The ‘Treasures’ in Bessie Head’s ‘The Collector of Treasures’

The short story ‘The Collector of Treasures’ was published in Bessie Head’s collection of short stories – The Collector of Treasures: and other Botswana Village Tales. The story is about a woman named Dikeledi Mokopi who is charged with the murder of her husband, Garesego, and imprisoned. The story starts with her journey to her prison and her interactions with her fellow inmates. This is followed by a flashback into her life before she committed the crime and the circumstances that led her into doing it. The story deals with dark themes and a gory crime but among all of it the protagonist chooses to focus on the “gold amidst the ash”, that is, the little moments of friendship and kindness, something which she considers akin to “treasures”.

Dikeledi, from a young age, lived a harsh and difficult life. Her name “Dikeledi” itself means tears. Orphaned in her childhood, she was raised by her uncle, a selfish man who treated her like a servant and refused to educate her after six years. He was the one who asked Dikeledi to marry his friend, Garesego, after the latter proposed the union to her uncle. Dikeledi accepted this offer so that she could “get out of my uncle’s yard” and Garesego “was the only man who proposed for me”. The marriage quickly turned into an unhappy one, not that there ever was any happiness in the union to begin with. Garesego was abusive and had a string of affairs. Eventually, he left Dikeledi and their three young sons to their own resources. Despite this, Dikeledi worked hard to raise her three sons and used her skills of sewing, thatch making, knitting, etc to earn money and resources to sustain herself and her children.

A positive change arrived in her life with the arrival of her new neighbours, the Theobolos. Paul Theobolo was offered the principalship of a primary school in Dikeledi’s village and as a result, he, his wife, Kenalepe, and their children moved to a plot next to her yard. What followed was a deep and heartwarming friendship between Dikeledi and the Theobolos. Both parties were always ready and willing to help each other. Kenalepe and Dikeledi established “one of those deep, affectionate, sharing-everything kind of friendships that only women know how to have”. Dikeledi made dresses and clothes for Kenalepe and her daughters and as she wouldn’t accept any money for her services, Paul Theobolo ensured that “she be paid in household goods for these services so that for some years Dikeledi was always assured of her basic household needs”. For Dikeldi, her friendship with the Theobolos was a precious gift, “like a nugget of gold”. It was a source of joy and comfort and she “took it and stored another treasure in her heart”.

This steady rhythm of Dikeledi’s life was not to last. Soon her eldest son appeared in and passed the primary school leaving examinations, scoring a ‘Grade A’. This was a matter of immense pride for Dikeledi and she wished for the continuation of her son’s education by getting him enrolled in a secondary school. However, despite her hard work and savings, she could not accumulate the full amount of money required for his fee. Faced with this problem, she decided to approach Garesego and remind him of his fatherly duty towards his son. This turned out to be a futile effort as Garesego refused to help out. in addition to his refusal to help, he accused Dikeledi of having an affair with Paul Theobolo. Feeling threatened with the closeness shared between Paul and his estranged wife, Garesego decided to “establish his own claim” to Dikeledi and sent her a message that implied “he was coming home for sex”. Dikeledi knew that her refusal would not deter Garesego and contemplated how she could protect the “treasures of kindness and love she had gathered from others” and filled her life with “from defilement by an evil man”. She eventually came to a conclusion and wrote back a message to Garesago that she would have everything prepared for his arrival.

When Garesego arrived, he showed absolute indifference towards his children, interested only in ‘staking his claim over his wife’. This was the determining factor for Dikeledi. If he had shown kindness or even some acknowledgement towards his children, she would have changed her mind. But his failure to do so only strengthened her resolve further. Later that night, “Garesego lay sprawled across the bed in such a manner that indicated he only thought of himself and did not intend sharing the bed with anyone else. Satiated with food and drink, he had fallen into a deep, heavy sleep the moment his head touched the pillow”. Dikeledi saw him and “with the precision and skill of her hardworking hands, she grasped hold of his genitals and cut them off with one stroke”.

This act was Dikeledi’s way of fighting against the oppression and unjust treatment that she had to go through with virtually no way out. It is for this act that she was imprisoned. Her arrival at the prison is described as a lonely and isolated journey. However, once she arrives in the prison, she finds a sense of community with her fellow inmates, particularly Kebonye. Like Dikeledi, multiple women were imprisoned for murdering their husbands. This is reflected in the following snippet of conversation between Dikeledi and Kebonye:

“‘And what may your crime be?’

‘I have killed my husband.’

‘We are all here for the same crime,’ Kebonye said, then … asked: ‘Do you feel any sorrow about the crime?’

‘Not really,’ the other woman replied.

‘How did you kill him?’

‘I cut off all his special parts with a knife,’ Dikeledi said.

‘I did it with a razor,’ Kebonye said.”

We also hear Kebonye tell her story: “Our men do not think that we need tenderness and care. You know, my husband used to kick me between the legs when he wanted that. I once aborted with a child, due to this treatment. I could see that there was no way to appeal to him if I felt ill … Well, he was an education-officer and each year he used to suspend about seventeen male teachers for making school girls pregnant, but he used to do the same. The last time it happened the parents of the girl were very angry and came to report the matter to me. I told them: “You leave it to me. I have seen enough.” And so I killed him.”.

The fact that Dikeledi’s struggles are not isolated and resonate with multiple women, such as her fellow inmates, highlight how these abusive and oppressive marriages with a severely uneven balance of power thanks to deep levels of entrenched patriarchy are a systematic issue. The legal system too seems unable to defend these women from such circumstances but suddenly becomes effective when they need to be imprisoned, highlighting an institutional bias.

Faced with systematic issues so deeply ingrained into the fabric of the society and a legal apparatus that is at worst collaborative and at best apathetic to these systems, Dikeledi continues to maintain a positive outlook on life, cherishing the friendships she makes and the communities she finds, “she had always found gold amidst the ash, deep loves that had joined her heart to the hearts of others. … She was the collector of such treasures.”. By celebrating these treasures, Dikeledi celebrates the sense of fraternity and solidarity in the face of adversity.

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