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The Serowe Celebrations!

From July 14 to 16, 2007 — also Botswana's President's Day weekend — Serowe celebrated her most famous adopted daughter, Bessie Head. A great variety of events took place over the three days, enough to satisfy everyone from curious school children to literary scholars to the older people in the village who fondly remembered Mma-Head. The following photo story – thanks Tshepang and Tom for the pics – tries to convey the excitement and give credit to everyone who made it possible. Perhaps it will become a model for how literary festivals can be popular festivals as well.

On Saturday afternoon we kicked off with a book sale and crafts fair outside the Khama Museum. Booksellers came in good numbers and offered an impressive display of books published in Botswana. Craftsmen came from as far away as Mochudi. Sales were slow but the weather was perfect.
Obakeng Tlanglotlhe and Lauri Kubuitsile welcome guests and sell specially designed t-shirts. Lauri was largely responsible for conceiving and detailing the long mixed programme. View it as a Word document or as the colourful souvenir programme printed and donated to us by the National Museum.

Below are the two sides of the souvenir programme. Our thanks to the Botswana National Museum and their graphic artist, Legae Digwaamaje, for this work.

In late afternoon we went into the Museum Hall and listened to three local authors describe their experiences of finding publishers, and often enough, self-publishing. From left, Gasebalwe Seretse, Bontekanye Botumile, and Goodwill Tlokwe, all of whose books are now well known.
More our many international visitors — more than twenty — then it was back to Serowe's lodges and hotels for rest and supper. (Botswana's tourism industry is growing rapidly). Here we look up to the Tshwaragano Hotel, which dominates the southwest side of Serowe's central hill.

After supper it was off to a concert given by local artists to support the festival. Four different musical groups playing four different genres cooperated in its planning. We produced an English-language flyer and a poster to help spread the word.

Opening acts: Sakhaya Kings and Thunder Echo, a Serowe reggae band shown here. Although they played well, the audience was too small and they started too late in the evening. This was one event we did not organise well. Our thanks to the Serowe College of Education for the use of their hall.
A small committee had planned out the day long in advance. The Khama III Memorial Museum in Serowe agreed to host the events, and its staff — Scobie Lekhutile and Gasenone Kediseng — subsequently directed the action. Lauri Kubuitsile, herself a talented writer, drew up the ambitious programme and raised funds. Tom Holzinger coordinated the BessieFests and applied for the BH Heritage Trust and Heritage Site. Closer to the day, this group brought in Howard Head, two Swaneng teachers — Goodwill Tlokwe and Lesh Sebogodi — the librarian Victoria Mothusi, and Ruth Forchhammer, the Museum's archivist. The Botswana National Museum contributed beautifully printed posters, programs, and the souvenir booklet, A Grave in the Sand. It was a terrific team!

Serowe: The Main Day, Sunday, July 15

A large crowd gathered in front of the Museum, on a perfectly clear cool day, for the official opening of the BessieFest celebrations. Organisers were pleased at the number of both visitors and batho ba Serowe. Building behind is Museum's administration building.
In the centre of the VIP table is our principal speaker, Justice Unity Dow of the Botswana High Court. Human rights activist and a novelist, she delivered a powerful tribute to Bessie Head, who laboured under many kinds of discrimination and social stigma. Read her address here: "Bessie Head – The Eyes With Which She Saw":

"I offer a reason why Bessie Head wrote and why she wrote about pain, racial prejudice, gender prejudice, abuse of power and why she wrote with such feeling and power that often rattles the reader’s soul – the answer is simple – she had to or she would have died. Perhaps not a physical death but a crumbling within herself that would have been worse than the depression that took her over at times.
She wrote because if she did not, she might have screamed.
She wrote because some people just must shove a mirror at the world, to force it to see itself as it truly is.
She wrote because watching silently was too painful for her.
But she also wrote because she understood the magic of language and imagery. She wrote because she wanted to cast a spell around us, for didn’t she say she wanted to write a novel 'so beautiful and magical that I, as the writer, would long to read and re-read it'?
May the magic of her words live on and on!"

The Bessie Head Room of the Museum. This is a model of Bessie's bedroom / study where her magic was made.

