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Read Around the World: Botswana

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The next stop on our world tour of reading is Botswana. Here are some facts about Botswana (and please feel free to add your own facts in the comments section):

  • It was known as Bechuanaland from 1885-1961 when under British protection.
  • Botswana become independent in 1966 and is the oldest democratic state in Africa
  • Nearly 40% of Bostswana land is National Parks and wildlife reserves
  • It is one of the world’s largest diamond producers and as a result is one of the richer African countries
  • It has a literacy rate of approximately 80%
  • The national dish is Seswaa, a stew of boiled meat, maize meal, & greens

Book Selected: A Question of Power by Bessie HeadA question of power
Published in: 1974
Find it/buy it here:A Question of Power

Reason Selected: A Question of Power may seem like a strange selection because the author was born in South Africa. However, she later become known as one of Botswana’s most renowned authors after moving there in early adulthood. A Question of Power is in many ways a semi-autobiographical account of Head’s life in Botswana. It follows the breakdown of a woman who moves to Botswana, fleeing conditions in her home town and struggling to be accepted into traditional village communities (much like Head herself). Over the course of the novel we learn about power relationships that exist between sexes, race/ethnic groups, and natives vs outsiders within a primarily Botswanan society. We are given a glimpse of village life, communal farming, and power structures within Botswana.

Synopsis: “Your mother was insane. If you’re not careful you’ll get insane just like your mother. Your mother was a white woman. They had to lock her up, as she was having a child by the stable boy who was a native.” It is never clear to Elizabeth whether the mission school principal’s cruel revelation of her origins is at the bottom of her mental breakdown. She has left South Africa with her son and is living in the village of Motabeng, the place of sand, in Botswana where there are no street lights at night. In the darkness of this country where people turn and look at her with vague curiosity as an outsider she establishes an entirely abnormal relationship with two men. A mind-bending book which takes the reader in and out of sanity.

In this semi-autobiographical novel, Head tracks the protagonist Elizabeth’s struggle to emerge from the oppressive social situation in which she finds herself, and from the nightmares and hallucinations that torment her.

Book Worm’s Review
Rating: ★★★
Like the author, the main character in this book, Elizabeth, is the daughter of a rich white woman and a black stable boy. Her mother has been committed to a mental institute leaving Elizabeth to be raised by a black family in South Africa. Elizabeth is initially unaware of her true heritage until she starts a new school where the teachers are advised to watch her for signs of mental disturbance like her mother.

Elizabeth marries a man she believes she loves and they have a son together. When he begins to mistreat and cheat on her, however,  she decides to take her son and begin a new life in Botswana. It is when she makes this move and becomes a complete outsider that her own mental break down occurs.

The book is split into two sections, each section named after a man who will torment Elizabeth. Sello who at first appears to be a good monk, but who later is shown to possess evil qualities is the first man to appear to Elizabeth.  The second man is Dan who is obsessed with sex and with showing Elizabeth how inferior she is by parading an almost unending sequence of other women through her bed.

For me the most interesting sections were the ones where Elizabeth is working towards the community making a vegetable garden and getting a variety of unusual seeds to grow. The mental breakdown sections are harrowing and I have to confess that images of giant vaginas and penises can really put me off a novel. I understand that sexuality was an important part of her breakdown, however I really didn’t need the images to be so graphic.

Jen’s Review
Rating: ★★★

 A Question of Power is a complex book and one that is hard to capture in a short review, or after a single reading. I can’t say I found it particularly enjoyable because most of the book you are inside the head of a woman having a mental and emotional breakdown, and that’s not a pleasant place to be. The structure and format is unusual, confusing, and utterly disorienting. There are no clear delineations between reality and fantasy/madness and as a result it took me a while to figure out exactly what was going on in the main story line. In this way, Head does a good job making the reader feel as if she (or he) is losing her mind along with the protagonist.

As a psychologist, I feel like I should have been more easily able to follow along with the protagonist’s decent into madness. But, the whole process was so bizarre with some elements that felt extremely believable and genuine to the experience of a psychotic break while other elements felt out of place and disjointed. As I reflect on this today, I think this is intentional because Head takes elements of a mental breakdown and infuses them with sociopolitical meaning about power dynamics (gender, racial/ethnic dynamics, and colonization). The two men who inhabit her hallucinations represent different elements of power dynamics and social relations and therefore the descent into madness is about more than personal insanity. Sello represents the spiritual and Dan the sexual.

I gave this book three stars because I had a hard time trying to follow and understand all the symbolism that was clearly an integral part of the book. This is my own limitation and not the book’s limitation but I read this book with the feeling that I was trying to scoop up handfuls of sand and every time I got close to closing my fist, the grains of understanding would start to slip through my fingers. I did really enjoy the more concrete sections about the communal farming and community relationships, perhaps because those were sections that were easy to understand relative to the rest of the novel.

I would recommend this book because I think it is a complicated and interesting read, but it requires time and effort to be able to follow. I had to chuckle when reading BW’s review above because the sexual imagery didn’t bother me that much (it usually does bother me) and I don’t remember too much about the giant penises because I was so confused about everything else going on.

Have you read this book or any other works by Bessie Head? What are your thoughts?

Additional Information

We would be remiss to “visit” Bostwana without a mention of The N0. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall. Although written by a Scottish author, the books take place in Botswana’s capital, Gaborone. For more about the series, see the author’s page, here.

Have you read any literature from Botswana or set in Botswana? Have you read any books by Bessie Head? Share your thoughts with us. 

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