#100AfricanWomenWriters: 14. Gladys May Casely-Hayford

Gladys Casely-Hayford – poet, musician, dramatist, painter and storyteller - was born in Axim, the Gold Coast (now Ghana) in 1904 and died there in 1950, though she spent most of her life in Freetown, Sierra Leone. 

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I found the most fascinating account of Gladys Casely-Hayford's life in the book, African Treasure by Yema Lucilda Hunter. It begins with her family background and earlier years. The book goes as far back as Gladys’ great grand father William Smith Sr – an Englishman who first came to West Africa as a young man working for the Royal African Company. It also includes quite a bit on her mother – Sierra Leonean activist, feminist and writer Adelaide Casely-Hayford described as ‘outstanding amongst’ the creole élite:

... her name often appeared in the local papers in connection with the school she founded, or with her articles and speeches on social matters, including the education of African girls and Christian marriage. Excerpts from her memoirs were published in the now defunct West African Review in the early 1950s, and she also published two short stories of which the better known 'Mista Courifer' appeared in a well known American anthology.

Gladys Casely-Hayford's father, as the book goes on to explain was 

... the Honourable Joseph Ephraim Casely Hayford, of the Gold Coast, a member of the colony’s Legislative Council, a political activist philosopher, nationalist and pan-Africanist, successful barrister, journalist, newspaper editor and one of the first black Africans to write a novel in English.  

The Prospect of Fort St Anthony, at Axim [Gold Coast]

In a short article written by Adelaide Casely-Hayford, we find out a little more about Gladys’ life: she was ‘a voracious little reader’, at fifteen ‘had written a poem …. which was the finest ever written by a Penrhos (college) girl’. Had an ‘outstanding capacity for love and kindness…. everlastingly seeking for people's good qualities rather than condemning them’, but was ‘in a chronic state of financial embarrassment’ due to marriage to a man her mother had never seen and who was never able to support Gladys and her son. By the way, that 'finest ever written' poem - was called Ears, and was included in African Treasure:

When God made the world and all therein, 
In a sad moment of great wistfulness
And loneliness, He fashioned Him a man.

"That he may cling," God said - and shaped his hands, 

"That he may laugh," God said - and made his mouth, 

Then paused debating, whether vision given
Would make the creature infinitely wise:

"That he may see, God said - and shaped his eyes;
"That he may follow Me, until I choose that we
shall meet,"

God said - and gave the creature feet.

The finished creature, now with life imbued,

On the world's threshold palpitating stood; 
Whilst suns, stars, worlds, and moons about 
him whirled

The full creation, pulsing still being hurled
Into position by God's mighty Hand;

The cooling sea revolving the hot land.

Man started forward. "Turn to me," God cried;
But man, who heard not, could not turn aside,

Walked swiftly into life, bereft of fears,
God caught him back, and laughing
Made him ears.

From the heart of conscience,
The path of silence, 
The thunder of chaos,
The cycle of years,
The mystery of angels,
The devil's shadow,
God made the ears,
Then laughing at this modeled piece of grace
Shaped question-wise and wondering what use
Mortals would make of them,
He kissed the ears in place.

The article also reveals that Gladys ‘could sit down and in a short time, write a poem which was a joy and inspiration to read’ and received an invitation to Columbia University after her mother posted samples of her work to the university. However, Gladys never made it to America: 

... because of financial difficulties. As usual, her lack of discrimination prompted her to join a coloured jazz troupe with headquarters in Berlin. She bitterly regretted her decision in after years.
As noted in African Treasure, during Gladys time in Berlin she worked on a detective novel set in Freetown and another book about the 'colour problem' called Shadowed Livery - none of these manuscripts have been traced.

