Commentary by Karen Bernardo
Bessie Head’s story “The Collector of Treasures” is a dramatic indictment of the oppressive attitudes of men in her culture toward the women and children they are supposed to care for and love. Head develops this theme by contrasting the marriage of her protagonist, Dikeledi, and her husband Garesego, with the much more idyllic one of their neighbors, Kenalepe and Paul Thebolo.
Before she actually even introduces the Thebolos, Head observes that there are two types of men: those who have sex with their women like dogs, out of pure carnal lust; and those who really care about women as human beings.
The protagonist’s husband, Garesego, is the first type of man. He got Dikeledi pregnant three times in four years and then left her, continuing to live in the same village but assuming no responsibility for either his wife or his sons. For many years thereafter, she never approaches him for assistance for either herself or her children, apparently regarding it as a matter of pride that she is able to feed and clothe them and pay for their primary school educations out of the small income she is able to earn sewing and knitting for others in the village.
Her neighbor Kenalepe’s husband, Paul, is completely different from Garesego. Kenalepe and Paul have a loving marriage and a wonderful sex life, which Kenalepe describes for her friend in great detail. Discovering that men like Paul exist is an eye-opening experience for Dikeledi. It shows her that there are men who do not act like sex-crazed dogs, and who respect their women. It induces her to try to approach Garesego again—not for sex, but to try to convince him to pay the school fees so their oldest son can go to secondary school, which is more expensive than the primary school the youngest children attend. She only needs a small amount of money, having saved the rest herself, and knows that this would be no financial burden for him.
Garesego, on the other hand, feels that any favor done for a woman should be done in recompense for sex. He proves this in his allegations about Paul; he assumes that if Paul has given Garesego’s wife a sack of grain (which he has, in payment for clothes Dikeledi made for his daughters) then Paul must be getting sex out of the deal as well. As for that, Garesego doesn’t care—he doesn’t want Dikeledi any more, and has no problem with Paul having her—but he simply cannot conceive that there could be any kind of relationship or even a transaction between males and females that doesn’t involve some sexual component.
Consequently, when he contacts Dikeledi about the possibility of giving her money for their son’s education, he tells her he is coming back home and she should prepare a hot bath for him. Not being a total fool, Dikeledi knows what this means. After he bathes, he will want to have sex; and after he has sex, he might or might not consider giving her money. But this is not an acceptable tradeoff for Dikeledi, because she knows that Paul Thebolo would demand no such thing. Sex has nothing to do with school tuition; sex has everything to do with love, and Garesego doesn’t love Dikeledi and she doesn’t love him. But for Garesego, sex also has to do with power, and in this case having sex with Dikeledi when she needs something from him would express his power over her.
Consequently, after Garesego has had his dinner and his bath and gotten comfortably drunk, he toddles off to bed expecting Dikeledi to follow. Once he has fallen asleep, Dikeledi pulls a butcher knife out from under the bed and cuts off what she delicately calls his “special parts.” The fact that she will be convicted of manslaughter does not deter her, for she realizes she cannot live this way any longer. Paul promises to raise her children as he would his own, and Dikeledi goes on to a new stage in her life, this time in prison.
Head’s title, “The Collector of Treasures,” is tremendously ironic on the surface, for it would seem that what Dikeledi has collected in her lifetime has been not treasure but heartbreak. Yet Head’s opening passages, showing how well Dikeledi has adjusted to prison life and the closeness of the women who have been placed in prison for the same crime, shows that Dikeledi really doesn’t feel her life has been that bad. She has learned much more from her hardships than Kenalepe has learned from her good fortune, and in her travels through life she has managed to earn the respect of men like Paul and women like Kebonye. The fact that her marriage was a disaster has actually made her strong, and she is much more centered in her sense of self than Kenalepe who has had a much easier life. As Dikeledi observes, throughout her hard life she has looked beneath the surface and collected small treasures, and these give her the strength to go on.
This story can be found in the collection The Collector of Treasures, available from Amazon here:
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