Bessie Head — The Collector of Treasures (1977)

Context: Botswana, just before and after independence — rural societies in a time of change.

 What it’s about: Tales of tradition meeting modernity in village life, told with a healthy scepticism that neither condemns nor coddles old customs and traditions.

But authority is constantly challenged by challenging characters — single mothers, sex workers — who defy stereotypes and phallocentrism. The traditional village healer, dismissed by the protagonist as someone who cures scorpion bites only when they aren’t poisonous, balks when he hears a new ailment:

“We can never tell what will happen these days, now that we have independence.”

The “treasures” in the title are moments of complicity and compassion that appear throughout.

The definitive book from Botswana? I would like to find some contemporary fiction from one of the post-colonial success stories (for example, Botswana is regularly the best African country on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index). Bessie Head was born in South Africa but, exiled to Botswana, sets almost all of her writing there.

You’ll like this if you liked: Boule de Suif by Guy Maupassant or The Doctor or any other rural short story by Anton Checkhov.

Rating: *

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