Landscape and Spatial Metaphor in Bessie Head's The Collector of Treasures

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Author: Maxine Sample
Date: Summer 1991
From: Studies in Short Fiction(Vol. 28, Issue 3)
Reprint In: Short Story Criticism(Vol. 52)
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 3,845 words

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[(essay date 1991) In the following essay, Sample discusses Head's fictional representation of space in The Collector of Treasures.]

In exploring how people experience the world, social scientists studying the environment generally acknowledge that people tend to respond psychologically to certain features in the environment, often establishing deep psychological and emotional ties to places where they live. The identification of individuals with their environment is a process that occurs on both a conscious and subconscious level and manifests itself in various aspects of daily life. This personal, individual viewpoint is what geographer Yi-Fu Tuan refers to as the "experiential perspective," generally how the individual feels about space and place and how either reflects those feelings; the concern here is how one conceptualizes that experience, "the various modes through which a person knows and constructs a reality" (Tuan 8).

This discussion of the fictional representation of space in selected short stories in Bessie Head's The Collector of Treasures explores the relationship between the experience of space and the female imagination by examining Bessie Head's response to the physical, social, and political environment in which she lived. From the dismal certainties of the racially segmented and dehumanizing social structure known as South African apartheid, to a more promising existence as an exile in a rural Botswana community, Bessie Head creates in her works a place in which women and creative artists alike can subvert the efforts to restrict women or to render them powerless in socially designated places where they have no voice. Additionally, through her representation of the Botswana landscape, Head creates metaphoric spaces that suggest possibilities for change that will enable women to exercise control over their own lives.

When this black South African writer-in-exile sought refuge in neighboring Botswana, she was in search of more than freedom from racial oppression. Her self-imposed exile from what she labeled the "unholiest place on earth" ("Witchcraft" 72) was an attempt to forge a positive sense of self that would emerge from being in an environment that offered unconditional freedom and would assuage the feelings of rootlessness that characterized living on the margins of full citizenship in the country of her birth. Such feelings of rootlessness and dispossession, which she associated with South Africa, would propel her in a search for the antithesis of that place. Years after having settled in Botswana and having embraced it as her new home, Head would write, "One of my preoccupations was a search as an African for a sense of historical continuity, a sense of roots ..." ("A Search" 278). Head reveals the affective bond to Botswana that she consciously cultivated:

I forcefully created for myself, under extremely hostile conditions, my ideal life. I took an obscure and almost unknown village in the South African bush and made it my hallowed ground. Here, in the steadiness and peace of my own world, I could dream dreams a little ahead of the somewhat vicious clamor of revolution and the horrible stench of evil social systems.("Witchcraft""Witchcraft" 72)

In Botswana, Head sought to absorb the essence of place and connect with ancient Africa.

The image of a place where life was stifled and perverted was replaced with the image of a place where the African experience was "continuous and unbroken" (Beard 45). In walks through Botswana villages, Bessie Head sought to absorb the essence of place and connect with ancient Africa, slowly "[becoming] alive with the background scenery" ("An African Story" 735). The appeal of the land and the need to feel close to it became Head's way of explaining those changes that were taking place in her life. The impact of this place on the author is illustrated in a passage from her historical chronicle of the village in which she lived, Serowe, Village of the Rain Wind:

I have lived most of my life in shattered little bits. Somehow, here, the shattered bits began to grow together. There is a sense of wovenness, a wholeness in life here; a feeling of how strange and beautiful people can be--just living.(x)

Botswana thus offered Head the kind of psychic healing that she apparently needed.

The appeal of the land and the need to feel close to it became Head's way of explaining those changes that were taking place in her life. Bessie Head's response as a creative artist to the Botswana landscape has a metaphoric dimension when one considers parallels between her experience of place as a black woman living under apartheid and a woman torn between two worlds because of her ethnic mix.1 When Head creates fiction set in rural Botswana, the beauty of the village is frequently understood in juxtaposition with the land before and after the infrequent rainfall. The drought and barrenness of the land are countered by an occasional downpour, which brings a complete metamorphosis of the landscape that is not only healing but also magical/mystical. This healing power of the rain, its magic, is constantly referred to in Head's fiction and in her historical chronicle of Serowe. The drought-stricken landscape seems to reflect the starkness and barrenness of a spiritual self whose humanity was robbed by racial oppression. The rains that come to heal the cracked, parched lands of Botswana are for Head the healing forces of experiencing life in Botswana, enjoying subsistence living in a rural village and working in a farming cooperative with people of all kinds.

