‘Village People’ is a short story by Bessie Head (1937-86), a South African writer who, though born in South Africa, is usually considered Botswana’s most influential writer, having moved there in 1964. The story is narrated by a young girl living in Botswana in the Kalahari Desert, where rain rarely falls and hunger and drought are commonplace.
You can read ‘Village People’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of the story below.
‘Village People’: plot summary
The narrator begins by discussing poverty in Africa. Poverty is so ingrained in Africa that Africans bear it with an ‘unconscious dignity’. What matters is not whether someone is rich or poor – everyone is poor – but whether someone is your enemy or your friend. The people who live in the narrator’s village have a warmth and humanity to them, perhaps because they have no material goods so what really matters is the important thing: whether someone is a good person or not.
The people of her village live simple, undemanding lives, eating the same basic meals every day: a diet necessitated by the drought which means there is not enough water to grow many crops. The narrator points out that some people in the community need taking care of, and she then offers an example.
The example the narrator gives is of an old woman who fell down one day in the village. Those who went to help her assumed she was ill, but she admitted she wasn’t ill: just hungry. The crowd laughed because she had no qualms about announcing her basic needs so publicly. After the narrator helped the old woman, taking her to her family’s hut, a young woman who was a relative of the old woman came by with a pail of water as thank-you gift to the narrator for helping the old woman.
The narrator then describes waiting in the summer, in January, for rain (the story is set in Botswana, which is in the southern hemisphere where January is in the summer). Surrounded by desert on all sides, she waits for the rain to come, but knows it probably won’t. If it did start raining, her grandfather and cousin would plough the land while the women of the family walked behind, sowing seeds. But if the rains don’t return soon, she knows that they will have to give up and return to the village, leaving the land behind.
In the village there is a politician who takes people up to the top of the nearby hill to pray to God for rain, but although the people place great faith in his abilities, his prayers don’t appear to have any effect. The narrator spends her time trying to improve herself by learning English, at her male cousin’s suggestion.
Life is getting harder in Africa and the droughts more severe. The narrator fears she will end up like her sister, giving birth to an illegitimate baby and adding to the family’s burden. The narrator has a geography book, a gift from her cousin, which she has read again and again. But it cannot help her and her family to make life better for themselves, since without more rain, nothing will change. The narrator concludes by observing that it is a good thing that she and her family love and look after each other, because life is going to continue to be hard for them.
‘Village People’: analysis
The principal theme of ‘Village People’ is poverty in Africa, and specifically, in rural Botswana, in southern Africa. Bessie Head’s narrator tells us a number of things about life in Botswana which are unlikely to come as a great surprise to us: that life is hard in a land where the sun beats down and there is very little rain to provide drinking water and to help crops to grow.
But cutting across this desperate situation – a reality for millions of people all over rural Africa – is a more positive, affirmative message, about the importance of love and human solidarity, of human empathy, which is present in a number of the brief character sketches the narrator provides of both herself and those around her. For example, there is the kindness the narrator shows to the old woman who collapses from hunger, the young woman’s gratitude for the help the narrator provided to the old woman, and the interest the narrator’s cousin Lebenah takes in her education and improvement.
Head is not suggesting, of course, that such kindness and humanity allow Botswanans to forget the grinding poverty they are enduring. But she does acknowledge that life would be immeasurably harder – even harder than it already is – without such acts of solidarity and consideration. It is telling that, at one point towards the end of the story, the narrator expresses great pity for ‘my family, and other families’. There is no talk of self-pity: only pity for others.
But there is nevertheless quiet criticism of these ‘village people’, or at least questioning of their traditions, and their response to the challenges the communities face. The politician who goes up the hill and prays for rain doesn’t succeed in bringing rain, but people continue to trust him and put their faith in him, perhaps because they need to believe, and they need to have hope that the rains will return, because without that hope they would simply give up, and then there would be no chance of their surviving.
Similarly, the narrator doesn’t understand why the villagers wait for the rain the way they do. While they are out in the fields, ready to begin ploughing as soon as the raindrops fall, they could be back in the village doing something else, much as the narrator is trying to learn English to better herself. There is a sense that she feels their time could be better employed.
At the same time, Bessie Head may be inviting us to view the narrator as being guilty of the very thing she gently accuses the villagers of: she knows the geography book her cousin gave her will not provide her with any productive solutions to their plight, but she nevertheless keeps reading it over and over again, almost as if she is taunting herself with the possibility of another world which cannot be brought into being. (However, it’s worth bearing in mind that the narrator is teaching herself English, so for her, the value of the book lies in more than just its geographical facts.)
Although we have referred to ‘Village People’ as a ‘short story’, it takes the form almost of a non-fiction: an essay written by the young Botswanan girl who narrates the story. This lends the ‘story’ a greater degree of realism and authenticity, and reminds us that the situations she outlines in ‘Village People’ are the reality for many millions of Botswanans.