Detailed timeline of Bessie's life

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Timeline of Bessie's life

The following entries have all been abstracted from Bessie Head — Thunder Behind Her Ears by Gillian Stead Eilersen (1995):
1937 July 6 Bessie Amelia Emery born in Pietermaritzburg city hospital, Natal, in the then Union of South Africa. Her mother a patient in the Fort Napier Mental Hospital nearby.
1937 August is put into foster care with the "coloured" Heathcote family
1948 Nationalist Party wins S. African election, initiates apartheid shortly thereafter
1950 January 23 Bessie is moved to St Monica's Home, an Anglican boarding school for "coloured girls" near Durban
1951 writes a parable, "The Stepping Stones of Truth"
1951 December 19 is taken to court, informed that her real mother was a white woman, and forbidden to go to the Heathcote's for Christmas
1953 passes Junior Certificate exam, chooses teacher training
1955 finishes 2-year teacher training course
1956-1958 teaches primary school in Durban
1958 July turns 21; leaves Durban for Cape Town
1958 August is hired as only woman reporter for Golden City Post, lives in District Six
1959 April Robert Sobukwe founds Pan Africanist Congress (PAC)
1959 April Bessie moves to Johannesburg, continues to write for Drum publications, meets many leading figures
1960 March joins PAC, meets Sobukwe; Sharpeville Massacre occurs
1960 April arrested for PAC ties, turns state witness, tries to commit suicide
1960 May spends time in hospital, returns to Cape Town
mid-1960 - mid 1961 often unemployed, publishes own newspaper, The Citizen; meets Harold Head
1961 September 1 marries Harold Head; the couple live in District Six
1962 Bessie and Harold write for The New African; Bessie finishes The Cardinals
1962 May 15 son Howard Head is born
1962 August Nelson Mandela, leader of armed resistance, is arrested
1962 September Heads move to Port Elizabeth
1963 Oct-Nov Heads again live in Cape Town
1963 November Bessie leaves Harold, takes Howard to Pretoria
1964 February is denied a passport to travel outside S. Africa
1964 March accepts teaching job in Serowe, Bechuanaland Protectorate; leaves South Africa forever, with her son, on an exit visa
1964-1965 teaches at Tshekedi Memorial School in Serowe; meets Lenyeletse Seretse and Patrick van Rensburg, who help her
1966 Jan-Sept spends 5 months at Bamangwato Development Farm at Radisele; 2 months as typist in Palapye; moves to Francistown refugee camp; sells first important story to the New Statesman
1966 September 30 Botswana becomes independent
1967-1968 Bessie lives in Francistown, writes When Rain Clouds Gather
1969 January receives advance copies of Rain Clouds; moves back to Serowe
1969 March-May first schizophrenic episode; Rain Clouds is published to good reviews in London and New York
1969 Oct-Nov builds and moves into new house; joins Boiteko self-help group as gardening leader
1970 writes Maru
1971 February publishes Maru to favourable reviews
1971 March-June mental breakdown, hospitalisation at Lobatse Mental Hospital
1971 August begins writing A Question of Power
1972 April finishes A Question of Power; it first fails to find a publisher; she corresponds with Robert Sobukwe
1973 September meets poet Nikki Giovanni in Gaborone
1973 October A Question of Power is published to mixed reviews; Village of the Rain Wind is begun
1974 Feb-May accepts and then rejects offer of asylum and citizenship in Norway
1974 May Village of the Rain Wind completed
1974 December The Collector of Treasures completed
1975 gives talks and seminars in Botswana, quarrels with publishers
1976 June Soweto uprising begins
1976 December first major interview for overseas media, London Magazine and the BBC
1977 Aug-Dec attends International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, USA; makes many literary contacts; is a celebrity abroad
1977 October application for Botswana citizenship is rejected
1978 February Robert Sobukwe dies; Bessie writes emotional short story in tribute
1979 January Village of the Rain Wind at last accepted for publication
1979 February 12 is granted Botswana citizenship without requesting it
1979 June participates in Berlin International Literature Days, Germany
1980 lives in Gaborone, works on A Bewitched Crossroad
1980 Nov-Dec with Howard, attends literary celebration in Copenhagen, Denmark, and visits friends in the UK
1981 May attends literary celebration in Amsterdam, the Netherlands
1981 June Serowe: Village of the Rain Wind is published to good reviews
1982 May Howard leaves for further education in Canada
1982 June attends literary conference at the University of Calabar, Nigeria
1982 October participates in Writers' Workshop in Gaborone
1983 works on A Bewitched Crossroad
1984 January finishes A Bewitched Crossroad
1984 Feb-March attends Adelaide Festival of Arts, Australia; receives an especially positive response
1984 May agrees to write an autobiography; Heinemann promises her an advance against future royalties
1984 October Howard Head returns to Serowe from Canada
1984 October 31 A Bewitched Crossroad is published, in Johannesburg only, and thus receives few reviews
1985 April "Why Do I Write?" is prepared for Libération and Mmegi
1985 August Harold Head begins divorce proceedings, 22 years after her separation
1986 January Bessie has quarrel with Howard, insists that he leave her house
1986 February Harold's application for divorce is granted
1986 March drinks heavily now, brandy and gin as well as beer
1986 April 17 dies in Sekgoma Memorial Hospital, Serowe, Botswana

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A Brief Sketch of the Life of Bessie Head

Bessie Amelia Head never knew her real parents: an unstable white woman and an unknown black man. She was born and raised in apartheid South Africa. There she suffered from poverty, racial segregation, and gender discrimination. She also had to worry about her own "delicate nervous balance".

As a young woman she left South Africa to come to Botswana. She lived the rest of her life in this country, mostly in Serowe. Bit by bit she overcame her many formidable obstacles. One of her passions was letter-writing; she corresponded with hundreds of people from many countries during her life. At the end she was a famous writer known all around the world. This is her story. (Continued below)

Go to full Biographical Article

Jump to section of your choice:

Childhood and Schooling

Teacher and Seeker

Life as a Journalist


Serowe: the First Period, 1964–1965

Francistown: 1966–1968

Serowe: the Second Period, 1969–1986

The Breaking Point and Renewal

The Final Decade

Philosophy and Sensibility


Physical Legacy


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