Like the sudden, unpredictable rains, an unpredictable turn of events--an opportunity to teach, an offer of citizenship (coming much later), and an opportunity to belong--brought cohesiveness to a fragmented life. Her fascination with the change in the landscape after the rains is understandable when viewed in this context. However, as the rejuvenating effects of the rain on the landscape later yield to the other hostile features of this semi-arid region, Head increasingly found that idyllic existence in Botswana would not be a permanent reality for her. Such permanence would exist only in her fictional worlds.

In The Collector of Treasures, Head attempts to capture as much of the authentic culture and the history of the people/place as possible. Her representation of the Botswana landscape in this collection of "village tales" incorporates a number of motifs employed in her novels as well. Aspects of the landscape are generally associated with the people and the ritual pattern of subsistence on the land. For example, in the first story in the collection, "The Deep River: A Story of Ancient Tribal Migration," the image of the people as a deep river during ancient times serves as a contrast to the barren, drought-stricken condition of the land during more recent times when conflict and internal strife seem to be the trend. The early pastoral state of the landscape ("cattle tracks and footpaths") becomes synonymous with the simplicity of the way of life. Head writes:

Long ago when the land was only cattle tracks and footpaths, the people lived together like a deep river. In this deep river which was unruffled by conflict or movement forward, the people lived without faces, except for their chief, whose face was the face of all the people.(CTCT [The Collector of Treasures, and Other Botswana Village TalesThe Collector of Treasures, and Other Botswana Village TalesCollector of Treasures, and Other Botswana Village Tales] 1)

The river, probably noticeably absent from the contemporary landscape, seems to embody those aspects of group unity that were lacking at a later time. Conflicts within the tribe are said to have "ruffled their deep river." The phrase "without faces" conveys the collective identity and the sense of communalism that existed at an early period of the village's history. The business of living flowed smoothly like the cyclical rise and fall of the river from one planting season to the next.

Head acknowledges that "The Deep River" is "an entirely romanticized and fictionalized version of the history of the Botalaote tribe" (CT 6). However, the story contains a pattern that is characteristic of Head's researched histories and her fictionalized accounts of the Botswana people. That is the recurring schism between apparent heirs, often involving a leader's choice of woman, and the resulting split of the person with his supporters to another place. This type of nomadic movement when tradition has been challenged appears in other works by Head. Historically, communities in that part of southern Africa would relocate when new sources of water were needed for themselves and their cattle. In the context of the story, the movement of the splinter group away from the village becomes synonymous with the disruption of the smooth flow of the river, the loss of unity.

Other contrasts that Head employs in her response to the landscape include the rain/drought dichotomy. In "Looking for a Rain God," the drought conditions become an invidious force that brings out evil in the villagers--suicide in some and ritual murder in others. "With a strange cruelty" (CT 58) the sun sucks up moisture as it does hope from the people. The oppressiveness of the landscape on the people and the level of desperation that drives them to inhumane deeds are recounted in this story. We see this message at the end of this tale:

The subtle story of strain and starvation and breakdown was inadmissible evidence at court; but all the people who lived off crops knew in their hearts that only a hair's breadth had saved them from sharing a fate similar to that of the Mokgobja family. They could have killed something to make the rain fall.(CTCT 60)

The moralistic ending seems to send the message that those not of the region, those unfamiliar with the extent to which the people of the village were made to suffer or were challenged to survive the cruelties of climate, could not appreciate the depths of desperation to which the family who killed their children to make rain were driven. To understand the desperation of the family would have meant to understand the motivation for murder.

In "Jacob: The Story of a Faith-Healing Priest," Head uses landscape polarities to construct a fable about faith and greed, good and evil. In this tale, which reads like a Christian parable of the suffering Job, she develops a contrast between two prophets, one greedy and materialistic, the other selfless and caring. Jacob, the good prophet, lives on the sunrise side of town while Lebojang, the evil, corrupt prophet, lives on the sunset side of town. Jacob lives simply in a mud hut and freely provides spiritual counsel to his visitors without expecting or demanding expensive gifts in return. He subsists on the meager donations that come from his grateful followers. With him are associated the ideals of faith, austerity/asceticism and simplicity. His followers are children; here the association with innocence and lack of corruption are qualities lacking in his rival. Through this depiction of Jacob are revealed the true principles of Christianity and the teachings of Jesus, of a healing spiritualism without worldly trappings. Head adds that "everything about [Jacob] was very beautiful and simple and deeply sincere" (CT 25).

