Maru by Bessie Head
Front Cover of Bessie Head’s Maru
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Maru by Bessie Head is an emotional exploration of the problems of racial prejudice, tribalism, power dynamics, love, and self-discovery within the overbearing context of the discrimination era in Botswana. The central characters in the novel, Maru as well as Margaret Cadmore, challenge traditional norms and strive for a culture where individuals from different racial and tribal backgrounds can exist together in harmony.

Chapter by Chapter Summary of Maru

Maru by Bessie Head is segmented into two parts: Parts 1 and 2 respectively. We are going to briefly run through the summary of both parts of the novel.

Part 1

In the African countryside, Maru, a former future-chief of Dilepe village with a strong connection to nature, is preparing a garden of yellow daisies for his wife. He loves his wife deeply, but admits that within their marriage there are “two rooms”—one where his wife loves him and another where she is in love with Moleka, Maru’s former friend. Maru believes in the back of his mind that one day he may have to surrender his wife to Moleka, but this is not that day.

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The narrative moves back in time to Dilepe, a remote Bostwana village, where the native Masarwa people exist at the bottom of an intense racial hierarchy. On the outskirts of the village, a Masarwa woman dies on the side of the road after giving birth. Her child is found and taken in by Margaret Cadmore, a missionary’s wife, who is horrified by how horribly the Batswana nurses treat the Masarwa child. The child is named after Margaret Cadmore. She is raised with love but as she grows, she realises the prejudice Masarwa people experience.

Now 17, Margaret arrives in Dilepe as a teacher. She is taken to the school and introduced to a fellow teacher, Dikeledi who is Maru’s sister. Dikeledi is shocked to learn that Margaret is a Masarwa and insists that, for her own safety, she does not tell anyone. Dikeledi takes Margaret to Moleka whom Dikeledi is in love with. Moleka drives her to the library, where she will live. Along the way, Margaret decides that Moleka is “the most beautiful man on earth.”

Moleka walks through Dilepe and realises that, when he thinks of Margaret, it is like “finding inside himself a gold mine,” and that he’s in love with her. For him, this is an unusual feeling.

Typically, Moleka is more concerned with the physical aspects of love, and it’s Maru who is more concerned with the emotional. The two are inseparable, but Maru knows that their friendship will likely end one day over a woman.

The new school year begins its session, and the teachers are meeting their students. Margaret first feels welcomed due to her growing friendship with Dikeledi, but that changes when Pete, the principal, asks if she’s Batswana. She replies that she’s Masarwa, sending Pete into a state of agitation. Margaret fears that her refusal to hide her heritage is going to cause chaos and unrest throughout the village.

At school, Margaret’s entire class now knows that she is Masarwa and begins chanting “You are a Bushman” at her. Dikeledi runs in and yells at the children for disrespecting their teacher.

Throughout the village, unrest spreads as rumours begin that Moleka has begun sharing a table with his Masarwa slaves and treating them with respect. Maru, who has been away visiting other villages, returns to Dilepe and sits down to dinner with Ranko, one of his spies. Ranko tells Maru that Moleka invited Seth, the school’s education supervisor, to his home and then ate off the same fork as a Masarwa, shocking Seth. Moleka is chastised by Pete for causing confusion and “stirring up trouble.” Ranko reports that Seth has noticed Moleka acting unusually kind lately, theorising that he must be in love with Margaret.

After dinner, Moleka is waiting for Maru in his office. Maru begins to dislike Moleka as he decides that love has changed him and made him more “humble and defeated.” He tells Moleka that he must take back the bed he loaned to Margaret, because if the other Masarwa slaves see her being treated with respect, they may demand the same. Moleka leaves Maru’s office and sends two clerks to go remove the bed from Margaret.

At Margaret’s home, the clerks feel bad for treating a teacher with disrespect. They allow her to come back with them to Moleka to ask if she can keep the bed for a few days until she can find a replacement. Maru arrives and tells Margaret that it was he who demanded the bed be returned. Margaret, in shock over realising that this is Dikeledi’s brother, says that she will return the bed and leaves.

Maru visits Dikeledi, who is furious over Maru’s removal of Margaret’s bed. He explains that he did it in an attempt to prevent a Masarwa revolution. He also informs Dikeledi that he now plans to marry Margaret. He knows that Moleka is in love with Margaret, and Dikeledi with Moleka. He lies in an attempt to spare his sister from getting hurt.

Moleka, confused over the intense nature of his love for Margaret, begins to act very unnaturally. He has finally worked up the nerve to speak to her and is approaching the library when Ranko calls out to him and tells him that Maru has sent a “declaration of war,” to which Moleka responds that if Maru ever approaches Margaret, Moleka will burn his house down.

In an attempt to get revenge on Maru, Moleka goes to Dikeledi’s house and plans to kill her. While there, he, however, realises that she loves him. He acknowledges that she is the “next best woman on earth,” and begins to love her himself.

Ranko informs Maru that Moleka has fallen in love with Dikeledi, but Moleka comes and tells Maru that it was all a lie and he doesn’t actually want to marry Dikeledi.

Dikeledi talks to Margaret at school and offers to deliver a spare bed from her own home to the library. Margaret sketches Dikeledi, who tells her that she has a real talent for art.