As her mother goes on to write in the article:

Meanwhile, her considerable literary talents continued to develop by leaps and bounds. She expressed herself chiefly in poems. Knowing that Cambridge, a suburb of Boston, was the supreme educational centre of the States as it sheltered Harvard University, with its Female section, Radcliffe College, I took some of her poems to a friend there. She was so impressed that she sent them to the editor of the 'Atlanta Monthly'. To our great surprise, three of them were accepted and immediately appeared in this very literary American publication. Their appearance resulted in an offer for Gladys to enter Radcliffe College at once, but through my dear daughter's own action, another splendid opportunity was lost.

African Treasure mentions the three of Gladys’ poems selected for publication in the Atlantic Monthly were NativityThe Serving Girl, and The Souls of Black and White. A few years after her publication in the Atlantic, three more of Gladys poems appeared in another American periodical – Opportunity, a Journal of Negro Life. The book also presents one of Gladys’ earliest poems, which she wrote the age of twelve or thirteen.

Gladys Casely-Hayford – although she was educated, like her mother, largely in the British tradition, and was a member of the privileged creole élite, her work is noteworthy for its demonstration of the beauty and dignity of the black race. Some of her English poems appeared under the pen-name Acquah Laluah in African and American journals from the thirties on; yet they had never been collected and did not gain any sort of fame until they were included, more than ten years after her death, in several anthologies of the sixties. One of her best known is Rejoice in which she calls rousingly to her fellow Africans to rejoice in their blackness … perhaps her most remarkable poem from the point of view of African consciousness is Nativity, which is about the birth of Christ. The author sets the Christmas story in a purely African setting: the babe himself is a black child born in a native hut to a black mother and father, he is wrapped in blue lappah and laid on his father’s ‘deerskin’ hide.  
Gladys also has a unique distinction of being perhaps the first Sierra Leonean to write poetry in Krio. Many of these poems are not only charming and meaningful, but also demonstrate a remarkable artistic control. It is another index of her determination, in spite of her British-type upbringing and education, to identify with Africa.

From my reading's, Gladys was said to be in the UK at least until 1924, and returned to West Africa – this time the Gold Coast - where she becomes a journalist for a weekly newspaper – the Gold Coast Leader – which her father cofounded in 1903. At least two of her poems were also published in the newspaper. One of the poems is Rejoice discussed earlier: 

Rejoice and shout with laughter
Throw all your burdens down,
If God has been so gracious
As to make you black or brown

For you a great nation,
A people of great birth
For where would you spring the flowers
If God took away the earth?
Rejoice and shout with Laughter,

Throw all your burdens down
Yours is a glorious heritage
If you are black, or brown.

Gladys returns to Freetown in 1926, but according to African Treasure continued to be associated with the Gold Coast Leader until 1928, as

...  she reports on the proceedings of the 2nd Achimota Conference of the Congress of British West Africa in the issue of July 14, 1927, writes book reviews in the issues of August 2 1927 and September 19 1928, and publishes a poem dedicated to the late Dr. Aggrey in the issue of October 21, 1928. 

On return to Freetown, Gladys taught African Folklore and Literature at her her mother's Girls' Vocational School - Industrial Technical and Training School (ITTS).

Pre-colonial Freetown

Other sources cited that in 1929 Gladys – who obtained her admission to Columbia University - was en route to America, but detoured to Germany, performing with a jazz troupe and touring:

Her mother also obtained Gladys admission to Radcliffe College, which she declined, and then Ruskin College in Oxford, which she accepted. Gladys Casely-Hayford's poetic talents were admired at Ruskin, but the stress of her failed affair and her difficult relationship with her mother brought a mental breakdown in 1932. Gladys was hospitalized in Oxford. When Adelaide appeared at her bedside, a doctor advised them to have a less competitive relationship. They returned to Freetown. Gladys resumed teaching at ITTS but increasingly withdrew from Adelaide, first moving to Accra, where her father's family lived, then marrying Arthur Hunter, whom her mother had not met. Hunter was, in turn, sweet natured, abusive and adulterous. Adelaide paid for him to go to England to learn the printing business. On his return, he eschewed work as a printer. Gladys' son Kobina Hunter was born in 1940. From age ten on, he would live alternately with his grandmother or his half-uncle.

