Jerome reviews Bessie Head’s When Rain Clouds Gather

(This is Jerome Kuseh’s second review for Kinna Reads; his first was on Buchi Emecheta’s Second-Class Citizen.  Jerome is a “Ghanaian who mostly blogs about politics and business. He is also a fan of literature and has sometimes written poetry. His business blog is ceditalk.com and for his posts about politics, social issues and his attempts at creative writing, visit readjerome.blogspot.com.”)

A writer’s first published novel sometimes sets the tone for subsequent novels. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart introduced us to the pre-colonial Igbo society that was re-visited in Arrow of God. Ayi-Kwei Armah’s The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born announced the arrival of the post-colonial Ghanaian existentialist struggling to stay afloat in a sea of corruption that had already drowned the rest of society. A task made more difficult by the anchor of family expectations weighing down on his neck. Such a character was also the protagonist of his second novel, Fragments.

Bessie Head’s When Rain Clouds Gather (1968) can similarly be seen as a precursor to the seminal A Question of Power (1973). The novel, just like A Question of Power, is set in a rural community in Botswana, a country in which Bessie Head lived as a refugee for 15 years before being granted citizenship in 1979, 7 years before her death in 1986 at the early age of 49. Both novels also describe the agricultural practices of the rural Batswana.

raincloudsWhen Rain Clouds Gather is a story about a political refugee from South Africa, Makhaya Maseko, who enters Botswana illegally and settles in the rural town of Golema Mmidi. The town is inhabited almost exclusively by women for most of the year, as the men take their cattle to graze for extended periods away from the town. The villagers are aided in agricultural development by an Englishman, Gilbert Balfour, whose attempts to modernise agriculture and get the people to abandon subsistence farming are frustrated by the ineffectiveness of the local government, by the “prejudices of the Batswana people” and by the chief of the town, Matenge.  Matenge bears a grudge against Gilbert for destroying his cattle speculation business through the establishment of a co-operative for the cattle farmers.

Makhaya finds a father figure in the village in the person of Dinorego, who is the father of Gilbert’s love interest and eventual bride, Maria. Makaya, shares with the very religious Mma-Millipede,  a deep resentment of all the years of living under apartheid. Mma Millipede tries unsuccessfully to drain Makhaya of his bitterness by preaching the gospel to him from her Tswana Bible.

The novel takes its title from the strange phenomenon of rain clouds that regularly gather in Golema Mmidi although no rain falls, and the town suffers a drought for most of the year.

When Rain Coluds Gather is centred on Makhaya’s integration into the way of life in Golema Mmdii. He becomes a reliable assistant to Gilbert and struggles to help improve their standard of living while contending with the villainous chief, Matenge. He also falls in love with Paulina Sebeso, a single mother of two whose independence and strong will makes her standout from the other women of the town. When Matenge summons Paulina to his dwelling, apparently to punish her, the whole village accompanies her in solidarity, and Matenge reacts in a way which no one could have predicted.

The detailed description of the agricultural practices of the people in the novel is reminiscent of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and is probably inspired by Bessie’s own gardening.

Bessie shares some of her views in When Rain Clouds Gather. Through Makhaya, she expresses her inability to accept Christian doctrine due to the way in which it had been used as a justification for oppression.

“The philosophy of love and peace strangely overlooked who was in possession of the guns…The contradictions were apparent to Makhaya, and perhaps there was no greater crime as yet than all the lies Western civilization had told in the name of Jesus Christ. It seemed to Makhaya far preferable for Africa if it did without Christianity and Christian double-talk, fat priests, golden images, and looked around at all the thin naked old men who sat under trees weaving baskets with shaking hands. People could do without religions and Gods who died for the sins of the world and thereby left men without any feeling of self-responsibility for the crimes they committed. This seemed to Makhaya the greatest irony of Christianity. It meant that a white man could forever go on slaughtering black men simply because Jesus Christ would save him from his sins. Africa could do without a religion like that.” (AWS Classics, 2008; Page 140)

In all honesty, I preferred reading this book to A Question of Power. It may not be avant-garde or remarkably original, but it is a lot easier to read and I totally loved it!  If you’ve not yet read Bessie Head, I recommend that you start with When Rain Clouds Gather.

 

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4 comments

  1. Great review! I’ll be following Jerome’s advice and start Bessie Head with this novel when I can get it. Thanks!

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  2. i have read two books by her- A Question of Power and Maru. I’ll be picking this the next time i’m at the bookstore.

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