Botswana’s Bessie Head: A Meeting with Barbara Bamberger Scott

A refugee is a person whose heart has been broken.

“My daughter, who was 11 at the time, also loves Bessie’s books and was deeply influenced by living for two years in Botswana. One of my favorite expressions from there is Ke moto fela – “I’m just a person.”–Barbara Bamberg Scott (Read her impressive bio below.)

Abstraction of Global Africa

Botswana is a land-locked country in Southern Africa, the size of Texas. I lived and worked in Botswana for three years in the 1970s, first with Peace Corps (teaching Engligh as a Second Language and Literature in Maun Secondary School) and later with village development, literacy, and Popular Culture Projects (with my salary funded by British Quakers).

I met Barbara Bamberger Scott through JudyTart (who has appeared on Riehlife several times). Judy, knowing of our mutual connection with Botswana, suggested to each of us that we might enjoy reading Robyn Scott’s “Twenty Chickens for a Saddle: A Memoir of an African Childhood” set in Zimbabwe, one of Botswana’s neighbors.

Each of us wrote back independently of our love and admiration for Bessie Head (1937-1986) …as an African author of depth and craft whose work surely deserved to be better known in the United States. When I taught in Botswana “When Rainclouds Gather” was one of the set books for the examination that we studied in our curriculum. I became a fan. Thus it was that Barbara wrote this charming story of meeting Bessie in 1980 when she, her husband and daughter were volunteers for Quaker Peace and Service (a British organization).—JGR

by Barbara Bamberger Scott
copyright 2008

We were quite naive about Southern Africa. We had hoped to go to India, but wound up in Botswana. Our director introduced us to Vernon Gibberd who was Bessie’s model for the idealized volunteer in Serowe – Village of the Rain Wind, a book I had read before going to Botswana, in preparation. I had also read Head’s Maru.

Vernon was a Tarzan-like figure, very English, and his wife was equally attractive and Dutch. They had two older children and a new baby. I believe when they had only the first child, Bessie described them (perhaps with some jealousy as she seemed to have had a crush on Vernon) as “A man, a woman, and an ugly baby.” But there was nothing ugly about any of the family.

Vernon was exactly as advertised—he was a true Quaker, intelligent, aristocratic, could have been doing anything but chose to be in Africa digging wells and going slightly native. The day we drove up to Serowe from Mogoditshane, Vernon stomped around showing us various projects we had read about in Bessie’s book. We later got very sick with tick-bite fever from following him through the high grass.

That evening there was a meal and social gathering that included Bessie. She would have been about 50 then I think, and I found her fascinating. I had not gotten used to the odd accent of Southern Africa, and I knew little about what it meant to be “colored.” But she was easy to talk to, perhaps because I was complimenting her writing.

Like most writers (I have since learned, having become one) she did love to talk about what she’d written, and what strikes me as most memorable is what she said about Maru.

I told her sincerely that I believed the last sentence of the book was perfect.

People like the Batswana, who did not know that the wind of freedom had also reached people of the Masarwa tribe, were in for an unpleasant surpise becuase it would be no longer possible to treat Masarwa people in an inhuman way without getting killed yourself. (NYC: The McCall Publishing company, 1971)

She was delighted, and serious, as she told me that the whole book had been, from her viewpoint, written backward from that sentence.

I later read her short story collection and A Question of Power which seemed to me one of the best books ever written about a man’s domination over a woman, and a mental breakdown all rolled into one.

Considering how difficult it was to get around, we lived far from Serowe, and I never saw Bessie again. I think her books are magnificent, the lucid narratives of a person who lived her life in pain and sorrow in a strange land.

In our work I had a lot of contact with refugees. One, who had lived in four countries since he was forced to leave his home naked and fleeing from two armies, told us, “A refugee is a person whose heart has been broken.” I think that applied to Bessie.


Speaking of Botswana

Botswana is the country.
Batswana are the collective citizens of the country.
Motswana is an individual citizen.
Setswana is the language of the Botswana.

About Barbara Bamberger Scott

Barbara is a freelance writer, a Spanish interpreter, and a well-traveled person. She grew up with a small library of the Heritage books, and Les Miserables was one of the first “real” books I ever read, at about age 10. Barbara was a child actress. She writes songs!

Barbara has written the nonfiction book, Golden Thread, about the impact of an Indian spiritual master on a group of hippies in the late 60’s in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Her second creative non-fiction tale is With It: A Year on the Carnival Trail. Her private company is called Barscoink, dedicated to using words to their best effect.

With Phyllis Silverman Ott-Toltz she co-authored Love Bade Me Welcome: The Life of Phyllis Ott.

You can read Barbara’s reviews at Curled Up with a Good Book and many other sites. Google her name to find her many online interviews. She is the principle editor for A Woman’s Write.

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