Gladys  Casely-Hayford passed away in 1950, and in her lifetime wrote about subjects such s women freedom, pride, erotic love between women. Her only collection, Take’um so, was published in 1948. Gladys was also an accomplished musician who not only played the piano exceptionally, but also composed many songs and dance turns - while she lived in the UK. 


#100AfricanWomenWriters: 13. Bessie Head

I cannot pretend to be a student of South African literature; I cannot assess its evolution or lack of evolution. I only feel that the main function of the writer is to make life magical and to communicate a sense of wonder … Literature is very functional in southern African and bound inextricably to human suffering; the death of South African literature is that it is almost blinded by pain; people hardly exist beside the pain … My work has covered the whole spectrum of southern African preoccupations – refugeeism, racialism, patterns of evil and the ancient southern historical dialogue.  

The quote above is from Bessie Head whose works explored the effects of racial and social oppression, as well as exile – drawing a lot from her own experiences of discrimination both in her birthplace of South Africa and in her adopted land of Botswana. While her novels and short stories emphasised a lot of these experiences from a female perspective, Head always emphasised that her outlook was a universal one – refusing to be seen as a feminist, as she abhorred all oppression - racial, sexual, and political, but also refusing to be called an African writer, a black writer, or a revolutionary writer.  Bessie Head passed away in 1986 in Serowe, Botswana, and is buried in the old cemetery, on the hillside behind Botalaote ward, amidst trees and flowers. in 2003 - seventeen years after her death - Bessie Head was honoured with The Order of Ikhamanga.

This is probably one of the longer posts I've written for this series - and I haven't even captured it all. It's also one that took me a while to put together, as I really wanted to do it justice. One thing for sure is that Bessie Head (as with the other women in this series) led a rather rich life - although hers was also tumultuous.  When asked how one becomes a writer, Bessie responded by saying that ‘writing first begins with the love of reading and a love of books, a feeling for all the magic and wonder that can be communicated through books.’ Bessie Head is said to have begun seriously writing in late 1965, often at night by candlelight.  She was also often described as a ‘brilliant yet troubled writer’, but first her entry into this world.

Bessie Amelia Emery was born in 1937 in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa to a white mother and a black father – whose name was unknown. Her mother was a patient at Fort Napier Mental Hospital – where Bessie was born - as under South Africa’s Immorality Act of 1927 sexual relations between people of different races was forbidden. Cared for by foster parents until she was thirteen, Head then attended a missionary boarding school earning  a high school diploma. Head went on to train to be a teacher - becoming a certified teacher in 1957 and teaching in Clairwood, Durban until 1958. 

Bessie Amelia Emery would then move to Cape Town - living and working in District Six, and go on to write for Drum Magazine and Golden City Post  as a freelance reporter – was said to be the only woman reporter - and also wrote for the weekend magazine Home Post. Around the same time, she started her own little homemade newspaper, The Citizen, which expressed her strong pan-African views, questioning the justice of laws and highlighting the absurdities of the apartheid systemIn the late 1950s, Bessie Amelia Emery became a court reporter, witnessed the political unrest and resistance in South Africa and was aware of the trials political activists faced. 

This article on provides more insights into her political interests and level of political involvements during this period, including her short time participating in the PAC as well as how Head was often seen as a ‘controversial figure’. Her primary biographer Gillian Eilerson claimed that:

her travels abroad had made her aware that she was a controversial figure in her refusal to give her total support to either feminism or African nationalism and in her unconventional views of good and evil.

Bessie Amelia Emery met Harold Head - a journalist and a member of the non-racial Liberal Party - in 1961, and they also married in the same year. Harold got a job helping to publish Contact, the Liberal newspaper. They moved into a crowded house in District Six until Harold started a new job in Port Elizabeth, which the family followed him to. It is said that around this time she also entered the world of literature, publishing a poem and several autobiographical pieces in the New African, a left-wing journal launched by Randolph Vigne and some friends. Now known as Bessie Head, while living there, Head worked on a short novel, The Cardinals (published posthumously in 1993).Their son Howard was born May 1962, whom Head raised by herself after her divorce. 

