Village People by Bessie Head

In Village People by Bessie Head we have the theme of poverty, conflict, kindness, struggle, acceptance, desperation and connection. Taken from her Tales of Tenderness and Power collection the story is narrated by several different narrators and from the beginning of the story the reader realises that Head may be exploring the theme of poverty and acceptance. It is obvious that the village is ravaged with poverty an example of which is the fact that many of the village’s babies die of malnutrition which would suggest that there is very little or no money to feed those who are most in need of nutrition. However it is interesting that there also appears to be an acceptance among those in the village of the circumstances that they find themselves in. It is as though they have accepted life on life’s terms without the possibility of change due to the limitations that are beset on those in the village. It is also interesting that the village is isolated with most communication being done by ox cart or sledge. This may be important as it is possible that Head is suggesting that throughout Africa (at the time the story was written) there were other villages that may have also lived in isolation. Africa may not necessarily have been fully developed or united unlike other counties in the western world. The situation that exists in Africa may have been unique with the continent being under developed.

Head’s description of the old woman may also be important particularly the words that she uses when describing the woman. By describing the woman and her situation as being ‘retched’ Head may be explicitly trying to highlight to the reader the desperation that exists for some in Africa. It may also be symbolically significant that the woman is wearing each of her shoes on the wrong foot as this may suggest at least symbolically that the woman is going in the wrong direction or at least her circumstances are heading in the wrong direction. The difficulties that she is incurring (hunger) may not necessarily need to exist. Though she looks amusing to others there is a far more serious matter at hand. The old woman is desperate for food with her only goal being the will to want to survive by getting food. The young woman’s kindness is also important as it highlights the fact that there is still a level of humanity in Africa. Despite the difficulties that the old woman has incurred the young woman (old woman’s daughter) is able to display gratitude through the act of kindness and bringing the pail of water to the village. In many ways the pail of water connects the old woman, young woman and those in the village.

The theme of acceptance is further explored in the Summer Sun section of the story when the young girl is waiting for the rain to fall. Though she doesn’t understand why her family must wait all day under the sun for the rain she still nonetheless accepts that this is the way of the village. It may also be important that the young girl wishes to learn, to further her education as this might suggest that the girl like the land around her has a fertile mind. Symbolically without her knowing it the girl is connected to the land. Just as the rest of her family are. It is also interesting that the girl describes the possible arrival of a child as being illegitimate as this would suggest that the girl may be aware that there is a tradition which is broken and she is not following it (getting married before having children). Though it is probably deliberate that Head mentions that the girl’s sister has also had an illegitimate child as this would further connect the girl to her sister. Whether she wants to or not the girl is following the path her sister has traveled.

There is also a sense of struggle throughout the story particularly when Head is describing the green tree. By telling that reader that everything is ‘jealously guarded’ Head many be suggesting that very little is given away by nature which in turn may suggest that life is a struggle for those who live in the village. Though they are reliant on the rain in order for their crops to grow nothing is given. There is no rain which in turn leads to the increased poverty that exists in the village. It may also be significant that the Head mentions that those who have traveled from the South due to political oppression do not stay in the village for long as this would further highlight just how difficult things are for those in the village. The land is barren. However there still remains a generosity towards those who are passing through the village which suggests that despite the circumstances the people in the village find themselves in. They are still able to not only show kindness towards others but also have an ability to connect with them. Despite being disadvantaged by nature those who live in the village still remain able to adapt to their circumstances and live their lives to the best of their ability. It is as though Head is suggesting that those in the village will not be beaten by their circumstances.

Head also appears to be exploring the theme of conflict. Particularly the conflict that an individual can feel within themselves. A conflict that may be caused by others (British imperialism). Unlike the other countries in Africa that have fought for independence the narrator (Lorato) in the Tao section of the story openly admits that his country rather than fighting the thorn that was imperialism or colonialism not only accepts imperialism but defends it too. He also appears to be in conflict with wanting to live in a larger more settled village or town where the difficulties of his own village are not found. If anything there is a conflict within Lorato similar to the conflict that existed in Africa while under British or colonial rule. The end of the story is also interesting as Head does not allow Lorato the satisfaction of any type of resolution. When asked by Kate who he will vote for Lorato tells Kate that he will not be voting at all as he is unsure of who to vote for. This may be important as it further suggests that Lorato like the other characters in the story are living in conflict within themselves.

