When Rain Clouds Gather by Bessie Head
This is the late South African writer Bessie Head’s first novel, which was published in 1968. When the novel opens, Makhaya is in flight for violent actions taken undermining the colonial system of 1960s South Africa. His escape and subsequent journey in search of self-determination parallels Head’s own coerced migration from apartheid South Africa into the rural and isolated country of Botswana. While Head fled death threats for her political writing, Makhaya is a dissident of a more extreme kind. He is a murderer and a terrorist in South Africa, and it is not enough for him simply to escape physically from the imminent threat on his life. His actions are a complete spiritual and existential rejection of his place in a dehumanizing political structure, and he fatalistically holds onto plans for the bombing he has carried out even as he awaits the right moment to attempt crossing the heavily guarded border. However, even in a destitute backwater, like the village he will find himself in, life is not simple.
Rapidly, Makhaya is taken under the wing of both a kind, old farmer named Dinorego and Dinorego’s adopted British son, Gilbert, who is an enthusiastic and much-learned agricultural specialist. Dinorego sees Makhaya as a potential husband for his daughter. Gilbert sees the village of Golema Mmidi as an opportunity to implement the latest farming techniques in order to create prosperity in his impoverished adopted home. He sees Makhaya as a potential partner in realizing his vision and a fellow stranger to the land but one with a better shot at communicating to the village and integrating Gilbert’s radical ideas into the culture. However, local politics, despots, and opportunists continually create obstacles that impede their progress.
Recent criticism of When Rain Clouds Gather has taken exception to the advocacy of Western agricultural intervention in Africa and tends to see the novel as a somewhat straightforward allegory of three diverse, resourceful outsiders triumphing over a corrupt society. (Like Makhaya and Gilbert, Dinorego is not from Golema Mmidi. He and the character Madame Millipede are from northern Botswana.) However, nothing in this novel is so straightforward, and ambivalence belies a story which on the surface seems to support the idea that the seeming noble intentions of the main characters can form any protection against the insidious political powers already at play.
Probably the best way to tease out greater complexity from the novel is to pay particular attention to the place of women. Not only do the idealistic actions of the men rely on and perhaps exploit the inferior status of women in rural Botswana, a status that would have directly impacted Head and that recapitulates the colonial hierarchy, but each of the three main women characters can be seen as embodying an equally valid alternative or even an implicit critique of each of the leading men. Maria, Dinorego’s daughter, insists on passion to the altruistically rational Gilbert and helps him discover the limits of his egalitarianism. Paula, another northern tranplant, meets Makhaya’s spiritual reserve and repressed violence with abject love and devotion. And Mme. Millipede resists definitively knowing anything about anyone while her great friend Dinorego can decide a complete stranger should marry his daughter after asking a single question.
by Jolie Tulley, guest book reviewer