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Bessie Head: A Question of Power

This story tells both of the racial problems faced by Africans and the story of the descent into madness of an African woman. The two are, of course, connected. Elizabeth leaves South Africa both to escape the brutal racism of the white South Africans but also to escape from her husband. She takes her son and heads for Botswana, hoping to find peace and freedom from her demons. Unfortunately, she takes her demons with her – they take the form of people, primarily two men called Dan and Sello. At first she finds work in a primary school, where she feels an outcast, as she is not Botswanan. She is looked on with suspicion by the Botswanans, not least because she is lighter-skinned than they. She finally is fired, allegedly for an outburst against Botswanans and moves on.

She goes to a cooperative, run by white Europeans (primarily Danes) and Americans, where she seems to fit in, doing gardening and similar work. She is befriended by a white American, Tom. But her demons return and she has to return to the mental hospital, where she is separated from her son and haunted by Dan and Sello. Tom sticks by her, despite her attacks on him. At the end, she seems to have recovered, but the question remains for how long. Her bouts of madness are clearly related to the racism of which she is a victim and she makes the link between the two fairly explicit. Her harrowing tales of her insanity and her twisted relationship with Dan and Sello are very powerfully written. Head tells us a difficult but very moving story.

Publishing history

First published 1973 by Davis-Poynter