Maru by Bessie Head

An orphaned Masarwa girl comes to Dilepe to teach, only to discover that in this remote Botswana village her people are treated as outcasts. In the love story and intrigue that follow, the author’s exploration of racism draws upon her own experiences of growing up in South Africa.

Bessie Head’s name sounded familiar when I first picked this book. Back in 2013, the blog Kinna Reads was doing a Bessie Head week to honor her 76th birthday. Bessie Head was born in South-Africa to a white mother and a black father. She was born while her mother was in a psychiatric hospital. She is from South-Africa which means I don’t know much about her. I am from West Africa and I only know two things about southern Africa: Nelson Mandela and Lady Blacksmith Mamboza – Just kidding, okay barely. The continent is huge and unfortunately, it is divided along language borders. For instance, Francophone Africa does not know much about Anglophone Africa and vice versa. This is slowly changing though. In any case, I got hold of this book by means I am not going to disclose here. I was super excited, the title was intriguing. I started reading.

The book is very short only 80 pages, but it took me a long time to read. To this day, I don’t know why. Was it the language? the story? I keep guessing and asking myself where is this story going? I should disclose that I am a very moody reader.

From the start, the storyline was clear in my head. A young woman from a marginalized minority group was taken in by a white woman when her mom died in childbirth. She was given everything except love. There is a good justification for this in the text. I was struggling because I was confused about the two main characters all the time. Maru and Moleka. I was never sure who was being mentioned until much later. I had to reread the whole section to get it. The end is very anti-climatic. I was expecting something big and bad to happen. That is not the way it happened. What we were told was going to happen, happened.

Now to the good stuff…

All the lead characters are women except Maru and Moleka. They are portrayed as strong women, but sometimes they appear powerless and uncertain. The author might have done this intentionally to represent reality. It’s very difficult to do actions that are consistent with your character all the time. The only woman that is strong and is kept that way till the end is the one who adopted the masarwa baby. However, she too towards the end is suspected of crying because she missed her adopted daughter Margaret.

Two best friends, Maru and Moleka, are competing for the love of an outcast girl. Feminism and marginalization are the main themes of the novel. Towards the end, the Masarwa people will start to revolt or think about revolting I am not sure exactly. But it is all happening because the Masarwa girl, that had created a rift between the two best friends, was finally able to get away and married the prince of the land. They could not marry and stay in the village.

The people revolted because an outside masarwa girl who herself was tricked into marriage, revolted, or at least they thought she revolted.

Maru appears very mystical. However, we know he is a schemer.  He is also very controlling. He drove crazy his girlfriends when he is tired of them. I like the clever way Bessie Head painted this. We are shown how he manipulated the beliefs of the land to drive people crazy by playing on their fears.   People are rightly afraid of him. No one wants to cross him, you never know what is going to happen to you.

At the same time, he is very angered by the deeds of his ancestors. He is supposed to inherit the chieftaincy of the kingdom but he keeps delaying it with excuses about not being well. We are told by the narrator that he despises the kingdom because of how it was acquired. The wealth and the slaves were all tainted in his eyes. And he was secretly dreaming of getting away from it all.

It is my first time reading Bessie Head. People usually preferred her other novels. I will have to read the other works to compare them with this one. Overall, it was a great experience. I am glad I pushed through and finished it. I learned a lot about Bostwana.

(Masarwa) San People

The Saan people also called “Bushmen” are the first people nation of Southern Africa. They used to be semi-nomadic people, but in the 1970s they were forced to farm by government modernization programs. Today, there are between 50,000 to 60,000 San in Botswana. The San people also called Bushmen can be found in South Africa, Namibia, Angola, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. According to, an activist website:

… the most commonly used Setswana term is “Basarwa” (singular, “Mosarwa”), meaning “those who do not have cattle”, and which many Bushmen find offensive in a country that largely determines humanity on the basis of cattle ownership.



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2 responses to “Maru by Bessie Head”

  1. readinpleasure Avatar

    Great review. I also read Maru but didin’t really get Maru’s character; he seemed like a mystic and nasty person. Thanks for sharing.


  2. Ndeye Sene Mbaye Avatar

    My pleasure! Thanks to you for stopping by.


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