Our VIPs take a tour of the Museum, especially this room. Her desk, typewriter, and some of her books are displayed here. It is one of the most popular exhibits in the Museum.
Now on to the tree planting! Our first stop was Tshekedi Memorial School, named for Kgosi Tshekedi Khama of historical fame. Bessie taught here after her arrival in Serowe in 1964, but she soon quarreled with the school's principal. Its bare fields on top of a hill seemed to cry out for greenery.
Justice Dow plants the first tree. The organisers are grateful to the expertise and hard work of two former staff of the Serowe Forestry Brigade, Ralph Nickerson and Moutlwatsi Ikaneng, who helped organise and carry out the tree planting.
After planting two trees, the group takes a bow. Goodwill Tlokwe, our Master of Ceremonies, and Justice Dow stand next to each other in the centre. Scobie Lekhutile, Curator of Khama Museum, appears at far left in bright rasta cap. Update: These trees have suffered from chickens and goats but remain alive.
From the school, Scobie took us on a tour of Serowe, showing us the places that had been important in Bessie's life. The group finished at Bessie's old house near Swaneng School where Howard Head welcomed us. We planted three more trees, with Howard setting out one of them.
Before leaving the house, two Trustees of the Bessie Head Heritage Trust spoke briefly about this group's plans. Leloba Molema talked about the literary prizes and outreach, while Tom Holzinger spoke about the future heritage site and its upkeep.

[They were gratified later as visitors opened their pocketbooks and made generous donations].
The convoy moved on to its final stop — Bessie's grave on the hill behind Serowe's Botalaote ward.

The most emotional moment of the weekend then occurred, as Maria Rytter read out passages from her memoir, A Grave in the Sand. Most participants reported being deeply moved.

"I suggested a piece of natural stone, found close at hand and engraved simply. That was no solution either. No one near Serowe could engrave on stone. Ruth’s husband, Per Forchhammer, came up with the answer. Have a metal plate engraved in South Africa and attach it to a fine piece of sandstone from Serowe... This was done."

– from Gillian Eilersen's account, "Marking the Grave"

Back to Museum and lunch! The traditional food – seswaa beef, samp, and vegies – was cooked by neighbours from the Museum's ward and by volunteers.

Community outdoor cooking and eating is one of southern Africa's deepest traditions. It is enjoyed at almost all village funerals and celebrations.
Invited guests ate together in the Museum's big room. This is the room where, for nearly a decade, Khama the Great welcomed overseas travellers, London Missionary Society clerics, and colonial managers. Territorial wars raged on all sides of Khama's country, but he never took part. His kingdom steadily grew as threatened groups asked for his protection.
The first-ever Bessie Head Literature Awards, co-sponsored by the Bessie Head Heritage Trust and Pentagon Publishers of Gaborone. Here, Gabriel Matshego of Pentagon announces the year's winners. Suddenly it was wonderful to see and hear how both winners and audience became very enthusiastic!
For the record, the first-place winners were: Khonani Ontebetse (novel, P1500), Bontekanye Botumile (short story, P1000), and Monty Fanikiso Moswela (poetry, P500). Runners-up included Kelebogile Itshekeng, Meekaeel Siphambili, and Galeboe Mareledi Kefalotse (novel); Grace Soko and Arnold Boniface Letsholo (story); and Tjawangwa Dema and Nicholas Keitshokile (poetry).

One of the poets who performed at the prize-giving ceremony. He performed his poems several times to rapturous applause. Indeed, poetry performances were a hit throughout, including poems from Ben Mogotsi, Goodwill Tlokwe, and Barolong Seboni. The latter two have both published poetry collections.

This space
shall hold
a winning
winged doves
drop one

By now we are behind in our afternoon programme, and the University of Botswana players wait impatiently for us with their play Snapshots in the College hall.

Many of us finally arrive and are wowed by the verve of this production — all done with borrowed props!

Upon our return, we go into the Museum hall and hear wonderful readings from Bessie's letters. The excerpts are chosen by noted scholar Linda-Susan Beard of Bryn Mawr College, while our guest of honour Unity Dow takes a share of the reading aloud. The many, many sides of Bessie Head are clearly revealed.

At last it is time for the birthday party. The Serowe Hotel has made a huge layered cake — enough for all, with some left over for clandestine snacks — and Unity Dow has a huge knife in hand. Will she cut the right number of pieces? We sing Happy Birthday and she does. We are sure that Bessie would have been delighted.

It is now very late in the day. We are supposed to have readings from Bessie's short stories, and participants return to the hall to listen. Although the selections are excellent, time is not on our side. Not only do the curators and committee want to close the day, they also decide to scrub the evening's planned fundraiser. It is a good choice, since we are all exhausted and already very, very happy.

