Bessie Head’s son dies after years of keeping her legacy alive

2010-06-16 00:00

AUTHOR Bessie Head’s only child, Howard Rex Head (48), died at his home in Serowe, Botswana earlier this month after a spell of ill health.

Head had indelible ties with Pietermaritzburg. The city’s library is named after her. She was born at Fort Napier Hospital to a white mother, Bessie Amelia Birch, and an unknown black father. While her mother remained a patient at Fort Napier, Head was placed in foster care with a coloured­ family, the Heathcotes that lived in East Street. She remained with the family until the age of 13 when she was placed in St Monica’s Home in Durban.

While working as a journalist in Johannesburg­ she married fellow journalist Harold Head in 1961. Their only child Howard was born on May 15, 1962. After divorcing her husband, Head left South Africa with her son on an exit permit and settled in Botswana. That is where she came into her own as a writer.

Howard became well known through his mother’s writing. Critics have identified him as the boy who watched his mother’s life unravel in the author’s novel A Question of Power­. In the book Head explores issues­ of race and the psychological effects of her mental breakdown.

Howard is recognised as playing a key role in keeping his mother’s legacy­ alive. Maria Rytter, a Danish curator who collected and helped catalogue­ Head’s papers that are archived in the Serowe Museum, paid tribute to Howard in the Botswana newspaper Mmegi. She said that he warmly welcomed the idea of keeping his mother’s archive at the museum in 1986 and it is thanks to him that the Bessie Head Museum came to life.

Former Serowe Musuem curator, Rogoff Modise, who visited Pietermaritzburg in 1996, said that Howard had generously donated 20% of royalties from his mother’s work to encourage writing in Botswana. This was done through writing competitions in schools with the prize giving usually held on Head’s birthday in July.

According to Mmegi there was a large turnout at Howard’s funeral. The newspaper said: “On June 7 hundreds of Batswana and pupils gathered at Serowe to bid their last farewell to Howard Head, the only child of the famous writer.”

The tribute of family friends Hugh and Mmatsela Pearce was quoted in the report. They said: “Howard Rex Head, a strong young Motswana, lived and died in the whirlwind of his mum Bessie’s love, passion and literary flame for life, people, nature and human rights.”

Howard is survived by his partner of 18 years, Mosadinyana Mayom- bela­. His father Harold, frail with old age, resides in Canada. His maternal grandmother’s only surviving sibling, Kenneth Birch, is 97 years old and lives in Johannesburg. It was Birch who informed The Witness of Howard’s death.

Head’s words are immortalised on the imposing new wing of the city library­, with the quotation: “Look! Don’t you see? We are the people who have the strength to build a new world.”

• A colloquium aimed at exploring the dualness of Bessie Head’s life and writings will be taking place at Bryn Mawr College­ in Pennsylvania, United States in October. It has been organised by the Bessie Head Society and hosted by the English Department and Africana Studies Unit at Bryn Mawr.





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