Bessie Galethebege who is a devoted believer in God,

Bessie Head’s “Heaven is Not Closed” entails
a story that encompasses and parallels the situations Head dealt with growing
up in an apartheid society in South Africa. A biography about her, “A Brief Sketch
of the Life of Bessie Head” outlines the struggles that she encountered, “she
suffered from poverty, racial segregation, and gender discrimination…worried
about her own ‘delicate nervous balance.'” Head weaves her past experiences,
her biography, into her stories and exposes us to the cultural injustice and
racial prejudice she coped with. Her story, “Heaven is Not Closed,” accurately
presents the struggles of the victims who were under the oppressive colonial
rule. Throughout her story, we see that as a victim herself she struggles to
gain a sense of identity as she creates a story where one must choose between
one’s culture or religion, most specifically, Christianity. Head makes an
effort to “demonstrate how cultural and ideological domination are both
articulated and resisted” by questioning the purpose of living a dichotomous
way—culture or ideology, Black or White. In a way, writing becomes a sort of a
release for Head—a way for her to release her anger, to rebel against the
injustice that not only had been done to African people but also to herself.

“Heaven is Not Closed” is a story of a
woman named Galethebege who is a devoted believer in God, a Christian woman.
Her husband, Ralokae, however, is an ‘unbeliever,’ and he chooses to remain so
as he practices the Setswana custom. Their union is unlikely and forecasts
issues that are to occur throughout the story, such as the marriage ceremony.
Before Galethebege marries Ralokae, Galethebege expresses that she desires to
marry in the Church, in the Christian way to which Ralokae refuses. He protests,
and in his protest, it seems as if Bessie Head possesses Ralokae by channeling
her feelings through him and voicing her thoughts against Christianity—”there
was something wrong with the people who had brought the word of the Gospel to
the land. Their love was enslaving black people, and he could not stand it.
That was why he was without belief. It was the people he did not trust. They
were full of tricks” (Head, 9). The spread of Christianity proved to be an
unpleasant experience for the African people as it made its way through to
dominate them and overshadow their culture. The colonizers who brought the
religion, missionaries most specifically, misrepresented and misinterpreted the
religion. They brought wrong intentions—evil intentions—when they brought it.
They did not intend on solely spreading Christian faith, and instead used it as
a mechanism for taking away power from the African people. And with that power,
they built the influence that they are far superior compared to the African
people, treating them as if they are primitive, not knowledgeable, unrefined. We
see that Ralokae, a firm believer of his Setswana customs, decides to resist
Christianity even though “the God might be all right” (Head, 9). To Ralokae,
Christianity does not work to discriminate others and cast them aside; it is
supposed to congregate people and encourage them to exchange love and
compassion to one another.

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Bessie Head criticizes the Church’s
attempt to colonize the people and seems to call for a need for decolonization
to happen. The mission of the Church, in this story, seems to be to control Black
people by having them undermine their customs—which is done through rejecting
their passage to heaven if they are to continue practicing their customs. The
Church no longer remains as ‘holy’ in our imagination, and we start to
associate ‘religion’ with ‘deceit.’ By criticizing their customs, the
colonizers look down on the African people and their identity, and they
knowingly create a pyramid of hierarchy where African people are placed at the
bottom. The lack of respect, the lack of understanding, the lack of attention
and effort to embrace the customs is evident. The sole purpose of bringing
religion to Africa is not, by any means, to spread the good faith but to use it
as a way to gain control over those they consider to be ‘weak’ and can take
advantage of. The Church becomes an active agent under the government’s control
that aims to transform the natives of the land into slaves. Throughout “Heaven
is Not Closed,” the priest acts as a representative of the Church—acting as one
who makes the decisions, acting as the leader for the area he is assigned. He is
supposed to be a symbol of the Church as well as God’s messenger. However, just
as Ralokae presumes, there is something evil in their intentions. The priest,
in turn, creates an inaccurate representation of God as he fails to listen to
Galethebege’s plea and request for help concerning her conflicting thoughts on
her impending marriage ceremony. He becomes completely indifferent and
ignorant. And instead of helping her with her concerns, he only leaves her with
“heaven is closed to the unbeliever” (Head, 11) and proceeds to excommunicate
her from the Church, punishing her for marrying a man who is unwilling to
follow the Christian path of life. The role the priest plays is significant
here in that he preaches the word of God, he takes advantage of the word of
God, to control people instead of being of service or guidance to them. He
takes advantage of God’s name and his judgment, making it seem as if he alone
is the one who decides who deserves to go to heaven and who does not. By wielding
this power, he acts as if he is the righteous authoritative figure in making
these kinds of decisions.

