Bessie Head

With some of the stories echoing folktales, Bessie Head’s The Collector of Treasures is a collection of thirteen short stories set in a Botswanan village where life is fraught with tension.

Conflict permeates most aspects of village life. Some villagers cling to traditional religion and culture while others have adopted Christianity, embrace modernization, and view indigenous culture with disdain. Conflict also exists between men and women. The men in several of the short stories are depicted with rapacious sexual appetites, abandoning wives and children to fend for themselves. Meanwhile, the women eke out a living to support themselves and their children. Exacerbating the tension is a harsh climate, devastating droughts, unforgiving soil, poverty, corruption, and the sheer desperation of village life.

Several of the stories illustrate intolerance and hypocrisy. For example, in “Heaven is not Closed,” a devout Christian woman is banished from the church by a missionary for choosing to marry a man who insists on adhering to traditional customs. In “The Village Saint,” a woman is exposed for being harsh, cruel, and domineering. “Witchcraft” and “Looking for a Rain God” echo traditional beliefs and superstitions. In “Kgotla,” we see an example of the traditional method of resolving conflicts by having each party publicly air its grievances in front of a “court” of elders, with all agreeing to abide by the chief’s decision.

The subordination of women is clearly evident in this patriarchal culture. Women are used, abused, and perceived primarily as sexual objects to satisfy male lust. Male misbehavior is tolerated, whereas the same behavior exhibited by women is vociferously condemned and accosted with wagging tongues. Women have little recourse to defend themselves or their children. Some, as in the case of Dikeledi in “The Collector of Treasures,” resort to violence since they see no other viable option available to them.

Although most of the stories portray conflict and challenges, a few illustrate harmonious marital relationships. Kenalepe and Paul Thebolo in “The Collector of Treasures” and Tholo and Thato in “Hunting” are married couples living in harmony and mutual respect. And some stories show glimpses of female solidarity—women supporting each other in the face of adversity.

The strength of these stories lies in Bessie Head’s portrayal of village life while maintaining the tone of a detached observer even when describing scenes of horror and abuse. She presents harsh events as if they are every day occurrences woven into the fabric of village life in Botswana. There is no lapse into righteous condemnation. There is no banner-waving to call attention to the injustice. Injustice occurs at every street corner. It just is. Head’s quiet equanimity and distancing in voice and tone is highly effective since her understated manner of presenting events serves to reinforce the horror.


AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review