Bessie Head

Struggle for identity

6 July 1937 - 17 April 1986
Artist: Jane du Rand
Location: Werda Hoerskool, 90 Parkside Road, Hillary, KZN
A magnified view of Bessie Head's memorial at her former school, St. Monica's Diocesan School for Girls, now known as Werda Hoerskool.

In 1950, aged 12, Bessie Head, one of Africa's most respected writers, was removed from the woman she believed to be her mother and sent to what was then St. Monica's Diocesan Home for Coloured Girls. She spent six years at the Home, where she was encouraged to read and study for the first time. In 1951 she was told that she was the child of an 'insane' white woman and an unknown 'native' man. Her resulting struggle with issues of identity is reflected in her writing - as is a positive influence from this time, that of Home Warden Margaret Cadmore, whose name Head used for the protagonist in her second book, Maru.

From The Archives
'Things I don't like'
The poem 'Things I Don't Like', was the only one of Bessie Head's poems published in her lifetime.
Glimpses of hapinness
Bessie finds love, gets married and mothers a son - bringing a glimmer of hope, albeit short-lived. Her happiness never seemed to last in any situation.
Bessie Head's eulogy
Patrick van Rensburg, a friend, writer and apartheid activist, delivered Bessie's eulogy at her funeral on the 26th of April 1986.
Life Stories
Struggle for identity
Born to a mother incarcerated in a mental institution presented serious challenges to Bessie's childhood. Her mixed-race nature in a race division-obsessed apartheid government seemingly made matters worse.
A traumatic incident
At only fourteen, the young Bessie Head learnt of her roots in the most inhumane manner possible.
A search for inner peace
Bessie was to realise that achieving inner peace and contentment with one's identity is a complex exercise, especially under the unsavoury climate of apartheid rule.
Life in Serowe
Bessie settled in Serowe, Botswana, where she eventually gave up her teaching career to become a full-time writer.
Making the Memorial
Who is Jane Du Rand?
The Durban based artist has made quite a name for herself, especially in townships where she initiated projects that included the participation and training of local artists.
The Light Bulb Moment - The Artist's Concept
Jane says Bessie's life was one of contrasts and of polar differences which she battled to come to terms with. She aimed to portray these differences in Bessie's memorial artwork. She elaborates:
"I'm an individual. Nobody shall make me ashamed of who I am!"
Bessie Head


In this lesson plan, learners will get a small taste of the power of Bessie Head's writing. They will also be exposed to the great personal suffering she endured, partly as a result of the hurtful ideas about coloured people that were encouraged during apartheid. Head's letters tell us a great deal about the loneliness caused by prejudice.

Lesson plan
You′ll need the Adobe Acrobat PDF reader to view these lesson plans. Download it here.
Artwork photo gallery
More images of Bessie's memorial artwork erected at Werda Hoerskool in Hillary, Durban.
Archive photo gallery
'Life in pictures' - these images range from when she was a young journalist to when she was at Serowe, Botswana.