Maru, the well-written and revered novel by Bessie Head, is primarily concerned with two themes: that of love, and prejudice. Set in the rural and unforgiving village of Dilepe, Maru sets about exploring the ability of people to love others, despite their palpable differences.
Moving in a circular sequence, the story begins at the end of the novel, where readers are introduced to the main characters, Maru (who gives the novel its title) and Margaret, his new wife. Thereafter, the story moves back in time examining all the past events that have led up to this point.
Finally starting at the “real beginning”, readers are first exposed to the harsh prejudices of the Batswana tribe against the Masarwa people. A dead Masarwa woman and her live baby are found, yet no Batswana person wishes to bury her, and so English Missionaries are called upon to perform the task. Margaret Cadmore arrives, and is utterly disgusted by the discriminative attitudes of the Batswana nurses who have been forced to help prepare the body for burial.
Moved by the true plight of the Masarwa people, Margaret Cadmore decides to adopt the baby, and name her after herself- Margaret Cadmore. She believes by giving this child the gift of education and a privileged upbringing, she will defy the prejudiced minds that surround her. Instead, she leads a withdrawn and troubled life of ridicule and rejection. Realizing she has failed her, Margaret Cadmore returns to England, leaving a young and newly graduated Margaret behind, encouraging her to stay and help her own people.
And so Margaret nervously travels to Dilepe, to take up a teaching post at Leseding School. There she meets and befriends another teacher- the beautiful and confident Dikeledi, who is surprised by Margaret’s candidness when she tells her that she is a Masarwa woman. Having nowhere to stay, Dikeledi arranges for Moleka, a tribal superior, and the man that she in fact loves, to provide Margaret with accommodation. At first Margaret is fearful of him, but after he shows her kindness, she soon feels that she may love him. Moleka shares these feelings, and despite her origins, believes that he may love her too.
The School Administration however, is racist towards Margaret, and plot to have thrown out. Yet Dikeledi, who protects Margaret, thwarts the plan.
Later, Dikeledi’s highly admired brother Maru, returns from a business trip and learns from his spy, Ranko, that his great friend and rival, Moleka, has fallen for the likes of a Masarwa woman- Margaret.
Never wanting to be challenged in any way by Moleka, Maru plots to take Margaret for himself, and trick Moleka into marrying his sister Dikeledi, who is unaware of Moleka’s love for Margaret.
As the story progresses, Moleka and Margaret both become deeply, but secretly affected by their love for each other. Maru, a dreamer, realizes that Margaret would have a profound impact on his vision for a world of freedom and equality, and so proceeds with a plan to marry her himself. By pretending to be against the idea of the equal treatment of a Masarwa woman, Maru cleverly fools Moleka into portraying himself to Margaret as one of the same weak, prejudiced followers of the Batswana mindset. Though she still furtively loves Moleka, Margaret begins sharing Maru’s dreams. As Maru had hoped he would, Moleka turns to Dikeledi, feeling he has lost Margaret forever. He is forced to marry Dikeledi when she becomes pregnant with his child. All the while Margaret and Dikeledi are entirely unaware that they both love Moleka, but when she eventually hears of their marriage and Dikeledi’s pregnancy, Margaret is utterly devastated and takes to her bed. Maru has succeeded in his betrayal of Moleka, and moves to claim Margaret as his wife. Suffering painfully over her loss of Moleka, Margaret turns to Maru and accepts his offer of marriage. Maru rejects his chieftainship of the Batswana, and defiantly leaves the village to start anew life with Margaret. This leaves the Batswana feeling bitterly defeated, and the Masarwa triumphant as they now believe that the power of freedom lies closely before them in the new world that Maru and Margaret have begun laying the foundations for.
Through her creativity and excellent use of metaphors, Bessie Head has accomplished both a sensitive yet honest analysis of unconditional love and the prejudices that are faced in life.