San Culture in Bessie Head's Maru

By Stan Galloway, 2001

Bessie Head's Maru, a romance grounded in Botswanan village politics, is often touted as a novel attacking prejudice. Daniel Gover, in his influential article, "The Fairy Tale and the Nightmare," claims: "Maru is the story of racial prejudice conquered by idealistic love functioning as a socially progressive force that advances mankind in the direction of racial equality" (113). His emphasis on the fairy tale quality of the novel is important in coming to such a conclusion. Many see the Cinderella-like relationship between Maru and Margaret, the Tswana prince and the young Bushman woman, as an affirmation of equality along racial, gender, and cultural lines. Horace I. Goddard, in his essay "Imagery in Bessie Head's Work," claims that, in the character of Maru the man, "good is made to triumph over evil" (107), because of his choice to marry a member of a despised people group.

Maru's love for Margaret, Jane Starfield claims, "allows her to realise her full creative potential in marriage." Though the society that Maru had been expected to lead rejects him and continues to embrace its perceived superiority over the Bushmen, Starfield believes that in the remote quasi-Utopian place that Maru takes Margaret they can "live free from prejudice." Virginia Ola contends that at the end of the novel Margaret "is Maru's equal" (67).

Goddard gushes optimistically of Margaret: "Out of the deficiencies of nature, she brings to bear a wholeness that is evidenced in the way she patterns her life, with the hope of gaining inner moral strength and outward social integrity" (105). He goes on: "In Maru, Margaret thus becomes a symbol of motherhood [though she bears no children] and one of female liberation and power. Head writes about a liberation not only from a colonial past but also from the African male's racialistic, sexist and power-seeking tendencies"; for Goddard, then, Margaret and Maru become "harbingers of a new order" (108). And Craig MacKenzie, in his prestigious Twayne study, claims, "The novel ends on a triumphal note" (49), citing the book's last paragraph, which signals a new assertiveness in the San people. For him, "[t]hrough the union of two equal souls, Maru and Margaret defy the prejudiced world and point to a new world of true racial equality" (52).

Even Bessie Head herself, called affectionately by Stephen Gray "[a] portly refugee stuck in the Kalahari sandveld," explains, "With all my South African experience I longed to write an enduring novel on the hideousness of racial prejudice. [. . .] I achieved this ambition in an astonishing way in my second novel, Maru" ("Social" 14). She justifies this, claiming the ability to "[slip] into the skin of a Masarwa person" to such a level of identification that she was able to build the novel "in blinding flashes of insights" ("Social" 15). She writes to Randolph Vigne, "Maru ought to liberate the oppressed Bushmen here overnight" (Gesture 125). But, the novel, while it certainly addresses prejudice, does not show an understanding of the San culture which Margaret purportedly represents, nor does it provide a satisfactory example of how prejudice is successfully overcome. Rather, perhaps inadvertently, Maruís rescue of Margaret from her despised situation serves only to reinforce Margaretís perceived voicelessness and powerlessness.

Even the collective name shows how these people often are seen without identity. Are they Bushman or Masarwa, as Head calls them? Are they San or Khoisan, terms popular among anthropologists? Masarwa is the derogatory term in the Tswana language for the people known variously as Basarwa, San, Khoisan or Bushmen who live largely in the arid regions of the Kalahari. But the people themselves often do not see themselves collectively, under a single term. A "proper" term has eluded non-Bushmen. Both Robert J. Gordon (4-8) and Megan Biesele ([vi]) have left the debate unresolved, though Gordon retains the Bushman label because of its widespread recognition. Alf Wannenburgh claims the naming debate "is a nicety that never concerned the Bushmen themselves" (27). Ruth Jacobs Spector explains her contrary point of view: "My African side is part 'Khoisan' or 'bushman.' 'Khoisan' is the acceptable term. 'Bushman' is the unacceptable word. We try not to use that term at all." Robert K. Hitchcock and Megan Biesele, in their article "San, Khwe, Basarwa, or Bushmen?: Terminology, Identity, and Empowerment in Southern Africa," have argued the various names; it seems that some group takes exception to whatever label is used. In 1996, however, they point out, some of the major groups agreed to allow the term San represent the various peoples known as Bushmen. But identity among the people is more often simply along family lines. And there are regional differences of opinion. They cannot, then, speak with a single voice, but only as so many whisperings. Ultimately, in Maru, Margaret loses her voice as well.