Cite Post
McManus, Dermot. "Village People by Bessie Head." The Sitting Bee. The Sitting Bee, 4 Mar. 2017. Web.


  • Thank you I learn more and I also now know the short story.

  • The summary is of utmost help. Cleared some confusion I experienced when I first read the story

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Boitumelo. It’s great to know that you found the post of some benefit.

  • Great summary.

  • Can you explain “like a quiet second skin” for me please…

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Hlalanathi. The term second skin would refer to a state of comfortability. Just as someone might feel comfortable in their own skin, likewise a person’s second skin would similarly be as comfortable.

  • I love the summary. Please explain what the narrator meant when she said “should give us credit”.

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Luvhengo. Usually when that phrase is used it means that an individual should be recognized for their achievements.

  • What is it that the narrator is trying to improve in her life?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Munyai. There are several narrators and sections in the story. If you are referring to the young girl in the Summer Sun section of the story. She is trying to use education to advance her life so that she doesn’t have to work the land with her family.

  • Explain the major problems in the second story, ‘Summer sun’.

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Thando. There are several major problems in the Summer Sun section. Firstly the land is difficult to farm which causes problems for the narrator and her family. Also the narrator wants to abandon the land and further her education but may not get the opportunity to do so. So strong is the pull of the land her family may force her to continue to work it. The narrator is also pregnant or at least may be pregnant which will cause problems for the narrator. She is breaking the tradition of getting married first.

      • Why does the old woman collapse?

        • Dermot (Post Author)

          Thanks for the comment Tshikondela. The old woman collapses because she is hungry.

          • What is the relationship between the old woman and the visitor? Thanks for an answer.

            • Dermot (Post Author)

              As far as I know they are mother and daughter. The visitor brought a pail of water to the village as a thank you for those in the village who helped the old woman.

  • Who does ‘she’ in the line ‘she returned the greeting…and carefully averted…’ What does this refer to?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      What section are you quoting from and what is the full quote?

      • Dermot (Post Author)

        Found it. The visitor (or daughter) is returning the greeting to the person who helped her mother. She also appears to be somewhat embarrassed and that might be why she averted her face (looked away).

  • OK thank u

  • What does the narrator learn from the geography book?

  • Explain the major problems in the second story?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Tshikondela. You’ll find an answer to your question in another comment I replied to here

  • Explain how the theme of suffering is explored in two stories?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      In the Old Woman section the old woman is suffering because she is hungry. Also in the Summer Sun section the young narrator is forced to work the land when she wants to educate herself instead. Her life is one of hardship.

  • Can you please summarize what happens in the summer sun plz.

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Njabulo. Basically the narrator informs the reader of the struggles that she faces on a daily basis. From the difficulties she encounters while working the land with her family to her concerns that she may be pregnant. She also longs to further her education. Something that is noticeable by her interest in the Geography book her cousin gives her. She sees education as a way out or an escape from having to work the land with her family and as an opportunity to improve her life.

  • Thanks for responding

  • What are the figurative used in story please help

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      I’m assuming you mean figurative language. Some examples include ‘like a thin stalk of corn in the wind,’ in The Old woman section. In the green tree section when the narrator is talking about his craving for something he fears to possess you have ‘like the depths of night when the moon brings the pale light of heaven to earth….’

  • A great analysis indeed.Who is the narrator in Old woman’s story? Where in the story is the sentence that specifically tells / show us that the girl is the daughter of the old woman?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Ntsindi. The narrator in the Old woman’s section is unnamed. We do not know who they are. It is also an assumption that the old woman’s daughter brings the pail of water to the village. We can’t say for certain that it is her daughter. However it is most likely someone who is close to the old woman and who is expressing gratitude for the kindness shown to the old woman.

  • Thank you so much.

  • Thank you very much for this valuable information.

  • Who are the characters in the story ,can you list them please .

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Ntsindi. In the Old woman section we have the old woman, the young woman and the narrator. In Summer sun we have the narrator and her family (father, mother sister, cousin). In the green tree section we have just the narrator and in the final section of the story the narrator takes the lead followed by Tao with Kate being a minor character.

      • What is the setting, moral conflict situation,

        • Dermot (Post Author)

          Thanks for the comment Jane. The setting is a small rural village in Africa (perhaps Botswana). The moral conflict is the struggles that each character faces while living in the village.

