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The Village Saint by Bessie Head

(Born Bessie Amelia Emery) South African-born Botswanan novelist, short story
writer, and nonfiction writer.
One of Africa's most renowned women writers, Head explored the effects of racial
and social oppression and the theme of exile throughout her short fiction. In
particular, Head's stories focus on the profound impact of racism on the people of
South Africa. Head was of mixed race, and she experienced discrimination both in
her birthplace, South Africa, and in her adopted land, Botswana. Her work casts a
distinctly feminine perspective on the ills of societal injustice and the psychological
costs of alienation.
Biographical Information
Head was born the daughter of an upper-class white woman and a black stableman.
When her mother was found to be pregnant, she was committed to a mental hospital
and deemed insane. Head was born in the asylum but was sent to live with foster
parents; later, she was placed in the care of white missionaries. Her mother
committed suicide when Head was still a girl. As a young adult, Head was trained as
a teacher and taught elementary school for several years in South Africa. In 1961
Head married a journalist and shortly thereafter they divorced. At the age of twentyseven she left for Botswana with her young son because, in her words, she could no
longer tolerate apartheid in South Africa. Unfortunately, conditions in Botswana were
not much better. For the next fifteen years she lived as a refugee at the Bamangwato
Development Farm, combating poverty. Head published her first novel,When Rain
Clouds Gather, in 1969. At the time of her death in 1986 from hepatitis, she was
working on her autobiography.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Head's collection of short stories, The Collector of Treasures, and Other Botswana
Village Tales (1977), investigates several aspects of African life, especially the social
condition of its women. The tales are rooted in oral storytelling traditions and in
village folklore, and much of the material is derived from interviews conducted by

Head with the villagers of Serowe. By connecting past to present, the stories reveal
the inevitable friction between old ways and new. The posthumously collected stories
of Tales of Tenderness and Power (1989) have been praised for their insight into
African history, culture, and the role of women. The collection demonstrates Head's
development from early, anecdotal pieces to the work of a mature author. The
Cardinals, with Meditations and Short Stories (1993) contains a novella and seven
short pieces set in South Africa. The central novella concerns a woman called Mouse
who was sold by her mother as a child. She grows up to be a newspaper reporter
and becomes involved with a man who, unbeknownst to either of them, is her father.
Critical Reception
Head's short fiction is highly regarded critically and has aided in establishing her as a
distinguished African author. Commentators have praised Head's exploration of such
concerns in her short fiction as societal displacement, the search for identity, racial
discrimination, and the treatment of women in African society. Critics have found
parallels between the dominant themes of her work and Head's own life. Another
defining subject of Head's short fiction is the devastating impact Western religion and
it's monetary-based economy and culture has had on traditional tribal and village life
in Africa. Reviewers contend that Head's short fiction is heavily influenced by myth,
folklore, and oral traditions. Some critics consider her stories didactic and immature,
but most perceive Head's short fiction to be insightful and sensitive portraitures of
African life.

"The Village Saint" by Bessie Head is a short story about an African Village leader,
Rra-Mompati and his wife, Mma-Mompati. The story encompasses the larger theme
of facade , or false appearances. Rra-Mompati has a high ranking position in "tribal
affairs" and lives in a large, white colonial-style house; basically he has the good life.
He was married to Mma-Mompati, who put on a "fool-proof facade." (The Collector of
Treasures, 13) She would be seen everywhere, whether she be presiding over lunch
and tea at her house or burying the dead. The narrator describes her motivations:
"Mma-Mompati assiduously cultivated her 'other image' of the holy woman. No
villager could die without being buried by Mma-Mompati...No one could fall ill without
receiving the prayers of Mma-Mompati." (The Collector of Treasures,14)

One day Rra-Mompati left Mma-Mompati for another woman. When Mma-Mompati
filed for divorce, the whole village was behind her, memorizing her entire speech,
word for word. The villagers alienated Rra-Mompati for what they saw as such a bad
choice he made. He even alienated himself from his only son, Mompati, because he
thought Mompati was siding with Mma-Mompati.

Mompati, in turn, fell in love with Mary Pule, a "thin, wilting, willowy dreamy girl".
(The Collector of Treasures, 17) Mary led Mompati around for months, having him
court her and buy her gifts. In her own time, she accepted his proposal. But once
they were married, Mma-Mompati got jealous of Mary's control and the two sparred
for control. Finally one day, Mma-Mompati became so flustered and crazed she
demanded her son, Mompati, and his wife, draw water at the village tap instead of
Mma-Mompati's local water tap. When the villagers saw Mary walking such a long
distance to get water, they asked why she didn't use the local tap, and she told them
about Mma-Mompati. The vilagers were in disbelief that the woman they supported

for so long would do such a thing, but at the end of the day, the villagers never
believed in her again.

And so, power shifted from Mma-Mompati to Mary. One can speculate and see it as
a cycle-- and the cycle begins again.