One of Botswana’s most outspoken and prolific writers, Bessie Emery Head was born in on July 6th, 1937, in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa to a wealthy South African woman and black male servant at a time when just ten years prior to her birth the government at the time had introduced the Immorality Act which prohibited extramarital sex between white and black people (it was later amended to prohibit sexual relations between whites and non-whites).
In the 1950s and 60s, Head became a teacher and then a journalist for the popular black publication Drum. In 1964, she relocated to neighbouring Botswana as a refugee as she had been involved with Pan-African politics in South Africa with the anti-Apartheid struggle. She settled in the town of Serowe and after 15 years finally gained citizenship in Botswana.
Most of her most important novels are set in Serowe and involve autobiographical elements, such as the novel Maru which centers around the life of an orphaned Masarwa (Bushman) woman who is orphaned as a baby and raised by an Englishwoman, and eventually becomes a teacher.
Her novel, A Question of Power is based partly on the love-hate relationship she is said to have had with her adopted country of Botswana. Whilst living there, some say she remained somewhat of an outsider and at times she suffered mental health problems, perhaps due to her seclusion, amongst other things.
On one occasion Head put up a public notice making allegations about then President Sir Seretse Khama, which led to a period in Lobatse Mental Hospital.
Bessie Head passed away in 1986 at the age of 48, from hepatitis. Her early death came at a time when she was beginning to receive recognition from her works.
In 2003 she was awarded the South African “Order of Ikhamanga in Gold” for her “exceptional contribution to literature and the struggle for social change, freedom and peace. In 2007, her birth city of Pietermaritzburg renamed the city library in her honor.