  • The narrator said, ” it may be the only place on earth where it is worn with unconscious dignity”. What does she mean?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Godly. It is possible that the narrator is suggesting that Africa is the only place where poverty might be seen as being acceptable and that the people without knowing it are able to understand what poverty is and face the hardships that come with poverty. Without making changes to their lives.

  • Can u pls summarise the opening essay ?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      The old woman visits the village because she is ill from hunger. Some of the people in the village laugh at the old woman because she is embarrassing herself and they don’t understand how serious her condition is. One of the residents in the village gives the old woman some food and is thanked the next day by the old woman’s daughter or who we assume to be the old woman’s daughter. The narrator ends the old woman section by highlighting to the reader that despite the hardships that some in Africa may face people can still show one another kindness.

      • How can I describe the characteristics of the crowd of people in the old woman section of the story

        • Dermot (Post Author)

          Head describes the crowd as laughing in embarrassment. Which may suggest that rather than connecting with the old woman and understanding her plight the crowd alienate her. Even though the crowd has known hunger. Also the fact that the crowd turns away from the old woman suggests that the crowd do not have empathy for the old woman. Which is unusual considering again that the crowd have experienced hunger.

  • Describe how the writer is able to paint a clear picture of poverty in the first story?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      The fact that the old woman is begging for food from those in the village suggests that she is living her life in poverty. With poverty comes desperation and the old woman is definitely desperate. Also the young woman brings the most that she can, a pail of water. She has no other gift to bring. Water is her only asset which suggests that the young woman, like the old woman, is living in poverty.

  • In which of the two stories would you say a solution and the message of hope is revealed by the writer? How does she manage this?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      In the Old woman section there is a sense that things can be fixed when the old woman is helped. There is a sense of humanity. Also in Summer sun section the young girl through education may stand a better chance in life.

  • “poverty here has majority backing”. What figure of speech is used here?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Head may be using irony. By suggesting that poverty has major backing or support is the opposite to how an individual would feel about poverty. It is also possible that Head is using assonance (a vowel rhyme). Using the vowels e and a.

  • The writer tells us that the African people though possesses two qualities to their benefit. Give two qualities she mentions that Africans have to their benefit?

  • Can you please outline the climax and rising action of the story

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Lawrence. The story is divided into four different sections. Which section are you looking for?

      • Summer Sun and the old woman.

        • Dermot (Post Author)

          In the Summer sun section the rising action occurs when the narrator is explaining how difficult life is when it comes to farming the land. Also the narrator is possibly pregnant which would also be part of the rising action. The climax comes when the narrator tells the reader about the sun also rising the next day and how without the help of rain it is cruel (killing and killing).

          In the old woman section the rising action occurs when we learn of the old woman first struggling to find water and food. While the climax occurs when the crowd turn away from her.

          • Thanks you very much for your response, it’s really helpful.

            • Dermot (Post Author)

              No problem Lawrence. Thanks for visiting the blog.

              • So what about the denouement of the story ?

                • Dermot (Post Author)

                  In the Summer sun section the denouement occurs when the narrator tells the reader that she doesn’t know what she would do if everybody didn’t love one another. In the old woman section the denouement occurs when the narrator gives the old woman some food.

                • What is denouement please?

                • Dermot (Post Author)

                  Usually denouement is the climax of a chain of events, usually when something is decided or made clear.

  • What is the significance of the opening essay? Why does the writer mention that “in our favour is a great credit balance…”

    On the second story the summer sun, what informs the reader that the narrator could be pregnant?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Bono. The opening essay sets the tone for each of the stories. It highlights positive and negative things that can be found in each of the stories. The humanity, kindness and poverty that exists in the village.

      It is possible that Head uses the term credit balance to suggest that those in the village have paid there dues. That they owe the world nothing and if anything it is the world that owes them.

      We know that the narrator of the Summer sun is pregnant because she tells the reader that she is afraid that she will have an illegitimate baby, like her elder sister.

      • The author mentions about the politician who can pray and speak politics at the same time under summer sun. What is the essence of this?

        • Dermot (Post Author)

          It is possible that Head is suggesting that the politician is in contradiction of himself. He prays to God but his only real interest is in himself.

  • The narrator indicates that she would like to better herself as she is scared that she may have an illegitimate child just like her sister. Dermot do you think that the speaker might mean that she would like to better herself (get educated) instead of following her sister’s footsteps (having an illegitimate child), which might have been caused by lack of education.

