Like her protagonist in When Rain Clouds Gather, Head also emigrated from South Africa to Botswana to escape the harsh conditions of apartheid. Although South Africa had been segregated for a long time, apartheid, the system of strict segregation laws that defined South Africa for more than forty years, only officially began in 1948. Black South Africans, who made up almost 75 percent of the population, could receive only a limited amount of education, and they were told where to live and whom they could or could not marry. No marriages between whites and nonwhites were tolerated. All nonwhite people were required by law to carry passes on them at all times. These passes contained a photo identification, fingerprints, and information about where in the country they could or could not travel.
Discrimination against nonwhites grew stronger as time went on. In 1950, the white government passed new laws, restricting where black and all nonwhite people could live. The people’s rights to vote were then limited to the areas in which they lived. They could no longer be involved in national politics and elections. In essence, all nonwhite people became foreigners in their own country.
The government clamped down even harder on the nonwhite population, declaring its right to detain anyone without a hearing. Thousands reportedly died while in prison. Many were victims of torture. Many others were ordered to leave the country, such as the famous singer Miriam Makeba. Some were executed. Others were imprisoned, such as Nelson Mandela, an activist for human rights, who was imprisoned for twenty-seven years.
Resistance to apartheid eventually led to the end of the system during the 1990s; the 1990 release of Nelson Mandela marked the beginning of the end.On April 27, 1994, the first democratic elections were held in South Africa. Mandela was elected president, thus marking the end of apartheid.
Botswana is a landlocked country in southern Africa. It is a bit smaller than Texas and is bounded by the countries of Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe. Botswana is an arid country, with the Kalahari Desert making up most of its southern portion. Desertification, the process of land turning into desert, is a significant problem for Botswana. Less than 1 percent of the land is capable of sustaining crops. Making the situation worse, there was a series of droughts in the early years of the twenty-first century. Cattle, an important agricultural product, add to the problem because they have caused damage to the land through overgrazing, making the land even more susceptible to desertification.
Most of Botswana’s population, almost two million people, live in the eastern part of the country. This is where the major cities such as Francistown, Selebi-Phikwe, Serowe, and Gaborone (the country’s capital) are located. The earliest people to live in the area that is now Botswana were the San people, now referred to as the Bushmen, and the Khoi, or Khoikhoi (the name Hottentot, formerly used to describe this tribe, is now considered to be derogatory). Descendents of these ancient tribes still live in Botswana and not much has changed in their lifestyles for many thousands of years. Other tribal groups have since moved into the country and the population today is a mix of these ancient tribes.
In the nineteenth century, European missionaries came to the continent of Africa, including Botswana. When the Botswana people had difficulties with the Dutch Boer settlers (most of whom came from South Africa), they appealed to Britain for help. In 1885, Botswana became a British protectorate. However, by the middle of the twentieth century, Botswana had grown tired of British rule and asked for independence, which the British granted in September 1966.
Though Botswana has been called a model African country because of its economic and political stability, there remain problems that need to be resolved. One is the rapid spread of HIV/AIDS, the worst on the continent, and another is the issue of recent human rights abuses in regards to the Bushmen, who have been forced off their traditional land.
Sub-Saharan African Literature, 1950–1980
Though the history of literature in Africa goes back to ancient times, most works were not written down. Oral storytelling, handed down from generation to generation, was the prevalent practice in the ancient cultures. It was not until colonization that writing and reading were introduced. Literacy of the people of African nations occurred mostly in the languages of the colonists, so most of the literature in the nineteenth century that came out of Africa was in English and French, not in the people’s native tongues. Some of the first stories published were about slavery, colonization, the disruption of native culture, and emancipation. As the twentieth century progressed, more works emerged with themes of liberation and independence. Since the 1950s and 1960s, as more and more African nations attained their freedom, the literature written by authors in African countries has grown both in numbers and in popularity around the world.
Some of Head’s contemporary authors include the Nigerian authors Chinua Achebe, best known for Things Fall Apart; Wole Soyinka, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1986, the first African writer to do so; and Buchi Emecheta, known for writing fiction about women’s issues.
Sara Constantakis (Editor), Novels for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Volume 31, Bessie Head, Published by Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.