They lived worlds apart and had so many contrasts between them but one thing that is common about both of them is that they have put Botswana on the world map. For a start her mother's white family rejected Bessie Head because her father was black. On the other hand, Alexander McCall-Smith's parents are both British and white and his upbringing was good.
Although Head's maternal family was opulent she died in poverty, while on the other hand it is clear that McCall-Smith is safe from the clutches of poverty.
Both of them adore Botswana and their love for the country has been immortalised in their books. Head's affectionate depiction of Serowe in her book Serowe: The Village of Rain Wind has prompted many to visit the semi-arid country when she wrote:
"A ring of low blue hills partly surrounds the village; at least they look blue, misty from a distance. But if sunlight and shadow strike them at a certain angle, you can quite clearly see their flat and unmysterious surfaces. They looked like combed heads of old Batswana men dotted here and here and there with the dark shapes of thorn trees.
The South African-born writer, alongside Khama III, Tshekedi Khama and Seretse Khama attract a large number of tourists to the village of Serowe annually.
One critic commented that 'her portrayal of Botswana is often that of an idealised land untainted by the effects of colonialism, a Garden of Eden before the fall.'
Bessie Head herself wrote: "South Africa, with its sense of ravages and horror, has lost that image of an Africa, ancient and existing since time immemorial but in Botswana, the presence of the timeless and immemorial is everywhere...in people, in animals, in everyday life and custom and tradition."
When interviewed by an American paper, Reader's Read McCall-Smith said of Botswana: "I very much hope that American readers will get a glimpse of remarkable qualities of Botswana. It is a very special country and I think that it particularly chimes with many values which Americans feel strongly about...respect for the rule of law and for individual freedom. I hope that readers will also see in these portrayals of Botswana some of the great traditional virtue in Africa...in particular courtesy and a striking a natural dignity."
In the same interview the Scottish writer went on to say that Botswana was a remarkable country in many respects and that he admired many of the people that he had met in the country. This year saw both internationally acclaimed authors putting the spotlight again on the country. Over the President's holidays hundreds of Bessie Head fans met in Serowe to pay homage to the late writer and currently a movie based on McCall-Smith's No 1 Ladies Detective Agency series is being shot in the country, starring the renowned neo-soul singer, Jill Scott. The award-winning director Anthony Minghella of The English Patient fame is directing the movie.
The two writers are both 'honorary' Batswana and the country became the background of their most famous works. Head came to Botswana in 1964, after fleeing apartheid South Africa while McCall-Smith came here to help establish the law department at the University of Botswana (UB). Bessie Head acquired citizenship after staying for more than 15 years in the country, while McCall-Smith, though a proud Scot, visits Botswana annually to do charity work and tour the country he loves so much.
While Bessie Head is a serious author whose semi-autobiographical work A Question Of Power is difficult to critique, Alexander McCall-Smith is a confessed humorist who often laughs at his works as demonstrated in his recent interview when he said jokingly, "In most detective books, characters don't die of natural causes, but in my books you would note that there are no autopsies at all".
Bessie Head's mental breakdowns chased away potential friends, as shown when she threatened a friend, Danish historian Maria Rytter with a knife, while McCall-Smith is accessible to hordes of admirers and friends. Because of her mental problems, Head at times cut a solitary figure and nearly died without being surrounded by beloved ones.
Both Head and McCall-Smith were in the teaching profession with the latter lecturing at institutions of higher learning.
Given her tough family background, Head wrote to counter the injustices and the inequalities in life as shown in the book Maru amongst others, but McCall-Smith was inspired by something different altogether as he explained during the Reader's Read interview:
"Years ago I was in Botswana, staying with friends in a small town called Mochudi. A woman in the town wished to give my friends a chicken to celebrate Botswana National Day. I watched as this woman...traditionally built like Mma Ramotswe chased the chicken round the yard and eventually caught it. She made a clucking noise as she ran. The chicken looked miserable. She looked very cheerful. At that moment I thought I might write a book about a cheerful woman of traditional build."
Head died a pauper who supplemented her meagre earnings by selling Cape gooseberry jam to the white residents of Serowe. Head's royalties enabled her to build her house 'Rain Clouds' which besides her typewriter must have been one of her prized possessions.
On the other hand, given the millions that he has already amassed, it's likely that McCall-Smith will depart from this world still a millionaire.