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Ntshenge. It is possible that the narrator does not wish to live the life that her sister is living (illegitimate child and working the land) and her only avenue of escape is through learning.

  • Thanks for the summary. Its really helpful. Can you please help me with the vitality of having Ubuntu in this short story. The Background, Hypothesis, Methodology, Results only please . Thank you again.

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Minenhle. I’m lost. I’ve went through the story again and found no reference to Ubuntu. Can you clarify things for me?

  • What is the plot and the visual literacy of the story

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Marcia. The plot of the story is relatively simple. Each section of the story is narrated by a different narrator and outlines the struggles that each face in the same fictional village. As for visual literacy. As far as I know visual literacy deals with images (or pictures). There are no images or pictures in the story. Is it possible that you mean the visual literacy of the symbolic imagery in the story?

  • Thanx a lot , the summary has answered many questions I had , though I differ slightly with the idea that the girl from Summer Sun may be expecting an illegitimate child because she explicitly said she does not want to be like her sister.

  • Nokukhanya Ndlazi

    What is the whole theme about the village people short story

  • How do they do use sledge for communication?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Tlangelani. The message would be carried on a sledge by someone from the village. I’m assuming the sledge is on wheels making it faster than if an individual walked to the next village to deliver a message. I’m also assuming the sledge is pulled by dogs.

  • I wrote about Maru in 2004 and now am doing short stories hoping to do well. Thanks for the insight.

  • I like these words “poverty has a home in Africa” and “people don’t look down at your shoes which are caked with years of mud and split so that the toes stick out” what does Head mean?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Jwest. The first quote suggests that poverty is acceptable and everywhere in Africa. That it is part of the daily life of those who struggle to live. In the second quote it is possible that people are so used to poverty in Africa that they do not take notice of a person’s appearance. Everybody is in the same position. Everybody is struggling.

  • Can you please describe the difference in the way the villagers and the politician deals with the drought in the story?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Nsina. The politicians rather than bringing water to the village by mechanic means (water pumps) or having wells dug pray for rain. When the reality is praying will not bring the rain or water that is needed. The villagers appear to accept what is happening to them. They are used to the drought. They might not like it but they still nonetheless accept what is happening.

  • In the opening essay Head describes some of the problems faced by the people who live in the rural “desert and semi desert place” of Botswana. List at least three of the problems she mentions.

  • What does she say these people have, on the more positive side?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Head states that the people have an immense humanity and are extremely gentle. Also if one person in the village is in pain (a baby). Others will sit with the mother in an attempt to absorb the pain. It is also interesting that the people in the village also survive by making very few demands. When their conditions would suggest they have every right to demand things (like food). If anything the villagers accept the position they find themselves in.

  • Can you please summarize the story village people in a simple way so that I can understand and explain it to other people.

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      In the Old Woman section. An old woman comes to the village to look for food. Though a lot of people laugh at her, one person helps her. This person is rewarded with a pail of water by a younger woman who the reader assumes is the old woman’s daughter.

      In Summer Sun. A young girl longs to return to education so that she no longer has to work the land with her family. She wants to improve her life but knows it may be difficult as she is pregnant.

      In the Green Tree. We learn how difficult it is for others who do not come from the village to stay in the village. The narrator also goes into some detail of his relationship with a woman and how it can drain his strength. Head possibly looking at masculine identity and how the male identifies with who he is.

  • Can I ask u about Doll’s house short story?

  • In the first story what smilie is used in the first line to describe the old woman

  • How did the speaker assist the old woman?

  • Major problem in Summer sun?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      The narrator wants to return to education but she has to work the land with her family. Also she may be pregnant which will mean difficulties for a girl so young. It is as though her life will have to take on a different meaning should she be pregnant.

  • Please give me a summary.

  • Can you summarise this please

  • Thanks a lot for the summary of all the sections.

  • What is the setting of this story?

  • Thanks for the summary….it really helped

  • Which of these two stories do you prefer? Explain your answer

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      I like the old woman. I like that there is someone to help her when most people refuse to help. I also like the summer sun as the young girl despite all the hardships she is going through. Has hopes and aspirations. She is not defeated.

  • Thank you so much. I’ve never read the book but your summary aroused so much interest.

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