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‘When Rain Clouds Gather’ By Bessie Head

It’s like Bessie Head said to me ‘Girl, take a seat and let me teach you a couple of lessons about life ,’ because this book is a solid lesson that life is complex. I took my time to read this book, there were so many issues to unpack. This was not my first time coming across the author’s work, I have read two other books by Bessie Head (A Question of Power and A Woman Alone). So, I knew what to expect in terms of writing style and themes. For most ‘post-colonial’ authors their stories are centered on pre-colonial times, the advent of colonialism, its effects on the Africans and their ways. What I did not expect was the pain that hit me as I turned the pages. What happens when rain clouds gather?


Author’s Profile

Bessie Amelia Emery Head was a South African writer who had written over ten published books by the time of her death in in 1986. She is one of Africa’s best known writers. As a young woman she left South Africa for Botswana and lived for most of her life in Serowe. Her work is described as reflective. ‘When Rain Clouds Gather was her first published work in 1968 and has traces of her own life story and early stay in Botswana.


My thoughts

This is a gut wrenching tale of Makhaya, a displaced and troubled man looking for a place where he can feel that he is enough. I struggle to view this story as a love story and as Makhaya’s story only, because this is also a tale about the people of Golema Mmidi who do not have much but aim to make the best of what they have. Many of them come from different parts of Botswana, troubled and desolate, they settle in the dry lands of Golema Mmidi. Perhaps, this is the reason why Makhaya finds a place of his own there, they were familiar without him even knowing, it was a home for the homeless.

The main character, a man without a home of his own (so much for a man with a name tied to home), arrives in Botswana as a political refugee running away from the ban imposed upon him in South Africa. Head manages to show that Makhaya’s dilemma is not in isolation, the friends that he makes in the village have also faced this; Gilbert who came all the way from England, Dinorego and Mma Millipede who came from the North, Miriam a young girl finding her own place in the world and Paulina who also came from the North. Even the chief and his brother battle with power and identity issues.

Without giving too much away, Head weaves a web in which every character in this book battles with the questions of power and identity. Life is complex and sometimes we find ourselves questioning our existence and place in the world. All Makhaya knows is that he is a ‘Black Dog,’ unwanted and banished in the land that he ought to call his own. Discrimination has been and continues to be a problem which must be dealt with. In this story, if it is not the racism that tortures Makhaya in South Africa, it is the tribalism in Golema or the fact that he is a refugee all resulting in some sort of violence.

While Makhaya wants to abandon everything to do with his Zulu tribe and tradition, the Batswana in Golema want to hold on to their tribes and traditions relentlessly. He finds himself in a strange world in Golema, yet he is a strange man to the locals, a man who is a stranger to himself seeking light.

The violence inflicted on Mma Millipede does not go unnoticed, at a young age she is forced to marry the chief’s son and suffers emotional abuse throughout the union. This is also the case for Paulina who is dispossessed of her home and all her belongings for a crime she did not commit. Head also touches on the abuse and sexual exploitation of girls because of poverty. Unlike the other women, Maria’s character is said to be aloof and the independence in her strides is clear. Before marrying Gilbert, her father asks her if she wants to marry him and she says yes. I like that she is not hesitant to ask Gilbert difficult and uncomfortable questions, insisting that she will not leave Golema for anything. For the greater part of the book, the women in this village seem to be liberated being the people who carry the future of the village, defying poverty and accepted norms. Is this not too great a burden to bear alone? Makhaya castigates the discrimination against women and their subordination yet Paulina does not understand because the traditional gender roles are clear and firm. To her, they are so clear that it is unbelievable that they can be tampered with. Makhaya shows that they can be challenged.

If Head’s main goal was to show the importance of unity, adaptation and love she manages to do that very well. Despite the unfavourable land in Golema, the people are attached to it and each other, thereby refusing to search for greener pastures. The sense of community and the willingness to adapt to change is inspiring. For it is this spirit which at the end enables the people of Golema to accept a new way of farming (this book has some heavy lessons on agriculture and the landscape of Botswana, the land of two years of good rain and seven years of drought), it gives Mma Millipede a purpose, and Makhaya friendship and a hope for love.

My top 5 quotes from this book are as follows:

1. But witch doctors were human, and nothing, however odd and perverse, need be feared if it was human. (page 6)

2.’Why should men be brought up with a false sense of superiority over women? People can respect me if they wish, but only if I earn it.’ (page 10)

3. Things wouldn’t have been so bad if black men as a whole had not accepted their oppression and added to it with their own taboos and traditions. (page 130)

4. Dinorego was saying, ‘We can progress too, even though we are uneducated men. The mind of an uneducated man works like this: he is a listener and a believer. Most of all he is a believer.’ (page 161)

5. There was always something on this earth man was forced to love and worship by reason of its absence. People in cloudy, misty climates worshiped the sun, and people in semi-desert countries worshipped the rain. (Page178)

Head’s writing style is simple yet at times I got lost in all the information that she was trying to pour out. Generally, I enjoyed reading the story and the information on agriculture & cooperatives is quite useful. It is an authentic story. The imagery used in relation to nature, especially the depiction of rain and water, is excellent and befitting. All conflicts in the plot are resolved, there are no loopholes and there seems to be hope for each character at the end of the day. I love a hopeful story. When rain clouds gather, the rivers within us flow and all good things descend as rain. Not only from the sky but from our hearts too.


Book Details

Title: When Rain Clouds Gather (Heinemann African Writers Series: Classics)

Author: Bessie Head

Genre: Fiction

Pages: 216

Publisher: Heinemann; 1st edition (2008)

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