It’s official, there will be no Bessie Head Literature Awards this year. But don’t be too disappointed just yet.
They are merely taking a year off to re-assess the contest. According to the Bessie Head Heritage Trust (BHHT) chairperson, Professor Peter Mwikisa, “The competition has become large and the Trust has to come up with a new organizational infrastructure that will be adequate to the size of the competition.”
The Awards have been funded by Pentagon Publishing for five years, and they have one year of funding remaining in their agreement with the Trust. So at some point the Awards will be resurrected. Since currently these are the only writing awards in the country, it is imperative that everyone do their best to find a way to keep them running, including the writers and poets in the country.
The issue of quality of the winners is one I’ve questioned with these awards. When asked about this Professor Mwikisa said, “The quality of submissions has improved over the years, especially in the novel category. In the 2011 competition, no fewer than 9 novels were entered, some of real quality…. In 2011, 35 stories were submitted, of which 30 met the entry requirements. Here, too, there has been improvement in the quality of the writing received.”
Though this may be Trust’s opinion, last year’s poetry judges had this to say about the 81 sets of poems submitted for consideration, “A fair number of the entrants didn’t even spell-check, (they) struggle with moving beyond clichés, and focus on spoken word (acoustics) at the expense of coherence. Perhaps, if it is at all possible, arranging a workshop a couple of months before the deadline for those who intend to submit work, would prove helpful.”
BHHT does not only run the Awards, though. They are trying to ensure that the legacy of Botswana’s most famous international writer, Bessie Head, is secure.
The chairperson explained some of the other things the Trust is involved in. “The Trust works very closely with the Khama III Memorial Museum because it houses the Bessie Head Papers. Bessie Head’s letters have attracted scholars from far and wide because these scholars have realized that her letters supplement her fictional and non-fictional works to a considerable degree. The Trust organises conferences (one so far) and participates in conferences (many) that focus on Bessie Head scholarship.
A member of the Khama III Memorial Museum sits statutorily on the Trust’s board and is a voting trustee. We are in touch with Bessie Head’s publishers via the agent for the Bessie Head Estate and keep track of new editions of her work. Serowe: Village of the Rain Wind was recently re-released by Heinemann, which is now a subsidiary of Pearson Education Ltd. We will meet a Pearson representative on February 21 or 23, 2012 when he comes to Botswana and will discuss issues of the availability and distribution of Bessie Head’s works generally, but especially in our region, Southern Africa.”
For some time they have been trying to get Bessie Head’s house in Serowe declared a national monument. I asked Professor Mwikisa how far this process has progressed. “The Ministry of Environment, Wildlife and Tourism is now responsible for national monuments. The civil servants in that ministry hope that all the necessary approvals will be completed before the end of March this year. But the very final go-ahead must come from the Cabinet itself, and such approval may require extra time.”