Botswana is a landlocked country; sparsely populated, and mostly desert. At the time it gained independence, the country was one of the poorest in Africa. Today, Botswana is one of Africa’s richest countries.
In When Rain Clouds Gather (published by Heinmann in 1995), Bessie Head takes us back in time to pre-independence Botswana. As the story begins, the reader is introduced to Makhaya, the protagonist, a handsome young man from South Africa, who has just been released from jail. Unable to put up with the harsh treatment of the black people in his home country he decides to flee, in the hope that will find the peace of mind he has always dreamed of in the vast land that makes up the rest of Africa. Makhaya’s reasons for fleeing were simple: “……..not marry and have children in a country where black men were called ‘boy’ and ‘dog’ and ‘kaffir’.
That is how he ends up in the village of Golema Mmidi, in the heart of rural Botswana. The author describes Golema Mmidi, at the time of Makhaya’s entry, as a country where after two years of good rain and seven years of drought, the rain clouds still gathered in September; a country whose people have been living under oppressive chiefs. Makhaya is welcomed into the vllage by Denorego who introduces him to Gilbert, an English agricultural expert who has stayed in Golema Mmidi for three years trying to upgrade the village’s traditional farming methods to modern ones. As the story progresses, it is very clear to the reader that despite the pressures of tradition, the opposition of the local chiefs to development and the harsh climate threaten to bring tragedy to the community, but strangely there remains hope for the future. Maria, Gilbert’s wife points out to Makhaya, when he wonders how the people can withstand all the suffering, the drought, the death of cattle: “You may see no rivers on the ground but we keep 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 gathers in the sky, it is all in our heart.” Sometimes disaster comes with change, with the death of the cattle, people begin to think of taking up crop production adapting Gilbert’s modern methods, and they begin to think of being free from the oppressing chiefs.
In When Rain Clouds Gather , the author explores the consequences of being stuck in tradition and resisting change; and oppression. But in the end the story shows that sometimes, mankind can only persevere through so much, and that circumstances might force people to take action, albeit non-violently. For it is known that “Violence breeds hatred and hatred breeds violence. Hatred can only be defeated by love and peace.”
Bessie Head was born in South Africa in 1937, but died tragically in 1986, leaving behind a good collection of literally works. She is one of Africa’s best known female writers and this was her first novel. Her life was a traumatic one and one can say she drew heavily from her experiences as a permanent refugee in Botswana to write When Rain Clouds Gather.