Drum Magazine - initially called The African Drum

Head was reported to have left South Africa in 1964 when she was twenty six for Botswana - then called the Bechuanaland Protectorate, following her divorce from Harold, and due also to a lack of writing freedom. Cherry Clayton, author of A World Elsewhere, wrote:

She left because of the breakdown of her marriage, the economic lure of a teaching post in Botswana, and her despair at being unable to function as a 'storyteller' in a country of rigidly enforced racial separation, which made both personal stability and a sense of human community difficult to achieve.

Unfortunately, she had to leave the teaching job and became a political refugee in Botswana - as due to her political affiliations and left-wing activist friends was denied a South African passport and given a canceled exit visa. Head was stateless until she became a citizen in Botswana in 1979. During the period of her statelessness, she received a small allowance provided by the World Council of Churches. Head also did much of her writing in a small home without electricity during the early years of her life in Botswana. In one of the many biographies I found on Head, during her early years of writing in Botswana: 
Moral support and a little money came by post from Patrick Cullinan in Cape Town and Randolph Vigne in London. However, she remained desperately poor. She met Patrick van Rensburg for the first time, and he came to her assistance. He would help her often during her years in Botswana … she found a job in Palapye, working as a typist. There she received the news — and £30! — that she had sold a story in the UK, "The Woman from America" …
Half a world away, in New York, the publishers Simon & Schuster had read "The Woman from America". In December 1966 they asked her for a novel and sent £80 as an advance payment for the book. Bessie went to work at once. At last having a typewriter, she wrote When Rain Clouds Gather in just under a year .. Rain Clouds was published in New York and London; it received excellent reviews. With encouragement from new friends, and in a wave of creativity, she began a new novel, Maru. With money from Rain Clouds she began to build her own house. Maru was finished in September 1969; the house was completed in November.
Head wrote under extremely difficult circumstances– poverty, mental health, alienation. Indeed, Head was open about her depression - as detailed in one of her letters to Paddy Kitchen:  

I suppose when you have a break down nothing is coherent. I am so used to them, these long periods of darkness when every effort is painful.

In fact the earlier biography I mentioned on Head notes: Head
When Maru was published in February 1971, Bessie was seriously ill with depression and delusions … Once on the road to recovery, she started her most difficult book, A Question of Power. It is an autobiographical novel, using incidents from her early life as well as her recent nightmares. She wrote rapidly, finishing the book in April 1972. But several publishers thought it needed rewriting. She had 8 months of nervous worry before it finally accepted for publication. A Question of Power appeared in October 1973 to immediate praise and acclaim.

Head finished her next book Serowe: Village of the Rain Wind in 1974, but it was published in 1981. Her short story collection, The Collector of Treasures & Other Botswana Village Tales - also written in 1974 - was published in 1977. Her last book - the historical novel, A Bewitched Crossroad: An African Saga - was published in 1984. Her last piece of writing, however, was an article published in March 1985, Why Do I Write?. Her posthumous publications includes Tales of Tenderness and Power (1989)  and A Woman Alone: Autobiographical Writings (1990)

Head also befriended many influential artists and political activists throughout her life, including Langston Hughes, Paddy Kitchen and Randolph Vigne. She sent approximately eighty letters to Paddy Kitchen, and she corresponded with Langston Hughes between 1960-1961The eight letters between Hughes and Emery were brought to light by David Chioni Moore

In October 1960, young, unknown Bessie Emery wrote, at first under the pseudonym “Julie Smith,” out of the blue to Hughes in New York to seek his support.  Hughes responded warmly, and an eight-letter correspondence ensued. After Hughes’s death, Yale archivists catalogued his papers, giving separate folders to correspondents like Chinua Achebe, Josephine Baker, Kwame Nkrumah, Paul Robeson, Léopold Senghor, Wole Soyinka, and hundreds of others.  But the archivists did not know “Bessie Emery,” so they placed the exchange in an unexplored 2,000-page trove titled “African Letters A-N.”  In 2008, David Chioni Moore came across these letters, recognized their significance, and has edited and introduced them for readers today. 