The plot of Head's novel centers on the treatment of a San woman, raised in a white mission, who attempts to integrate herself into the black society of Dilepe, a rural village in Botswana. In Dilepe, though, the Bushmen are slaves. In the minds of the villagers, Margaret comes from this despised group of people. The anomaly of her missionary training has provided her with an educational background superior to other Bushmen, and she has earned a respected position as a teacher. When two community leaders, Maru and Moleka, systematically vie for her affections, it appears that at least in some measure Margaret has been accepted. But, to say that Margaret successfully represents the San culture is false.

The novel fails to account for the San heritage that Head tells us Margaret sought in adolescence. Starfield suggests that Margaret "spends her childhood and adolescent years trying to find out how Bushmen survive as an underclass to the ruling Batswana." In the novel Bushmen are seen as less than human. The narrator tells the reader early in Part One that Bushmen and zebras are more alike in the eyes of non-Bushmen than are Bushmen and humans (7). She generalizes that any group who looks different can become "monsters" (7) to another, but the distinction goes beyond appearance.

Behavior, which is culturally defined, is also important to the perception of a group. For the children at the mission school, that behavior apparently included three concerns: "the wild jiggling dance," living in the bush, and eating mealie pap (13), a kind of boiled corn meal paste. The dance may have referred to something like the healing dance described by Wannenburgh, where the Bushmen, during a singing-clapping cadence, begin to "tremble violently" (53). William Ury explains the cultural relevance of this dance. "[A]ll adult members of the community attend. People sing and clap rhythmically while the dancers dance themselves into a hypnotic trance," he explains. But this dance, while appearing to celebrate self-abandonment, in reality, serves a community function. "The trance dance process unites the community behind the common purpose of resolving tension. It also gives participants a broader perspective on the dispute. Bushmen tradition [. . .] emphasizes apologies and forgiveness" (Ury). The appearance of this dancing may be "uncivilized" but its function goes well beyond the outsiders' own cultural coping mechanisms.

The bush location where they live is despised as uncivilized; in fact, many San in the novel, as we have noted, have been brought in from the bush to live as slaves in Dilepe, which is apparently a "better" life for them. Historically, the San were more widespread across Southern Africa. As a site hosted by Washington University in St. Louis points out, "In time the whites encroached upon the San's traditional hunting grounds. Some Bushmen went to live with them and others moved on west and north in search of land where they could live freely" (Stone). The situation is no different than a dozen other cultures, including the Celts in the Roman Empire and many Native Americans in the American West. To charge these people with inhumanity for choosing freedom over assimilation seems inappropriate.

The food of the Bushmen is notably largely vegetarian (Wannenburgh 28). While mealie pap may be considered substandard food -- it was, as every school child knows, the typical prisoner's meal during Nelson Mandela's stay on Robben Island (Franklin and Hewson) -- it is far from a badge of inhumanity. It is often considered an appropriate side dish at a braai (barbecue). More realistically, Binyavanga Wainaina points out that mealie pap should be considered "Africa's fast food, the culinary equivalent of chips, without the grease. There are at least 100 million people in Africa who eat a version of pap for supper every day." It would seem this food is neither distinctive of the San people nor dehumanizing.

Each of these distinctions is cultural rather than racial. And each is a mark of ridicule from the mission children. And none of these characteristics is displayed by Margaret in the course of the novel.

Head's narrator claims that the future of the Masarwa is in peril because the only place they were accepted (besides in the bush, presumably) was "as the slaves and downtrodden dogs of the Batswana" (14). This is the society into which Margaret moves when she begins her professional life, unaware that her identification with the Bushmen will have serious consequences impacting her treatment there.