Serowe: The Final Day, Monday, July 16

Another beautiful winter morning in Serowe, as caught by Tshepang's camera. These lovely traditional rondavels — note the poles carrying the weight of the roof, not the mud-brick walls — are on the hillside above the Khama Museum. When Bessie first arrived in Serowe, almost all the houses looked like this.
In fact traditional life is the first thing on the morning's agenda. We talk about the origins of Bessie's tribute to Serowe, Village of the Rain Wind, and what it reveals of her love of history. One of the villagers interviewed by Bessie, Tlhagiso Sesinyi, tells us how she questioned him. No tape recorder, just a notebook and a retentive mind. This session has a great mix of young and old, local and foreign, Setswana and English. The discussion is so good, no one wants to stop. So we finish past time with more to be explored.
The Swaneng school players directed by Lesoto Sebogodi put on an amazing performance of David Kerr's The Death and Life of Bessie Head, which they have learned in just a few weeks. It is a triumph. In this scene, Bessie is mentally tortured by Dan and Sello, the evil spirits of A Question of Power.
We assemble for the last time in front of the Museum. Barolong Seboni and Tiro Sebina present awards to the best regional artists and writers in a contest for secondary school students. The winning story is read out loud. Many in the happy audience are from Serowe's numerous schools.
The closing is vigorous. Barolong perfoms two poetic tributes; one is the hip-hop "Bessie's Head". Lauri announces that the undrunk wine from the fundraiser must be sold. She and Goodwill auction it off. The cast of the play give a great cheer when Lesoto offers a winning bid, but alas it's not for them. We break up in high spirits.

While members of the public drift toward the food tables, organisers and visitors meet together in the Museum to give and hear feedback. This is an extraordinarily productive session; we can feel the brain energy in the room. Very many good ideas are offered, some of which the Bessie Head Heritage Trust has already begun to act on. All the visitors say they want another BessieFest soon. The organisers roll their eyes and pray there will be a different committee to handle it!

No one wants to go home right away. The die-hards sit or flop on the grass and continue talking. Many of the following photos were taken as people chatted after the end of the Fest. The good vibrations, Bessie's vibrations, rumbled on and on.

Photo Gallery of BessieFesters and Organisers

Two key members of the Organising Committee who carried us through thick and thin: Scobie Lekhutile, Curator of the Khama III Memorial Museum, and Gasenone Kediseng, Assistant Curator.
Three hard-working volunteers from the Molepolole College of Education Writers' Club: Thula Modise, Ratanang Kutlapye, and Tshepo Shoshong. They came the long distance on their own. Fortunately the Serowe Education Centre offered them free housing. They each wrote an account of the Fest; read these here in PDF form.
Two photographers, Tshepang Pitso from Cape Town and Sandy Grant from Odi. Many of these photos are Tshepang's, and he has recently become our webmaster as well. Sandy initiated the country's first museum, Phuthadikobo in Mochudi, and took many photos during the independence era.
A photo-op after the festival is over. From left, Tshepang, Thula, Howard, Goodwill, and Ratanang.
Maria Rytter and Mary Lederer share a moment near the beginning of the festival.
Old comrades in the Serowe Farmers Brigade, Tlhagiso Sesinyi and Moutlwatsi Ikaneng.
Ralph Nickerson and Alison Anthoine join forces to plant a tree at the Head House. Alison is a New York lawyer specialising in copyright law and intellectual property.

The many works of Lauri Kubuitsile: securing a donation of printed t-shirts, herself donating hundreds of posters for the celebration and the concert, raising thousands of pula from local merchants, and here, arranging the decorations for the birthday party. Her two children acted as museum guides, while her husband Shakes moved hundreds of borrowed chairs. And thanks to Swaneng Hill School for the chairs!

At the end of the triumphant Swaneng School play, Lesoto Sebogodi takes a curtain call with his enthusiastic group of Form V students. Because all of them are about to finish, it may be dificcult to assemble them all together again.
Cultural journalist and author Gasebalwe Seretse, covers the story for the Mmegi newspaper. Gasebalwe filed a long story that appeared the following Friday, raising awareness of Bessie. The more so, because the Daily News ran a similar but more naive story.
Our Master of Ceremonies, Goodwill Tlokwe. A man of multiple talents, he designed our t-shirts and has recently published a volume of poetry, Wings on the Ways of the World.

Well, that's all we have time and space for. But if anyone has a photo of Linda-Susan Beard and Gwen Etter-Johnson together in Serowe, please send it to us. It belongs on this website!

This page has mentioned many documents from the Serowe festival. Here again is a list of those links:

Serowe Souvenir Programme, PDF (big file!)
Serowe Programme, Detailed, Word
Serowe popular flyer, PDF
A Grave in the Sand, Word
"Bessie Head – The Eyes With Which She Saw", PDF
Information About the Bessie Head Literature Awards, PDF
Reports from the Molepolole College of Education, PDF
Bessie Head thunders from beyond the grave, PDF
Serowe Celebrates Bessie Head's Birthday, PDF

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