This book is part of my required reading for the Unisa BA course that I’m busy with at time of writing, so please forgive me if I go a little deeper with this review than my regular offerings.
Firstly, I need to look at the context in which this book was written. Bessie Head, the child of a white mother and a black father, was born during a time in South Africa when interracial marriages were illegal, so she grew up within a racially segregated country. She was also involved in the media as a journalist, which naturally made her more outspoken and vulnerable to persecution due to her opinions, which were contrary to the government of the time. Consequently, she went to live in Botswana in 1964 as a refugee rather than endure the apartheid regime.
These issues lend authenticity to When the Rain Clouds Gather, as one of the primary characters, Makhaya, is a South African insurgent who has fled to Botswana, where he plans to live in exile. He is caught in a social no man’s land – a wanted man in South Africa, and unwanted by elements in Botswana.
In the novel, Head spends a lot of time examining the human condition, especially in the conflict that arises between traditionalism, colonialism and the need for progressive thought. Botswana at the time is a land administered by the British, but is still ruled by tribal chiefs. Great disparity exists between a wealthy elite (the chiefs) and the common folk. There is little in the way of education, and people prefer to stick to their time-honoured traditions as a way of life.
This in itself would not present much of a problem if it weren’t for the fact that the Botswanan countryside is in the grips of a severe drought, and traditions have exacerbated issues such as soil erosion, which only compound the people’s plight. Much of the novel is related to the discussion of agriculture, and people’s relationship with the land and each other.
Head puts great stock in the powerful metaphor of water in this thirstland, from which the title of the book derives.
“You may see no rivers on the ground but we keep the rivers inside us. that is why all good things and all good people are called rain. Sometimes we see the rain clouds gather even though not a cloud appears in the sky. It is all in our heart.”
People are central to this story – as agents of change and progress, as nurturers, and of course obstacles that result in great evil.
Primary to the narrative is Makhaya, who is troubled, and whose faith in people has been damaged. When he arrives at the village of Golema Mmidi, he is rootless and has no real plans going forward. He has a lot of residual anger too, and an overwhelming feeling of helplessness, and of not being able to create the change he’d like to see. We learn that he is a man who is dissatisfied with traditional values and who also has no great love for authority figures (which is understandable, considering that he has fled South Africa).
Yet in the village, he encounters a white man, Gilbert, who has also rejected his home (Britain) for the life of a pioneer in Africa. In the UK, Gilbert is stifled, forced to live according to social conventions. He is once again coming up against tradition in Africa, yet he is a dreamer who sees boundless potential for prosperity, and here he feels he is in a position to inspire those around him to strive for this brighter future.
Together, Makhaya and Gilbert work for a change for the better in the village, because they are able to think outside the box and are also not afraid to try new methods when they see that the old ways aren’t working.
But we are also faced with the two chiefs. Paramount Chief Sekoto is not a bad man, though he enjoys the many fruits of his powerful position. It is at his behest that the biggest decisions affecting his lands and his people are made. For all his faults, he is a generous man, and he has a good relationship with the British administrators and his own people. Although his younger brother Matenge is the opposite to him, that same generosity of spirit sees him give Matenge the benefit of his doubt.
Chief Matenge rules over Golema Mmdi but he is a small-minded, petty man, concerned that he should be respected because of who and what he is. For him it is all about the principle of being the one in power rather than caring for and guiding a community as a true leader. Consequently, Matenge sees the free-spirited Makhaya as a threat to his authority, and machinates against him.
Perhaps the most telling is Head’s way of framing the attitudes of the tradition-bound chiefs:
“The Matenges and Paramount Chiefs Sekotos did not have to lift up the spades and dig the earth. It cost them nothing to say yes, yes, yes, build your dam because we have no water in this country. But it gave them deep and perverted joy to say no, no, no.”
Two women feature. One is Maria, the daughter of the elder Dinorego, who is an apt counterpart for Gilbert. Their courtship takes place in fits and starts, but its conclusion is nonetheless a cause for joy in an otherwise bleak setting. Paulina, the other primary female character, has her sights set on Makhaya, but they must first see eye to eye, and make important realisations about themselves before anything can move ahead.
In the end, life goes on for the villagers, despite death, despite drought, and the beautiful simplicity of love and family, and their interconnectedness with each other and the land. All this continues, despite the intentions of the powers that be – the joy and goodness of people flow through everything.