A Question of Power Characters

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1973

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Magical Realism

Time of work: The late 1960’s and the early 1970’s

Locale: Motabeng, Botswana

Characters DiscussedElizabeth

Elizabeth, Question of Power, Athe protagonist and a schoolteacher, a colored émigré from South Africa. Brought up in apartheid South Africa by a woman who she thinks is her blood mother, Elizabeth is somewhat unnerved by the sudden revelation that her mother is white and has been staying in a sanatorium for the mentally ill. Once in Botswana, Elizabeth comes down with her mother’s disease in the form of recurrent nervous nightmares and terrifying deliriums, making her literally a prisoner of her own tortured mind. With indefatigable willpower, the belief in the transcendence of humanity, and the sympathetic warmth of friends at the Motabeng local industries commune, however, she recovers from her illness to face life with greater resolve, independence, and optimism.


Sello, a Motabeng farmer and cattle breeder. He repeatedly appears in Elizabeth’s delusions. A self-proclaimed prophet and citizen of the world, a man of seemingly profound love and compassion, he assumes the image of a benevolent white-robed monk. Beneath this immaculate veneer is a moral predator who stirs the denizens of hell to hound the soul of an innocent woman.

Dan Molomo

Dan Molomo, a cattle tycoon and millionaire. He, too, appears in Elizabeth’s hallucinations, though less frequently than Sello. A demoniac sadist and a debauchee, he gloats over his endless orgies with sexually active women. A self-proclaimed king of the Underworld, a dandy, and a fop, he masks his devilry behind the charm of generosity and gaudy attire.


Eugene, an Afrikaner refugee from South Africa, the founding principal of Motabeng Secondary School. Although extremely taciturn and morose by temperament, he is at bottom a visionary and philanthropist who cares deeply about the human condition in Motabeng. As the originator of the Motabeng local industries cooperative, he works tirelessly toward the improvement of the lives of the local people. He remains one of the few men to inject a feeling of love into Elizabeth’s otherwise seemingly forlorn life.


Medusa, Sello’s accomplice, goddess of the infernal cesspit, and eternal dark companion to Bathsheba. Her main goal is the destruction of Elizabeth. A powerfully built woman, flat-chested and narrow-waisted, with broad hips and large, full, powerful eyes, she pursues her destructive mission with a relentlessness unmatched even in the treatment inflicted on other scapegoats of history, from Buddha to Jesus Christ.


Tom, a twenty-two-year-old white Peace Corps volunteer from America, a close personal friend of Elizabeth. He has a philosophical bent of mind, is affable, and possesses an uncommon capacity to relate to people. With a degree in agriculture, he is a leading force behind the success of the Motabeng Farmers’ Youth-Development project. A pacifist, he is a conscientious objector, a believer in civil and human rights, and a promoter of rapid economic development for poorer nations of the world.


Shorty, Elizabeth’s daredevil seven-year-old son. He is carefree, daft, and jaunty. A precocious and impressionable child with imaginative boldness, he is curious about everything around him. In his speech and mannerisms, he displays a sense of humor that sometimes verges on caustic wit. He remains a lovable child, however, one on whom his mother increasingly relies to stay mentally alive.


Kenosi, Elizabeth’s close companion, approximately her age, a member of the wool-spinning and weaving group. Despite her austere personality, she remains at bottom a generous and selfless person, one in whose presence Elizabeth’s personality comes alive. As a meticulous record keeper and a workhorse, she works with Elizabeth to make a perfect team, always dependent on each other.

Mrs. Jones

Mrs. Jones, a fifty-five-year-old acquaintance of Elizabeth, a mother of three, the oldest volunteer on the Motabeng project. A former Marxist with a coarse, protrusive manner and a passion for tea, she is uninterestingly childlike, often rambling about her long life history. She often fantasizes herself as the modern English Christian good samaritan ministering to the afflicted and the lonely.


Jimmy, Eugene’s sportive but mischievous child, Shorty’s buddy and playmate. A wacky simulator of adult behavior, he is sometimes sassy and recklessly bold, at other times vain but lovable.


Thoko, an energetic farmer and a friend of Elizabeth with a reputation for harvesting huge, succulent pumpkins. Thoko’s pumpkin growing proves to be the main motivating force behind Elizabeth’s venture into agriculture. She provides an important channel of communication between the reclusive Elizabeth and the larger Motabeng village.

Mr. Grahame

Mr. Grahame, the English farm manager with the Farmers’ Youth-Development work group, intensely committed to the success of the Motabeng farm project. He is a Quaker and an austere moral purist for whom the Christian principle of mortification and self-abnegation is an absolute, indispensable necessity.


Birgette, Elizabeth’s buddy, the confidante with whom she shares much in common. An inner-directed young girl, quiet, unobtrusive, self-effacing, and wholly reserved, she radiates charm and comeliness. She is a firm believer in the inherent worth of every human being.


Camilla, a conceited Danish instructor on the Motabeng farm, a loquacious chatterer nicknamed “Rattle Tongue.” She is a prig who pries into other people’s business and displays a racial bigotry that offends those around her.

Mrs. Stanley

Mrs. Stanley, a middle-aged acquaintance of Elizabeth, gracious and motherly, with kindly interest and goodwill. She is an optimist and a genuine source of succor to the poor and the sick. As the one who volunteers to look after Elizabeth’s son while she spends time in the hospital, she is one of the few genuinely affectionate people in the dreadful perturbation of Elizabeth’s life.

BibliographyBrown, Lloyd Wellesley. Women Writers in Black Africa, 1981.Cima, Richard. Review in Library Journal. XCIX (March 15, 1974), p. 775.Kitchen, Paddy. Review in New Statesman. LXXXVI (November 2, 1973), p.657.Ravenscroft, Arthur. “The Novels of Bessie Head,” in Aspects of South African Literature, 1976. Edited by Christopher Heywood.Rubenstein, Roberta. Review in The New Republic. CLXX (April 27, 1974), p. 30.
Categories: Characters