There is so much more to write on Head's fascinating and complex life, such as the influence of religion (both Christianity and Hinduism) had on her, but I'll stop here for now.

How Reading Nigerian Fiction On Domestic Work Helped Me With My PhD

Art by Nicholle Kobi. Source: Pinterest

It was quite hard to write this post as I’m getting a little personal, but only a little. This month (March) makes exactly two years since I finally said bye bye bye to my PhD. In that time I still stick to a few things:

1. The PhD is damn hard.
2. I am stronger than I think.
3. I am so glad I never have to do it ever again.

Well, after almost two years of ignoring my PhD monograph, at the beginning of the year I decided I was actually going to pick up my thesis and begin thinking about doing something with it. First, I wanted to pay homage to the role Nigerian fiction played in my thesis. A teeny background before I begin.

My thesis looked at the everyday lives of male and female domestic workers in Lagos – a labour force that, while somewhat ‘hidden’ in public policy terms, is a significant part of daily life in Nigeria. These women and men perform different jobs, such as caring for children, keeping homes (and surrounding compounds) neat and tidy, washing clothes and/or dishes, driving people around, and keeping homes safe and secure. Yet, they often remain invisible in Nigerian society, and in most cases are treated with very little respect and dignity, and face multiple and varied forms of abuse and discrimination. In my thesis, I was interested in understanding the terrain of struggle and negotiation in the places people work, live and move through on a daily basis – particularly in a context such as domestic work, where unequal power relationships are deeply embedded within these everyday situations. I was also interested in how these experiences are shaped by factors such as gender, age, occupation, living conditions (living with employer or not) and so on.

Now that's out of the way ....

When I first started working on my PhD, one of the things I found frustrating (and trust me, there were many) was that while (as mentioned earlier) domestic work was an important part of daily life in Nigeria, I really struggled initially to find information surrounding details of the employment in the country - even in terms of numbers. With time I did find some papers and texts on the subject and my interviews greatly helped, but it was tough in the beginning.

On many occasions when I was frustrated with my PhD, or just felt like giving up, I would turn to fiction – as a way to escape from my thesis. If I’m honest, it was also a way to procrastinate and ignore it all together. I never even intended (or thought it was possible) for fiction to play a role in my PhD. More than anything, what it ended up doing was giving me the confidence to continue writing about a topic I felt needed to be researched. It also made me realise that while I had to follow certain rules and regulations regarding how a PhD is written, I could also write it in a way that was not too rigid. A way that enabled me to tell a story – because ultimately I was telling a story of the lives of men and women who worked, and sometimes lived, in the homes of middle- to upper-class Nigerians.

While I did not read these novels as the bearer of truth for all things on domestic work in Nigeria, it was great for someone like me who was arguing about the somewhat invisibility of domestic workers in Nigerian public policy to see that fiction writers had taken the time to write about domestic workers in some shape and form. There were, of course, different portrayals and experiences of domestic workers in these stories I read. 

There was Chinua Achebe’s (1966) A Man of the People, which portrayed African men in the kitchens of the missionaries or other colonists as cooks and stewards, as well as Buchi Emecheta’s (1994) The Joys of Motherhood, where the father of the female protagonist, Nnu Ego, sends her to Lagos to marry a man, Nnaife, who earns a living as a ‘washerman’ for an English family. Then there was Flora Nwapa’s (1966) Efuru, a novel about an independent, but ‘cursed’ woman living in a village in colonial Nigeria.  I remember reading it back in 2013 and getting to the section where Efuru asks her mother-in-law to help her get a maid to help her look after her baby. Her mother-in-law found her a ten-year-old girl, who was the daughter of her mother-in law's cousin, and this was the conversation that ensued:

