Bessie Head’s story, Maru, looks at the affects of colonialism on African people. One of those affects was the forced divisions and racial categories set in place between the Bushmen people and other Botswanians. The story begins with the birth of a Bushmen child whose mother dies during childbirth. When the child and its mother is sent to the hospital run by local missionaries, the Botswanian nurses disregard the mother’s body. The missionary’s wife, Margaret Cadmore, notices this and records her own disgust at the prejudices.
She decides to take on the caring and rearing of the infant child, but Cadmore doesn’t bother to name the girl (the girl adopts Cadmore’s name) and treats her more like a “semi-servant,” one albeit with certain equalities, but certainly not like a daughter. Nevertheless, Cadmore is educated by her benefactor and learns to sketch like her as well. Yet, Cadmore’s childhood is unhappy. She is teased and mocked by other children because of her background and leads a very lonely existence. She is alienated from her own people and does not have a close relationship with her caretaker. When Cadmore is an adult, she becomes a teacher and is sent out to a village to teach in a missionary school.
This provides Margaret with an opportunity to become someone. Because of her light skin, many of the people think she is “colored,” but Margaret refuses to be dishonest and honestly tells people her real background if asked. For a while, the only person who knows Margaret is a Bushmen is her colleague, Dikeledi. But soon, word gets out in the village that Margaret is a Bushmen and the villagers treated her disdainly. During class, her young students cause a disruption during her lesson by chanting ugly things at her.
But the story is really about how Margaret’s presence changes the village. Two young men, friends since childhood, who are or will become chiefs of their villages, are the most affected. Moleka, whom Dikeledi loves, has fallen in love with Margaret, though he hardly knows her. Moleka wants to marry Margaret, but when the truth of her background is revealed, he is fearful of going against the prejudices in his village. Maru, the novel’s namesake, also falls in love with Margaret and uses his friends hesitance in pursuing her to his advantage.
He provides Margeret with a bed, which is taken from her after it is revealed that she is a Bushmen, then uses his sister, Dikiledi, to commission sketches, which he keeps for himself. Maru’s actions causes a rift with his friend. Maru sees a chance in a marriage with Margaret to change the prejudices and racial divisions among the people in Botswana. Since he will be chief, he feels this is his responsibility to break away from the chains of colonialism and bring in a new day for his people.
In the end, Moleka gets Dikiledi pregnant and marries her, though he still loves Margaret. But his refusal to be as daring and visionary as his friend prevents him from following his heart. Meanwhile, Maru proposes marriage to Margaret, who accepts, though she does not love Maru. Yet, she sees in this marriage as chance to become a part of the community from which she has been alienated.
Maru offers an optimistic vision of what liberated south Africans can face as long as they break away from the destructive and divisive affects of colonialism.