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When Rain Clouds Gather, by Bessie Head.

July 12, 2013

When Rain Clouds Gather, by Bessie Head. Oxford: Heinemann, 1995.  First published 1969.



A wise and wonderful novel by a classic South African writer about an insular man who escapes to Botswana and joins a drought-stricken farming community there as a refugee.

When Makhaya escapes from South Africa, he is welcomed into the community where Gilbert, an English agricultural expert, is trying to introduce more drought-resistant farming practices.  Despite Makhaya’s hesitancy to trust a white man, they work well together.  Makhaya continues to seek a way to live that will remove him from the “hatred and humiliation” that he has known in his homeland.  He comes to love the land to which he has come and finds happiness in the setting of the sun.  Botswana is caught in a long-term drought, however, that causes widespread suffering.  Eventually Makhaya is able to put down the walls he has built to protect himself.  He realizes that he doesn’t need to wait till he finds a perfect Utopia to reach out and love.  “Loving one woman had brought him to this realization: that it was only people who could bring the real rewards of living, that it was only people who give love and happiness.”  Despite the continuation of pain, there was always hope that the rain would come.

When Bessie Head published Rain Clouds Gather in 1969, she was one of the first generation of African women to achieve recognition as an author.   In writing it, she drew on her own experience as a refugee from apartheid South African.  Yet her book is not filled with hatred or blame at whites or at colonization.  Makhaya dislikes whites and wants them to leave Africa, but his complaints seem somewhat abstract and unrelated to the relationships in the village.  Gilbert is a positive figure and becomes a close friend of Makhaya.  He honestly wants to help the villagers and to put down roots in their midst.  He recognizes his own limitations, and he is able to turn to Makhaya and others to help in doing what he cannot.  Both Gilbert and Makhaya oppose what they call “tribalism,” the insistence on always following patterns of life established in the past.  Both seek changes that will enhance village life.  Makhaya takes on the job of teaching the women, the traditional tiller of the ground, to raise a cash crop.

In this book, the most pressing evil is that of Indigenous leaders, caring only to increase their possessions and power at the expense of others.  Men like Matenge, the local chief, maintain their tribal power by treating people like sheep and assuring white colonists that is the way to control them.  Such men even take perverse pleasure in causing pain of those they see as powerless.  “People were not people to him but things he kicked about, pawns to be used for his own amusement.“  In addition, the amoral force of the drought causes extensive suffering and leaves humans powerless before it.   Living in region prone to droughts, I could appreciate the longing for rain which runs through this book and of the beauty such lands reveal.

While Makhaya and Gilbert are the leading characters in this book, the women form the backbone of the community.  Head writes extensively about their strength and their suffering.  In several passages she decries the ways in which African women had to pretend they were inferior to men, despite how dependent their families were on the work they do.

No one worked harder than Botswana women, for the whole burden of providing food for big families rested on them. It was their sticks that thrashed the corn at harvesting time and their winnowing baskets that filled the air for miles and miles around with the dust of husks, and they often, in addition to broadcasting the seed when early rains fell, took over the tasks of the men and also ploughed the land with oxen.

The women complain, and welcome the ways in which Makhaya treats them as equals with brotherly attention.  Yet her women are not feminists.  They accept that they are explicitly dependent on the men.  I had trouble relating to their submissiveness, but I came to admire them.

Head is an excellent writer, able to convey the African landscape and its people with grace.  She never preaches but shows us her point through her characters.  I am not entirely sure why I found her book so moving.  Perhaps because of Head’s insights, especially her recognition that we must open ourselves to pain if we are to experience love.  This book reflects what Head once said.

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 enough 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.

I heartily recommend this book to all, especially those interested in southern Africa and in an important, African author.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. July 14, 2013 11:13 pm

    What a great cover. I’m sure I’d love this book – “people is people” is exactly what an Irish house painter said to us in an Irish pub on a rainy day, though he said “people are people”! – if I could find time to read it. You seem to manage to whizz through books … wish I could. Somehow I keep getting distracted by other jobs and am not reading any more now than I did when I was working. How is that?

  2. July 15, 2013 10:03 am

    Yes. I love the cover, too. And the book, too. It was a small and easy read, but one with power.
    I read so much because my health problems interfere with my doing much else that I want and need to be doing.

    • July 16, 2013 1:36 am

      Oh dear, I guess I can do without the health problems. I’m glad you’ve found a great way of contributing to the world outside despite health issues.

      • July 16, 2013 11:30 am

        Me, too. That is why blogging is important for me.

  3. July 24, 2013 12:09 pm

    A beautiful review, Marilyn. I also love the cover.

  4. jeanique permalink
    August 27, 2013 5:26 pm

    Currently I’m in grade 11 and I’m really enjoying Maru and its good and educational…I can’t wait to read this novel 🙂 and many more.#SalutationsToBessieHead

  5. September 15, 2013 9:52 pm

    nice quote ! “human beings are important.”

  6. Faith Zandile Mkhize permalink
    February 24, 2015 2:22 am

    “You may see no rivers on the ground but we keep rivers inside us.That is why all good things and good people are called rain. According to this statement ,can somebody tell me how can I discuss or explain this statement by referring to the novel .

    • February 24, 2015 11:00 am

      I can only guess, but the novel was about good people bringing to people in need.


  1. Welcome to Bessie Head Week: July 6 – 12, 2013 | Kinna Reads

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