On the other hand, when Galethebege
consults with the priest, she does not expect to be confronted with harshness
or even exile from the Church. She expects to be given advice, be comforted, feel
at ease, be given the ultimate solution to her problem regarding the man she is
to marry, the ‘unbeliever.’ However, having devoted her heart to Christianity
and being rejected by it, she ends up feeling a sense of abandonment as she
gets excommunicated from the Church, a symbol of separating her ties with God. But,
she does not let her excommunication falter the communication she has with God.
Galethebege loves Ralokae, but their contrasting beliefs seem to suggest that
she can only choose one—her devotion to Christianity or Ralokae. The way she
confronts the issue, though, seems to paint a different picture as we see Galethebege
being able to handle the situation in a different way from what is seen from
the outside.

Head not only focuses on the misuse of
power that is present in the spread of Christianity in the native land, but she
also seems to elicit that the misuse of power might be present between the
sexes where males are dominant over females during the period. Even though she
suggests this, Head demonstrates the equal relationship that is shared between
Galethebege and Ralokae to combat not only the issue surrounding gender
inequality, but also the issue of culture and ideologies clashing against one
another. Although Galethebege is excommunicated by the Church and eventually
decides to marry Ralokae under Setswana custom, Galethebege does not completely
submit herself to her husband. Ralokae, in response, does not intend on
diminishing his wife’s beliefs nor does he intend on controlling her either. He
does not bother to intrude. Instead, he acknowledges her need to freely
navigate outside her boundaries. He “smiles” when he sees Galethebege
practicing her faith (Head, 12). Both Galethebege and Ralokae create a
compromising relationship, in which both are free to exercise their own beliefs
and at the same time share their love for each other. Although it seems like
Galethebege submits herself to her husband’s request, getting married under the
Setswana custom, we see that she does not abandon her faith. She continuously
prays to God at the corner of her house, because she realizes that the priest’s
words that “heaven is closed to the unbeliever” (Head, 11) are insignificant.
Rather, she discovers that she can still communicate with God and that her
excommunication does not mean that God has also banished her. Even so, she is
not entirely convinced that doing this would mean that she is a ‘Christian.’
She still fears that her excommunication is one thing that restricts her entry
to heaven. Her active role in praying daily, as well as the position she is
found in when she passes on, become an undeniable portrayal of her
atonement—”Perhaps her simple and good heart had been terrified that the doors
of heaven were indeed closed on Ralokae and she had been trying to open them” (Head,
12). Galethebege’s brave and undying act of exercising her right to express her
beliefs demonstrates that she becomes a figure that embraces both her customs
and her beliefs and proves that there is space in heaven for people who
practice Setswana custom. That the Setswana custom is not a “heathen’s” (Head,
11) custom at all.

Head’s representation of Ralokae and Galethebege
becomes a symbol of those taking action for themselves, in fighting against the
colonist’s control. Ralokae and Galethebege’s union and Galethebege’s
excommunication from the Church triggers a response in the village in that it
leads the villagers to decide that it is necessary to resist the authoritative
control of the colonists, which leads them to stop attending the Church. Head
effectively designs the relationship between Galethebege and Ralokae to
illustrate an example of what a proper distribution of power embodies, unlike
the imbalance of power that is present between the colonizers and the
colonized. She purposely makes it so that the union between Galethebege and
Ralokae does not result in one adapting to a different custom or the other
reluctantly practicing the Christian religion. She makes it so that there is
freedom in choosing what one has a calling for. She makes it so that one is
equal to the other—Head refutes the need to create instability or in making
both oppose one another or one submissive to or dominant over the other. And it
becomes significant to note that both religion and culture can coexist if the
individual chooses to practice both. However, Head’s literature seems to shed
light on the fact that one’s culture is something that will forever be
ingrained, that it becomes a vital component in defining one’s identity.
Culture is inborn, and one is bound to practice it or rely on it at some point
in time whereas religion, is something that can gradually develop over time and
requires more time to attach oneself to—it requires active participation. Religion
and culture may coexist, but they do not share qualities with one another, for
instance, the Setswana customs is not of Christianity and, reciprocally,
Christian values are not of the Setswana custom. They are both entirely
different figures that work with each other in developing one’s identity.

Bessie Head’s “Heaven is Not Closed”
is a form of art that brings out the anger that Head has with the world she
lives in. She not only writes her piece to situate people on the need for
decolonization to occur, but she dedicates it to herself, giving herself an
opportunity to grow. She does it to clarify herself, and her position as a
writer. She writes these stories to come to full terms with herself, to find
resolutions to the conflicts she had when she felt subjugated and threatened by
the colonizers. She takes pleasure in creating resolutions in the fictional
world because she can create an ideal world for herself. Through her
characters, she acts in ways perhaps she might have wished to when she was also
dealing with the same problem. The ending of “Heaven is Not Closed” provides a
satisfactory ending where culture and religion do not need to remain in
conflict with one another. And as a writer, she holds the authority to control
what happens after every scene of her story, creating space to project her
hopes that the future will not repeat the past any longer.