were at crossroads several times. The major tenets of the PAC was to first work on the psyche of the natives by letting them know that they are not inferior as they have been made to believe. And the people's traditional movement would counter by describing members of the PAC was considered as upstarts and soft gentlemen who wanted to be 'Sir-ed' and 'Madam-ed'.

Arrest and imprisonment of Blacks were a common occurrence and a direct response to the struggle against White-minority oppression. Bessie showed in The Prisoner who Wore Glasses that intelligence has nothing to do with colour and that one does not become a 'Baas' or necessarily superior because of his skin colour and some damned constitution. This story is about the way a group of imprisoned political activists negotiated around the rigid rules in prison to get what they wanted. It also portrays how human we all are, be it black or white.

Bessie, in most of her stories, appropriates the landscape and the elements of the weather as metaphors for the hardships, hopelessness, poverty, and impotence of the people. In Village People Bessie Head's realist/modernist approach to story-telling and her use of these metaphors shone through in telling the lives of the people in a village. Her descriptions of village life is spot-on and her understanding of events and the complex interrelationships is unrivalled. She unequivocally stated what the problems are and called upon those in authority - politicians, gods - to do better. Thus, it is in searching for solutions to these problems that makes her write about politics and religions and challenges her belief in a supreme being; for she can't comprehend a supreme being who can look on whilst innocent people die of hunger even though he is supposed to be omnipotent.

Bessie's life percolates into her stories. The reader could easily see her as the lady who was helped in The Woman from America.

Chief Sekoto holds Court is embedded in her full novel When Rain Clouds Gather. Though Bessie wrote about traditional or village life, she never romanticised it. She saw the obstacles embedded in it that hampers the development of the people and the positives - the social capital - which when harnessed would liberate and empower the people. For instance, she saw chieftaincy - not as in the institution, but with the powers it offers and how these powers are used - as an obstacle to development. In this story, Chief Sekoto was a quasi-modern chief who relied not on hearsay but on science to address cases. The changes in traditional life, especially after the introduction of formal education, is also the subject of Property. In it, a young man chose education over marriage and the sustenance of traditional norms. This was the period where marriages were arranged without the knowledge of the two to be married and where women were mostly seen as properties of their husbands and men were expected to treat them with iron-fist. In The Lovers a young man went contrary to societal and familial norms to reject the woman his parents had arranged for him in favour of one he himself had chosen. This sent a huge chaotic ripples through the community and the people reacted against the young lovers. It shows the other side of communal living in Africa, that though you live as an individual, your are intricately linked into the community and are expected to play your part to keep the balance. Any behaviour that would throw this balance into confusion would not be countenance.

There is a kind of tenderness in Bessie's writings; tenderness that begs to be listened to. Ironically, it is with this tenderness that Bessie shows the rottenness of the human soul, the wickedness of man and how insane we can be. It is this, and her unique understanding of power as it relates to people and the politics they play, that perhaps influenced the title of this collection. 

This collection is necessary for anyone who really wants to study Bessie Head.
The stories in the anthology are:
  1. Let me tell a story now...
  2. Oranges and Lemons
  3. Snowball
  4. Sorrow food
  5. Chibuku Beer and Independence
  6. Village People
  7. The Old Woman
  8. Summer Sun
  9. The green tree
  10. Tao
  11. The Woman from America
  12. Chief Sekoto holds Court
  13. Property
  14. A Power Struggle
  15. A Period of Darkness
  16. The Lovers
  17. The General
  18. Son of the Soil
  19. The Prisoner who Wore Glasses
  20. The Coming of the Christ-Child
  21. Dreamer and Storyteller


  1. Powerful and insightful review, Nana. Well done.

  2. I'll be watching for a copy of this collection. I just read Maru on the weekend, and I understand what you're saying about landscape and weather, so I'm curious to see what other connections will present themselves as I read more of her work. Thanks for the encouragement to do so.

    1. Maru is a great book. It dissects a major problem that afflicts Africans but to which they try to remain openly blind. You will enjoy this anthology too. It's a Bessie.

  3. I enjoyed this collection when I read it. I also reviewed Maru on my blog but not as incisive as your above (smile). But when I read A Question Of Power I was confused. Now, with more clarity of the woman Bessie Head, I shall go back to it for a reread.

    1. LOL. Bessie is a realist writer and A Question of Power should be read in such a manner, it is only then we'll understand that it was what she felt, saw, and thought. Great.

  4. I utterly enjoyed this collection and as I said in my review, it gives a more relaxed view of Bessie Head. I agree with Reading Pleasure that perhaps reading Head's other work might lead to a better understanding and appreciation of A Question of Power.

    Thanks for the review and for participating.

    1. Exactly... It shows that A Question of Power was a realist story, regardless of the psychological issues and its surrealist nature. They were what she saw and felt at the time.


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