Meanwhile, Pete decides to issue an ultimatum that either Margaret leaves or he does. Seth and Morafi, however, tell Pete that the issue has now been taken care of, as they think that Maru’s “shameful” behaviour of removing a woman’s bed will force Margaret to leave the village. Briefly happy, the trio returns home. However, they are threatened by an evil spirit on their way, which ultimately makes them flee the village. In their absence, Dikeledi is promoted to principal of the school.

Maru by Bessie Head
Front Cover of Bessie Head’s Maru

Part 2

Margaret has become a feature in the school and the village has mostly forgotten that she is a Masarwa. She lives a peaceful life. She sees Moleka out in the village and knows she is in love with him, but with a quiet acceptance, she believes that he will never love her.

For her entire life, her Masarwa heritage had made it so that “love and happiness had always been a little bit far away,” and she believes this is no different. Margaret has accepted the oppression and believes that her only companions in life will be Dikeledi and two goats, a mother goat and her baby goat.

The two goats had followed Margaret into her home one day and then just never left. She is fascinated and enamoured by the goats. She is so distracted by their presence that she doesn’t even notice Dikeledi entering the house. Dikeledi is at first disgusted by the goats, calling them nuisances and pests, but she eventually begins to laugh with Margaret after the mother goat charges at her.

Dikeledi asks Margaret if she will draw another portrait of her like she did at the school. She lies and tells Margaret that she lost the first sketch when, in reality, Maru stole it. Although she doesn’t tell Margaret, Dikeledi is also upset because Moleka has been having affairs with village girls again, but “her heart remained stubbornly fixed on him as though no other man in the world existed.” Margaret agrees to draw a new sketch of Dikeledi, and as her friend leaves with the sketch, Margaret wonders why she was crying.

On her way out of the village for a conference, Dikeledi stops by Margaret’s house and brings her a gift of an artist’s kit with “every kind of material an artist would need.” The gift was ordered by Maru, but Dikeledi lies and tells Margaret that she purchased it. Dikeledi tells Margaret that she must experiment with all the tools in the kit and then leaves to attend the conference.

Margaret, left completely alone, experiences “two days of total collapse and breakdown” as she enters a dream-like state, so consumed by images and forms that she forgets to eat or sleep regularly. When Dikeledi returns from the conference, she is overjoyed by the art Margaret has created. She is particularly fascinated by a series of three paintings that depict a “pulsating glow of yellow light dominating pitch black objects.” Margaret explains how the images came to her in a series of dreams, where she dreamed of a house surrounded by a field of daisies and a couple embracing. Dikeledi recognises that the outline of the man in the couple is that of Maru. Dikeledi takes the paintings and visits Maru, giving him the art as a form of payment. He hangs the three paintings depicting Margaret’s dreams on the wall and begins “feverish preparations” for a life of freedom away from the village.

Maru tells the village people that he is too ill to become the chief, and when Dikeledi questions why he and Moleka are no longer enemies, he claims that it’s because of Moleka’s mistreatment of Dikeledi. She doesn’t believe this, and Maru feels guilt over his lies but ultimately believes that it’s all worth it for him to reach his dream of a house surrounded by daisies.

Maru sends Moseka and Semana, two of his other friends and spies, to prepare a house far away from Dilepe, and he confides to Ranko his love for Margaret. Through his affection for Margaret, Maru begins to understand the prejudice her people have faced and how they have been oppressed within the village. He fears that Margaret will not want to marry him because he is Batswana, not Masarwa. However, he ultimately has faith that Margaret will love him as much as he loves her.

Dikeledi gives Margaret a huge easel and a piece of canvas, with which she begins to paint a large picture of Dilepe itself. Margaret believes that she is painting this for Moleka, although she knows she will never be able to give it to him. She is peaceful despite her lack of a husband, a mindset that Dikeledi is jealous of.

Just before the school year ends and summer begins, Margaret finishes the painting of Dilepe. Dikeledi comes and tells Margaret that she is going to get married, as she has become pregnant with Moleka’s child. She tries to give Margaret’s finished painting to Maru, but he rejects it and Dikeledi keeps it instead. Moleka eventually becomes enamoured by the painting, something Margaret doesn’t know.

Margaret has decided that she wants to leave Dilepe for a little while. She is heartbroken over the news that Moleka now loves Dikeledi, and her peaceful life has become “unbalanced and broken.”

The night of Dikeledi and Moleka’s wedding, Maru leaves early and goes to Margaret’s house. He goes inside and finds Margaret. He tells her that they used to “dream the same dreams” and that they must be in love. Margaret decides to go with him, and they leave for the house Maru has been building far away from Dilepe.

Back at the wedding, Dikeledi gives Moleka a note from Maru, telling him that he has left with Margaret and that he is going to marry her. In the village, people gossip about Maru sadly, saying that they cannot believe he would stoop so low as to marry a Masarwa. The Masarwa people, however, are emboldened by Maru’s marriage to a fellow Masarwa and begin to feel the “wind of freedom,” deciding that no longer will they allow the Batswana people to subject them to inhuman treatment without consequence.

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