I picked up this thin book for a quick read on a recent trip. It left my head reeling with so many questions and so many thoughts. Who would have thought a tiny book, a novella of sorts, would have so many heavy themes. I can see myself discussing this in an advanced level literature class. It’s a Heinemann African Writers Series book, which is notable because when I was a young teenager in Ghana (where I first encountered the series) I thought I would one day finish reading all the books in the series. In either case, this is my first novel by Bessie Head, a South African who grew up in Botswana, and is supposed to be one of Africa’s best-known writers.
Maru, the novel, begins with the end and then spends the rest of the time reflecting upon the past. Yes, quite confusing. Maru, the man, is next in line to be chief of the small Batswana village, Dilepe where old practices die hard and prejudices linger. Throughout the read, I often wondered why the novel was titled after him and not Margaret Cadmore, the Masarwa, whose story it seemed was the one being told, from her birth, to her adoption and upbringing, to her trying to integrate into a Batswana village, and to her marriage.
I did not like Maru, the man. He seemed to act out of selfishness and spite even though his mission was to make his people realize that the Masarwa, long regarded as being at the bottom of the human totem pole, were people like everyone else. This was surprising to me as I had no clue that at one point in time, the Masarwa (Bushman, Khoi-San etc) were so highly disliked and mistreated by the other African peoples of the land. From my first knowledge of them in The Gods Must Be Crazy (one of my favourite movies as a child – now not so much) to my Anthropology classes in college I had always thought that they preferred to live away from other people and that people just left them alone, and OK fine, maybe ridiculed them just a tad.
I’m not sure that there is a “happy ever after” in this tale even though everything seemed to work out “right”.