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Serowe: Village of the Rain-Wind (African…

Serowe: Village of the Rain-Wind (African Writers Series) (udgave 1981)

af Bessie Head

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An examination of Serowe's recent past - seen through the words and memories of the village inhabitants.
Titel:Serowe: Village of the Rain-Wind (African Writers Series)
Forfattere:Bessie Head
Info:Heinemann (1981), Paperback, 200 pages
Samlinger:Dit bibliotek

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Serowe: Village of the Rain-Wind (African Writers Series) af Bessie Head


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For some reason I had the idea when I ordered this book that it would be another short story collection, but it turns out to be something rather more unusual: Head expresses her gratitude to the Botswana village that has taken her in by documenting as much as she can of its history and culture through a set of about a hundred interviews with people who live there, especially older people. In so many ways, this seems to be a very African way of working, so it's a little bit of a shock to learn that her direct inspiration for the format of this project was Ronald Blythe's sixties classic, Akenfield — the 2008 AWS edition comes with a preface from Dr Blythe, who is obviously as surprised as we are, and very flattered.

Head shows us what makes Serowe such a special part of Southern Africa, focussing in particular on the influence of Khama III, chief of the Bamangwato around the end of the nineteenth century, his son Tshekedi Khama, who ruled in the mid-20th century, and the exiled South African Patrick van Rensburg, who came to Serowe in the 1950s and established various pioneering educational projects.

Khama — who became famous internationally in the 1890s because of a diplomatic mission to London to keep "Bechuanaland" out of the hands of Cecil Rhodes — was an authoritarian who imposed Christianity on his people and banned alcohol, but he was also a firm believer in development through self-help. His standing gave him the opportunity to push through some big changes in traditional custom, and in particular he abolished initiation rituals for young men and diverted the energies of the age regiments (initiation fraternities) into community service projects like building dams and schools, and kept a firm hand on the activities of foreign missionaries and traders within his territories. Tshekedi continued and expanded the community service idea, and van Rensburg added further refinements, such as producers' and consumers' cooperatives and self-financing vocational training programmes. (I've worked with a foundation that gives financial support to community self-help projects: it's astonishing to see how many of the initiatives Head describes are things I've seen people re-inventing quite independently in other parts of the world half a century later...)

Head introduces her interviewees and puts them in context, but then she lets them speak for themselves, even when they are expressing opinions she presumably doesn't share herself. Many of the older people, understandably enough, consider that Bamangwato culture is collapsing around them, and that the centralised democracy of post-independence Botswana gives them less influence over their own lives than the old regional autocracy of the chiefs, controlled as it was by the local forum of the kgotla, in which everyone (i.e. all the older males) got the chance to express an opinion.

A big topic is the shift in family structure that has resulted from Khama's abolition of polygamy and bride-prices, which obviously helped to remove some major inequalities between rich and poor and between men and women, but also indirectly led to a situation in which defaulting husbands could not easily be held to account by their in-laws, and marriage itself eventually went out of style. At the time Head was writing, 95% of children in the village were born to unmarried women. Head interviews a number of older and younger women to hear what they have to say about this (she doesn't seem to have managed to find any young men prepared to talk about it, though...).

There are some very interesting interviews with craftspeople, especially the old tanners (men), hut-builders and potters (women) who explain the traditional way their craft worked; these are set against interviews with younger people, many of them from the boiteko cooperative, who explain how they are mixing traditional ideas with technology from elsewhere. The funniest one is the elderly wood-carver, though, who clearly finds it impossible to understand how anyone could fail to find the spoon that's waiting to be discovered in a tree-branch or the stool hidden in a stump. (Or perhaps couldn't resist pulling the leg of this young South African woman who's come to ask him silly questions.)

Although it talks about a community facing a lot of very big problems (plus AIDS, which they didn't know about yet), this comes across as a very warm, positive book, really expressing Head's love for Serowe and its people, and demonstrating the way a community exists as the collective experiences of its members. And it's also a quiet challenge to Western readers with fixed ideas about "primitive" rural African societies and the things holding them back. All the speakers in this book are sophisticated, articulate people who've clearly thought deeply about their community and its needs. ( )
  thorold | Sep 9, 2020 |
  oirm42 | May 23, 2018 |
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An examination of Serowe's recent past - seen through the words and memories of the village inhabitants.

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