The Village Saint – Bessie Head

Author Background

Appearing again and again in the works of Bessie Head are the themes of exile, alienation and racial and social oppression. Racism profoundly affected life in South Africa. It dehumanized both oppressor and oppressed. Being of mixed race, Head experienced discrimination in South Africa where she was born and in her adoptive country, Botswana. In many of her stories, she looked at social and societal injustice through a feminine perspective.

Bessie Head’s problems began with her birth. Her mother was a wealthy white woman and her father was a black stableman who worked in the family stables. When news of the pregnancy got around, her mother was committed to a mental asylum after declaring her to be insane. After birth, the infant was given to foster parents who returned the baby saying she was not “all white”. Later she was brought up by African foster parents and then white missionaries. Her mother committed suicide when Bessie was still a little girl. It is not surprising that alienation and discrimination figure prominently in her stories. Bessie trained to be a teacher and taught for several years in South Africa. Apartheid divisions had by now enveloped people of mixed race too. Finding conditions intolerable, she moved to Botswana with her young son but conditions were hardly any better. She had to fight not only discrimination but grinding poverty too. For fifteen years, she had only refugee status. When she died in 1989 of hepatitis, she had been enjoying relative financial comfort.

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Relevance of the Title

Mma Mompati was the village saint. But her fall from grace is fast and spectacular. Though she helped others and tried to be good, it was felt that it was for herself that she did it. The state of the marriage was kept a secret by Rra and Mma Mompati by it had to come out sooner or later. Mma Mompati feels acutely the loss of her status as the lady of the house. The façade of piety that she so carefully cultivated crumbles at the end leaving her no cover.

Main Themes

Women and Power

Women and power is a theme in The Village Saint. It is commonly accepted that men want power and go to extreme lengths to get. Head shows that women too seek power but the way they go about it is different. Women seek power hiding behind a façade; here it is piety. Mma Mompati is a do gooder; it appears she does not think of herself. When facades crumble it shows up clearly what lies behind. Here we see Mma Mompati savoring power and controlling people.

Inequality of Gender

Women are treated by society very differently from the way men are; it is considered natural for men to seek power and exploit it. Women too seek power but they do it behind a façade. Women expected to be loved and respected but for this they had to be docile and demure, if they were powerful, they had to hide that. Mompati hides her power behind her piety. Society judges Rra mompati less harshly than they do Mma Mompati.

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Characters

Mma Mompati

It is through Mma Mompati that Head explores the theme of control. Whatever one sees of Mma Mompati is what she wants other to see of her. She organizes all the funerals in the village and visits the sick in hospitals. She leads and other just follow in her wake. She appears to be helping others in the story but everywhere it seems she is driven by her ego rather by genuine empathy. She is concerned about how others view her. She looks to make a good impression. As a woman, society judges her harshly. When the divorce comes through, all her good work comes to naught. Mma Mompati had kept a large part of her life from curious eyes. She shrouded her private life effectively. That is why her divorce creates such ripples in the society.

Summary

The story is based in a village in Africa. Rra and Mma Mompati are a well liked couple. Mma Mompati is pious, she visits the sick in hospital and when they die, she organizes funerals for them. She seems to be doing all the good work and together, the husband and the wife seem to be an ideal couple. When things change suddenly, the shock is too much for the villagers to understand. Rra Mompati parts from his wife. No one can comprehend why he would want to break off from such a great woman. Not just that, he is interested in another woman and intends to marry her. Mma Mompati files divorce proceedings against her husband. She makes a claim for most of his earnings .Rra and his new wife move away from the village as it becomes awkward to live there.

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Mma Mompati and her son still live there. Soon he gets married to a local woman. Mma Mompati demands most of her son’s earnings be given to her and not the wife. Mma proceeds to make life difficult for the young couple. The villagers slowly come to understand what kind of woman Mma Mompati really was.

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