The next event on the Finding Africa calendar is a seminar by Elinor Rooks (University of Leeds). Rooks will give a paper on “Cattle, Gardens and the Madness of Power: The Radical Developmental Politics of Bessie Head’s A Question of Power” in Seminar Room 008 of the Berrick Saul Building at the University of York at 5pm on 30 September 2015.
*A podcast of this seminar is now available here: Finding Africa Podcast.
As a novel recounting the mental breakdown of a mixed-race South African refugee in Botswana, A Question of Power by Bessie Head is often assumed to be a highly personal depiction of liminal identities. In this paper, however, I will demonstrate that Head’s novel can be read as critically involved with questions of political power, economic ethics, and conflicting visions of development in Botswana. Through her engagement with these issues, Head produces a far more profound and communal understanding of identity than that usually seen by her critics, one which is both local and worldly, wild and rooted.
Underdeveloped and situated between South Africa and Rhodesia, Botswana maintained its political independence largely by sacrificing economic independence. Politics were dominated by traditional aristocracy and wealthy cattle ranchers, who ignored agricultural development and discouraged rural political involvement. Faced with vast inequalities rapidly increasing because of drought, politicians regarded subsistence farmers as a potential threat.
In this context, we can see the political significance in Head’s depiction of a cooperative garden, which provides the protagonist, Elizabeth, respite from nightmares in which she is tormented by cruel “power people.” I will show that one of her hallucinatory persecutors, Sello, clearly corresponds to President Seretse Khama, while the another, Dan, is described as a “cattle millionaire.”
Opposed to the madness of their cosmic power-plays, Elizabeth discovers the rooted magic of agriculture. Furthermore, through the garden, Elizabeth becomes connected to an organic flow of activity which liberates her from the paralysing spells of commodification and identity.
Head’s novel is a passionate theorisation of political and developmental possibilities. It claims the right of participation for those who do not and cannot speak the language of power, those who exist beyond the realities of power: it is a novel of madness, wildness, and radically practical vision.