Margaret's missionary training stripped her of her cultural heritage and left her with only the appearance, the physical trappings of a Bushman. Margaret's adoptive mother of the same name muses on the day of her unofficial adoption about where Bushmen are buried and says, "They donít seem to be at all a part of the life of this country" (9). For her the Bushmen were curiously present but effectively absent from the land. She raises this outcast baby in a manner similar to the rearing Nora Helmer received in Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House. Nora claims to her husband in a moment of revelation, "When I was at home with papa, he told me his opinion about everything, and so I had the same opinions; and if I differed from him I concealed the fact, because he would not have liked it. He called me his doll-child, and he played with me just as I used to play with my dolls" (63). Margaret Cadmore the elder, then, raises her Margaret-child, similar to Nora Helmerís father raising Nora as his doll-child; and, she believed that heredity was "nothing" (11). She sees the academic success of her Margaret-child as a point of satisfaction, when in reality the narrator admits the child's "brilliance was based entirely on social isolation and lack of communication with others, except through books," a condition that "was too painful for the younger Margaret ever to mention" (15). This child was a non-scientific clone of herself, a Bushman on the outside but more likely a peevish Englishwoman on the inside. As Ketu H. Katrak has assessed, "The Englishness in which the mother steeps her adopted daughter Margaret renders the child out of touch with the Masarwa, and her own culture." The narrator tells us, "There seemed to be a big hole in the child's mind [. . .]" (11) relative to her relationship to any people, but especially to the Bushmen with whom she was, confusingly to her, identified. Gover suggests that Margaret, in her foster home, "has been sheltered from the sense of racial inferiority that Bushmen are subject to in Botswana" (113). Her only oppression seems to have been the nonsensical (to her) teasing that she received from the other mission children. Not until she takes up her first teaching post in Dilepe does she come to understand the prejudice rife in her country. Because she looks Bushman, she is expected to act Bushman. But Margaret hasnít a clue how to do that. When the narrator claims, "No one by shouting, screaming or spitting could un-Bushman her" (14), the reference is to appearance not culture, for in Margaret's adoption she was un-Bushmanned from the beginning.

While much of the surface narrative addresses the Bushman stereotype, the eventual action of the novel affirms the stereotypes it meant to knock down. Somewhat ambiguously Starfield asserts that the marriage of Maru to Margaret is "more equal along gender and racial lines than those found among the Batswana," but the false comparison of "more equal" is meaningless in a relationship where one culture is silenced. Head herself explains that in preparing to write the novel: "I found out above all that [. . .] exploitation and evil is dependent on a lack of communication between the oppressor and the people he oppresses" ("Social" 15). At the chronological end of the novel, which occurs at the beginning of Part One, Margaret speaks no words. The narration is entirely one-sided, depicting Maruís internal struggle over what he has done. We are simply told of Margaret: "Most certainly, no memory remained in her heart and mind of previous suffering" (4). Perhaps to Maru this is certainty, but to the reader the narration is suspect. We are told: "Most often she felt quite drunk and mad with happiness and it was not unusual for her to walk around for the whole day with an ecstatic smile on her face, because the days of malice and unhappiness were few and far over-balanced by the days of torrential expressions of love" (4). But once the reader comes to the end of the novel, certainly such a statement is a projection of Maruís wishes far more than it is reality for the woman who is dominated and exiled with her prince. Her inability to speak or even apparently leave the house gives new meaning to the mindless smiles that the narrator interprets for Maru.

This reversal is foreshadowed by Margaret being objectified and subsumed by the Western-influenced society of Dilepe. The administrators and children of the village attempt to force Margaret out of the school. Culturally, Bushmen could not be educated; therefore, by Dilepe logic, Margaret could not, despite her credentials, be qualified to teach the village children. The reasoning is not uncommon. In a Reuters article from August 2000, Kaskorino Viljoen voices similar perceptions he found in the South African army. "We could not rise above the rank of sergeant. We couldn't become officers. They said: 'You are just a Bushman and you can't go saluting a Bushman because he is dumb. He can't read or write'" (Seccombe). Rescued by Maruís sister, who later takes over as principal of the school, Margaret lives at the edge of the village where she becomes identified simply as "the friend of Mistress Dikeledi," and nearly forgotten by the village: "She was not a part of it and belonged nowhere" (89). Katrak points out that Margaret's marriage to Maru places her "within patriarchal boundaries"; Margaret, she argues, has neither voice nor volition at the end of the novel. Rather, she "seems to be sacrificed as an individual for the greater good of the Masarwa people." The narrator tells us that news of Maruís marriage to Margaret has caused the Bushmen in general to conceive of their own humanness and has inspired them to claim their joint human nature with the rest of the world. But it must also be noted that the people of the village "began to talk about [Maru] as if he had died" (122). Village life, including the oppression of the San, seems unchanged in the community.

