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Excerpt from the author's recollections of Bessie Head, written 24 Jan 1989

A Grave in the Sand

by Maria Rytter

The memorial ceremony at her house was carried out according to Botswana custom. Every morning groups of villagers came to sit on the ground in her garden. Throughout the day the mourners replaced one another, so that people could go home and do their most essential chores. One of Bessie Head's more wealthy friends, Cassim Kikia, came with tarpaulins and poles, so that a big outdoor tent providing shade could be put up in front of the house. Beside the tent there were large three-legged pots boiling over a long fire. The many funeral guests came with small gifts, such as tea, bread and milk, the shopkeepers gave onions, sorghum flour and meat, so that the mourners, true to tradition, could be fed during the memorial ceremonies. The priests from the village came in turns to lead prayers and hymn singing. Bessie Head's body was placed in a mortuary in the undertaker's cold store, and was not brought back to the house until the evening before the funeral.

While all of this was going on, an ad hoc committee worked hectically to tie up all the arrangements out of town. The anchormen were Hugh Pearce and Cassim Kikia. As Botswana's only world-famous writer, they thought that she should have a funeral worthy of a statesman. Telexes were sent to the world's press, telegrams were sent to her contacts in the USA and England. And invitations were sent out to all the ambassadors and officials in the capital Gaborone. Bessie Head's status as a refugee in Botswana was difficult in many ways. To this must be added that she as a person was both controversial and highly unpredictable, so invitations to official banquets in Botswana were few and far between. But the population of Serowe both accepted and respected her.

I took part in the last night's mourning vigil at Bessie Head's house. She herself lay in the little bedroom in a coffin on two trestles. On the floor on a carpet close to the coffin three women sat with straight backs and legs stretched straight out in front of them under the trestles. One of them was her friend Bosele Sianana, who throughout the week had quite naturally taken the lead in the memorial ceremonies around the house. Now she sat there with the two women, who were perhaps her friends or sisters, and held a vigil over the dead body during this last night.

I sat with over a hundred mourners out in the garden under the stretched tarpaulin. During the entire evening I had listened to the most beautiful polyphonic hymn singing, which has been sung since sunset, interrupted only by the plaintive prayers of the priest. In spite of the mournful atmosphere I sat and felt happy that Bessie Head had so many close friends in the village ...
 


The most exciting part of this drama takes place after midnight at the old Botalaote graveyard. The entire book was published in July 2007. You can download it here.

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