In contrast, on the sunset side of the village where Lebojang lives, followers gather unaccustomed to generosity and sharing but well versed in exploitation and selfishness. Some of Lebojang's followers include relatives of the uncles who dispossessed Jacob and his twin brother of their inheritance and virtually enslaved the two boys while living comfortably off their father's wealth. These relatives also live on the sunset side of the village. Lebojang lives in a mansion, as opposed to Jacob's simple hut, and mercilessly exploits his followers, treating the wealthy lavishly in order to extract even more wealth from them. He has a power that is reportedly associated with black magic. As strong as his powers are, however, he cannot harm Jacob. It is only at the end of the story that the reader sees the true evil of prophet Lebojang. After sunset he is caught participating in a ritual murder of a child and is subsequently accused of responsibility in the similar deaths of numerous adults and other children.

The sun/sunset and light/darkness motif increases in significance as one examines the story more closely. The symbolic dimension of the association of person with place reveals itself in the manner in which Head prefaces comments about Jacob with "on the sunrise side of the village." Instead of Jacob canvassing for membership and proselytizing throughout the village, people come to him, drawn to him like plant life in search of the nurturing sun's rays. When busloads of people come into the village, there is an exodus of people, half in the direction of Jacob's and half in the direction of Lebojang's estate (cosmic balance?). The sunset side of the village represents the evils of exploitation and cruelty that apparently exist in every society along with the good.

Critic Joyce Johnson has detected in Head's novels the use of sunlight and darkness as "antagonistic but complementary forces. Each combines both menacing and comforting aspects. ... The extremes of traditionalism and modernity are represented in the images of areas dominated either by darkness or sunlight" (59). Although Johnson's references are to When Rain Clouds Gather, they are helpful in our understanding of the light/dark motif Head uses in this story. The fact that Jacob's evil practices take place under the cover of darkness suggests the danger involved in continuing such a tradition as ritual murder. His exposure also hints at the chicanery that is sometimes associated with this kind of spiritual leadership. The story suggests that the demise of Lebojang's ministry will make room for the kind of spiritualism that is free of materialistic greed and selfishness.

The rain/water motif appears in "Jacob" first as a feature of the landscape and later as a symbolic dimension of Jacob. Head spends a page and a half of the story on the landscape of the village--its abundant rainfall and lush plant life--but adds that the spiritual healers, not the fecundity of the earth, attracted people to the village. The geography of the village takes on a greater significance in that Jacob receives a spiritual calling to go to that very village where he lost his parents when their car skidded on a bridge and plunged into the swollen river during a downpour. The duality of the water as both productive and destructive reflects the duality of the spiritual healing offered by prophets in the village.

Water as a healing element is also associated with Jacob. He dispenses what appears to be "holy" water to the afflicted with the assurances that it will relieve them of their troubles, and it does! The presence of water as a benign force2 adds a measure of legitimacy to Jacob's ministry. Despite the fact that water takes Jacob's parents from him (the drowning accident), Jacob is endowed with healing powers through the use of the blessed water.

Head's representation of the Botswana landscape in this collection of short stories also reveals her observation of the spatial structure of traditional villages in that country. She notes about the village of Serowe, "Everything goes in circles; the circular mud huts are enclosed by circular yards and circular pathways weave in and out between each yard" (Serowe xii). This circular patterns, she observes, was later disrupted by construction crews who replaced it with tarred roads and highways--somewhat of a symbolic imposition of a foreign worldview--that more than likely ran in perpendicular lines. Mention of the circle also appears in her discussion of the chief's kgotla, a village court where civil matters are settled. In introducing a narrative about the kgotla in Serowe, she writes:

The older people say the kgotla was the central part of their moral life, the sort of moral centre that was only paralleled by the instruction of the Christian church. In Serowe, the chief's Kgotla is in the central part of the village, beneath Serowe hill and marked out by a wide, semi-circular arrangement of stout poles.(37)

Since only men could serve on the kgotla, the center here is associated with male space. Additionally, as is the case in the spatial organization of many communities, the center is a locus of power as perceived community wide. Head's observation about the traditional layout of villages is incorporated into one of the village tales she recreated in The Collector of Treasures.

In the short story "Kgotla," Head employs the spatial juxtaposition of the kgotla and the administrative buildings to dramatize the clash between the two centers of power. The village court offered a place where the community could be heard, a place where the villagers themselves mattered. The presence of the colonial administrative buildings, however, is a threatening one, for though the kgotla and the buildings existed side by side, "the bureaucratic world was fast devouring up the activities of the ancient, rambling kgotla world" (CT 62). Thus the traditional way of life as symbolized by the kgotla was being encroached upon from without. Despite the usurpation of power by the colonial administration, it

hadn't yet taken over people's affairs--the kgotla was still the people's place. It was the last stronghold where people could make their anguish and disputes heard, where nothing new could be said about human nature--it had all been said since time immemorial and it was all of the same pattern, repeating itself from generation unto generation.(CTCT 62)

The repetition, the cyclical pattern of the traditional means of disseminating knowledge, of passing on the culture and its values from generation to generation suggests a continuity, both historical and cultural, that Head apparently found attractive in the routine of life in such Botswana villages.