Rather than her marriage to Maru being a triumph, then, the novel's ending must be read as her defeat. Katrak, again, concludes that Margaret's marriage to Maru is "problematic and particularly uncharacteristic in its sacrificing of a personal for a supposed 'political' end." Before his abduction of and marriage to Margaret, Maru provides her with painting materials with the instruction through Dikeledi to use them in expressing herself. Through her art she releases images with savage unbidden "ruthlessness" (97). It is only through this transcendental experience that Margaret finds personal yet debilitating meaning. Regularly Dikeledi takes the paintings away for Maru.

Rather than giving Margaret a new voice, the artistic process has silenced her. Hardly noticed in the narration is the statement when Dikeledi brings Margaret the art supplies, "That was the last link she had with coherent, human communication." Remarkably, in the exchange leading to this statement, Dikeledi talks to her "like one talking to a child" and Margaret turns her head like "a very young child with its first toy" (96). This is the end of Margaretís chances to rise above her heredity. From this point she is almost preternaturally under Maruís control. Indeed, Yakini B. Kemp goes so far as to assert that Maru's "manipulative and suggestive power lurks behind all significant action in Margaret's life in Dilepe" (156). While there is in the end the verbal threat that the San as a whole may rise up in their new-found humanity, there is no indication that Margaret, who is meant to represent the Bushmen, will ever, in fact, leave her speechless place in a house of exile. MacKenzie points out a concern in Headís fiction in that "the link between personal drama and social resonance is not satisfactorily demonstrated" (51). It is clear here that the connection between the plight of the Masarwa and Margaretís marriage to Maru is more syntactic than real.

Maru's triumph is really his own self-deception because, as Katrak points out, he "makes a political point by marrying a Masarwa; it is incidental that this Masarwa is Margaret." And his betrayal of his friend Moleka causes his marriage to her to be, as Ola says, "tainted by evil[,] and [. . .] agony follows him all the days of his life" (59). Maru himself views life differently than those around him. Late in the novel the omniscient narrator reports that the people of Dilepe "knew nothing about the standards of the soul, and since Maru only lived by those standards they had never been able to make a place for him in their society" (122). But while Maru sees differently, he has been unable to cause others to see differently. Maruís cohorts still see Margaret after their exile as a woman "everybody would loathe" (2). Maru has convinced only himself, and then not completely, that he has made a choice that has benefited both Margaret and the Masarwa.

Neither Maru nor Margaret herself has understood the bi-cultural confusion within Margaret. The Bushman culture attached to her is at best superficial, but she has been made to assume the results of a culture that was never hers. Even to Dikeledi, Margaret's San culture is attractive but unnecessary. Margaretís painting is seen as an extension of herself, but even that is taken from her as regularly as a mother goatís milk. It is interesting that Dikeledi, Margaret's strongest supporter, surrenders her own sense of identity in bedding Moleka, Maru's rival for Margaret's attention, and, impregnated, becomes the controller of their relationship. It is her inadvertent betrayal of Margaret in winning Moleka that precipitates Maruís move to marry Margaret. Dikeledi, unlike Margaret, not only retains her voice but strengthens Molekaís standing in the community.

Margaret has become Maru's prize rather than wife. Despite Gover's optimistic reading of the novel's end, he does indicate that Margaret "becomes the prize in the traditional rivalry and power struggle" (113) that has characterized the relationship between Maru and Moleka. Her final condition in the novel is more objectified than even Nora Helmer's position at the beginning of Ibsen's play. In a foul mood, Maru tells her, "I only married you because you were the only woman in the world who did not want to be important. But you are not important to me, as I sometimes say you are" (6). Here her identification as a Bushman is only partially implied. It would be just as valid to read Maru's words at face value, identifying Margaret simply as unaspiring. Margaretís individual autonomy has been, in MacKenzieís words, "brutally negated" (54).

The opening, but chronologically ending, scene of the novel, gives us Maru preparing flowerbeds to grow yellow daisies, "because they were the only flowers which resembled the face of his wife and the sun of his love" (1). But Margaret is really no different from those daisies. She too has been cultivated by Maruís care in Dilepe society, fertilized by the art supplies Maru provided and finally transplanted into his garden spot "a thousand miles away" (121). She retains nothing of her Bushman heritage, and possibly little of her Englishness. In conquering the prejudice of society, Maru is left with nothing but a daisy off which he has pulled the petals in a coercive she-loves-me, she-loves-me-not fashion.


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