‘What bothers me now is a maid. I want a maid to help me look after Ogonim while I trade with my husband.’
‘A maid? You want a maid to look after your only child? She will kill her. I advise you not to have a maid. You will regret it.’
‘I shall get a good one. I want to help my husband. We have been losing much money.’
‘What is that to you? What is money? Can a bag of money go for an errand for you? Can a bag of money look after you in your old age? Can a bag of money mourn you when you are dead? A child is more valuable than money. So our fathers said.’
As if these were not enough, Efuru’s friend began to narrate all the atrocities of maids.
‘You know Nwanta, don’t you?’
‘You know that her first son is blind in one eye.’
‘A maid was responsible for it.’
‘How?’ Efuru asked in horror.
‘The boy was playing with a stick. The maid saw him and did not take it away from him. So the stick went right into his eye and now the poor boy is blind in one eye.’
‘You know Nwanyuzo, don’t you?’
‘Yes, I know here very well.’
‘You know that her daughter has a burnt face. And I don’t know who is going to marry a girl with a burnt face. It was a maid who was responsible for it too.’
Efuru did not ask her how that happened this time. It was not necessary. ‘I have maids no doubt, but I know how to treat them with an iron hand. I do.’

I also read about domestic workers in contemporary Nigerian novels, such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s (2006) Half of A Yellow Sun through Ugwu - Odenigbo's 'houseboy', Abidemi Sanusi’s Eyo (2009) where a young girl is trafficked to the UK, where she initially works as a 'domestic servant', and Chika Unigwe’s (2012) The Night Dancer, where Ezi's husband has an affair with their young maid, Rapu. 

Short stories, as well, such as Life During Wartime: Sierra Leone, 1997 by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie published in 2006 in The New Yorker online, where Adichie writes about Fide – a ‘houseboy’ from the village, who is described as  ‘backwards’ because he had never seen a refrigerator, spoke a rural dialect of Igbo that was not Anglicised and chewed rice with his mouth open. There was also the short story, The Housegirl by Okey Chigbo in Chinua Achebe and C.L, Innes’ Contemporary African Short Stories

I even read about domestic workers in places I least expected – it was like subconsciously I was looking for it everywhere. I once randomly found a collection of stories by Steen Marcusson  on his life as an expatriate in post-colonial West Africa with an excerpt on Hausa ‘maiguards’ (security guards). In one section, Marcusson (2003) writes:

‘How did the numerous thieves get into the store? Easy enough. 'The two devious night-watch-men were the ring leaders of the thieves!' It was clear to a blindman that our problem was an “insider” job or more correctly “insiders”. You never spotted signs of break-ins or forced entry … My first initiative was to replace the two Yoruba night-watch-men with 4 huge and powerful Hausa men. Hausas from the North are big, often 6’6” and more, and strongly committed Muslims. Hausa security guards from Kano were the right answer to security in “Yorubaland”. With Hausa night-watch-men any possibility of collusion was blanked out.’

I did read beyond Nigeria, such as Ferdinand Oyono’s (1990) Houseboy - set in colonial Cameroon, and Amma Darko’s The Housemaid set in Ghana, but through these works of fiction I found a space to begin to tell the story about domestic work that I really believed needed to be told.

Fiction also enabled me to improve my skills in writing, find my voice, and write my PhD in a way that was comfortable for me and true to who I was, as well as the women and men I interviewed (without losing all the academic rigour and so on that was necessary). Really, it gave me the confidence to own my PhD topic and realise that (to a large extent) I can be in control of it - instead of my supervisor. And l like I said earlier, it offered me a space to escape from the thesis when I needed it the most.

Blogging also helped me write my dissertation – and one day I may write about that. For now, this is a little thank you to fiction from me and my dissertation. Now, I’m off to find new inspiration and motivation to actually turn into it something beyond a PhD monograph. Wish me luck! 

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