The short story "Life," a tale of a prostitute who returns to the village and continues to practice her "profession," is another work in the collection that reflects the use of the center as a spatial metaphor. The protagonist, a young woman ironically named Life, is murdered by a husband frustrated in his attempt to reform her. Once Life is settled in the central part of the village, her presence attracts other women: first housewives and farmers, the "intensely conservative hard-core centre of village life" who later shun her when they discover her occupation; then the beer-brewing women "who had emancipated themselves some time ago," women who rejected taking a husband in favor of ruling themselves (CT 39). With the loud-playing music, the beer drinking, and the endless parade of men in and out of Life's yard, the "din and riot of a Johannesburg township was duplicated, on a minor scale, in the central part of the village" (40). However, in this case, the center takes on the characteristics of a place of sinful, perverse activities, a place of inevitable destruction because of the moral decay associated with it and its source, Life.

The hotel and pub that open several months after Life's arrival were shunned by all the village women, including the beer-brewers who felt "they had not fallen that low yet ..." (40). The intrusion of destruction into Life's sphere is represented by the movement of Lesego into her life and their subsequent marriage. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Life moved out of her sphere, for when "death [Lesego] walked quietly into the bar" (41), Life was drawn to Lesego and approached him.

The inclusion of Lesego into her sphere, of course, changes Life and ultimately brings about her destruction, for her space must accommodate male conditions for her survival: male control of all the money, male control of her socializing (no more playing the transistor radio), and male control of her sexuality (no more prostitution). Lesego promises Life death if she violates the third condition. The anguish of living under those terms, living as a subservient, obedient wife drives Life to her former liaisons with men, and results in her death at the hands of Lesego. Life is her own center, the source of her own vitality and happiness. The presence of a man in her sphere changes the quality of existence within that sphere. This story dramatizes the irreconciliation of a male-dominated realm of existence represented by Life's marriage to Lesego and that of a female sphere where women exercised total control of their lives. Like an abnormal growth, Life is cut out of the center of the village--killed with one of Lesego's knives used to slaughter cattle--and she becomes only a memory of a livelier time in the village's history.

Throughout this volume of short stories, the Botswana landscape itself and the structuring of space in the village assume added significance. Head's perception of space/place as revealed here is translated into the pulse of the lives of the villagers and the impact of values in conflict. She is in her own way celebrating life in the communities that she depicts while assessing the socio-historical changes and the sexual politics that inform these stories of Botswana village women and men.


1Bessie Head was reportedly born in 1937 to Bessie Emery, a white South African who at the time had been committed to the Pretoria Mental Hospital, and a black man whose identity is not known. Head was not embraced by the wealthy Emery family, but was raised as an orphan instead. She grew up having to live within the boundaries established for "Coloureds," her assigned racial category. Head's expressed feeling that she lacked a sense of history may well have emerged from the circumstances surrounding her birth and childhood in addition to living under apartheid. Also see Susan Gardner's "'Don't Ask for the True Story': A Memoir of Bessie Head." The author raises questions about Head's shared account of her own past and inconsistencies Gardner discovered by researching hospital records and other sources before Head's untimely death.

2One of the most helpful sources on Head's treatment of the Botswana landscape is Joyce Johnson's "Structures of Meaning in the Novels of Bessie Head." According to Johnson, "The paradigm of the conflict between characters in Head's novels is the behavior of the natural elements in the semi-desert area of Botswana" (56). Images derived from the physical and social environment reflect broader existential concerns (56-57).

Works Cited

Beard, Linda Susan. "Bessie Head in Gabarone, Botswana: An Interview." Sage 3.2 (Fall 1986): 44-47.

Gardner, Susan. "'Don't Ask for the True Story': A Memoir of Bessie Head." Hecate 12 (1986): 110-29.

Head, Bessie. "An African Story." The Listener 30 Nov. 1972: 735-37.

------. The Collector of Treasures and Other Botswana Village Tales. London: Heinemann, 1977.

------. "A Search for Historical Continuity and Roots." Momentum: On Recent South African Writing. Ed. M. J. Daymond, J. V. Jacobs, and Margaret Lester. Pietermaritzburg: U of Natal P, 1984. 278-80.

------. Serowe: Village of the Rain Wind. London: Heinemann, 1981.

------. "Witchcraft: Fiction by Bessie Head." Ms. Nov. 1975: 72-73.

Johnson, Joyce. "Structures of Meaning in the Novels of Bessie Head." Kunapipi 8.1 (1986): 56-60.

Tuan, Yi-Fu. Space and Place. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1977.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420043422