Friday, July 12, 2013

248. When Rain Clouds Gather by Bessie Head*

When Rain Clouds Gather (AWS Classics, 1968; 199) is Bessie Head's first novel published five years after she moved from South Africa to Serowe, Botswana, where most of her stories, including this, are set. The story is largely about the lives of the people as they work to earn a living on the deserts and droughts of that part of Botswana. It is about their fears, their hopelessness, their struggle to improve their lots and their impotence.

The men in Golema Mmidi are cattle rearers; the women, crop-growers. They are faced with a unique problem, drought. Makhaya, a political ex-convict, running from the oppression in neighbouring South Africa finds his way into Golema Mmidi. Gilbert, a British had returned to the village with his head full of ideas, on how to turn the lives of the people in the village around and make them practice their agriculture in a way that would be more profitable and sustainable. Paulina had moved from the northern part of Botswana to Golema Mmidi after the death of her husband. And Dinorego is an old man whose influence is wide and understands change. All these are progressive-minded individuals who wanted change. But they must first overcome anti-progressive traditions and individuals who are bent to be the only beneficiaries of good things. Specifically, they must confront and defeat Chief Sekoto's brother Matenge - a man of whom it would be an understatement to describe as the devil's incarnate. They must also fight unfounded long-held traditions like the type of crops grown, land ownership, mode of grazing cattle and others if they are to move from a weather-dependent agriculture to an all-year round agricultural systems that are profitable and sustainable.

One could argue that in this story, Bessie Head's vision that a story should be about a people and damned black, damned white, was realised.
If I had to write one day I would just like to say people is people and not damn White, damn Black. Perhaps if I was a good writer I could still write damn White, damn Black and still make people live. Make them real. Make you love them, not because of the colour of their skin but because they are important as human beings. [Let me tell a story in Tale of Tenderness and Power, 17]
For she wrote a story that is about people. Gilbert, though British, settled in the village, lived the lives they were living, and work to make an impact on their agricultural system from within. However, before he could make any of his desired changes, he worked to understand the people, their culture and their tradition. Thus, she explicitly showed that villainousness is colour blind. One is not evil because one is white or black. One is evil because one has allowed himself to be evil. This could also have been the case because of the political status of Botswana as a protectorate and therefore never witnessing the atrocities of the kind that drove Makhaya to cross the border. Similarly, one would have thought that Makhaya, having suffered denigration and abuse at the hands of White folks in South Africa, would have behaved retributively towards Gilbert or that the relationship would have been an uneasy one. However, the cordiality of their relationship, the ease with which they got on right from the start is indicative of the fact that the political problems in South Africa then was a colour problem only as far as the policies affected or discriminated against them. It was not a natural hatred between blacks and whites, so that had there not ab initio been any racially divisive policies, there would have been peaceful coexistence.

Bessie showed how backward the power chieftaincy offers, not the institution itself, could be. Matenge, because he was the chief of Golema Mmidi worked hard to thwart every progressive effort that threatened his privileged position as the sole beneficiary of progressive changes. For instance, he saw no reason why anyone should have his roof covered with zinc sheets apart from him. Or why the Gilbert's cooperative society deposed him as the sole cattle dealer in the village, thus ripping him of all the super-normal profits he used to make. In every society for that matter there are the Matenges and those of Gilbert's cohorts; the few oppressive haves and the oppressed masses of have-nots, the former appropriating resources away from the latter; the Solomons and the God. One characteristic of the Solomons is that even when educated, knowledge (or wisdom) is secondary to material possessions. However, though the Gods are greater than the former, they walk with no shoes, in rough cloth, wandering up and down the dusty footpaths in the hot sun, with o bed on which to rest their heads.

However, Bessie was not entirely against traditional life. She talked positively on the social capital it affords and how easy it is to get people to toe a line once you have convinced the right people and showed them evidence. As an Africanist, of sorts, she believed in togetherness but togetherness that lead to progress. For instance, the cooperative mode of operation - farming, cattle-rearing - was placed above the capitalist approach of skyscrapers. This belief in an alternate governance system is seen in Gilbert who, coming in from such a capitalist country, did not express any such inclinations but sought to improve on the communal mode of property ownership which results in the Tragedy of the Commons and is therefore unsustainable - financially and environmentally.

Bessie used the weather and climatic conditions to represent the life of the people. The drought represents their hopelessness and an opportunity to change. It kept them in a poverty trap so that every now and then their savings - in the form of cattle - is lost, taking them back to where they began. The rain represents blessings that mitigates their hardships. But only for awhile.  However, Bessie showed that change and progress is universal but could not be attained seredipitously but only when people put their minds to it and work together as a unit towards it. The unity of purpose is what ensures progress. It also means the identification and confrontation of the common enemy. Sometimes this calls for having faith, believing that the rains would fall even when the rain clouds have not gathered.

When Rain Clouds Gather shows Bessie's realist approach to writing. She understands her motif and with her keen observation cuts through the heart of the issues flawlessly. It is recommended.
* Bessie Head would have been 76 years on July 6, 2013. This is to celebrate the author. This post and others are in celebration of the author who suffered much.


  1. Hello Nana, thanks for dropping by on my blog:)
    And here I am dropping by on yours, to find - what synchronicity! that you have reviewed a book I have just ordered. I haven't read the review yet but will come back here when I have and read it then.

    1. Thanks Lisa Hill for passing by. I really enjoy reading your reviews on your site. Bessie is a wonderful writer.

  2. Great review, Nana. This novel stands the test of item because the issues discussed in them resonates so hard in these times we are in. The problems are not going to go away, because they are human conditions and we are so flawed as humans, with our greed and selfishness.

    1. Thanks RP. yes, I agree... Bessie's novels are a real classic and germane to the current issues.


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