When the Rain Clouds Gather Summary

In When the Rain Clouds Gather, Makhaya flees South Africa and settles in Botswana as a refugee. He starts working for a British agriculturist named Gilbert, who places him in charge of the women who work on Gilbert's millet plantation. Chief Matenge attempts to halt their progress.

  • Makhaya flees South Africa and settles in the village of Golema Mmidi in Botswana. After dinner with Gilbert, a British agricultural specialist, he's hired to work on Gilbert's farm.

  • Gilbert's work is undermined at every turn by Chief Matenge, a lazy troublemaker. Despite Matenge's interference, Gilbert manages to convince the villagers to build fences around all their farm lands to keep the cattle from grazing freely.

  • Gilbert promotes Makhaya. Makhaya now oversees the women who work on Gilbert's new millet plantation. He falls in love with Paulina, whose son dies tragically in the bush, where they find his skeleton surrounded by vultures.


Bessie Head was one of the first female authors from Africa to attract an international audience. The stories she told were sometimes the first glimpses that people from other countries gained of the strict and often life-threatening segregationist political system in South Africa called Apartheid. When Rain Clouds Gather (1969) was Head's first novel.

When Rain Clouds Gather is set in Botswana, a mostly desolate land that borders South Africa. The protagonist, Makhaya Maseko, is a refugee from South Africa who slips over the Botsanian border to escape imprisonment. Maseko has suffered under the Apartheid system in his homeland. Under Apartheid, all black people had no rights to vote. They were poorly educated and often imprisoned and beaten.

In Botswana, Maseko finds a different way to live. He sets up residence in an experimental self-sufficient village, influenced by a British agriculturist. A local chief has attempted to enslave his people, but he eventually loses his power as the villagers gain an education and the courage to stand up for their rights.

One of the major themes of this novel pits tribal traditions against a more scientific and progressive system of survival and beliefs. The winners in this battle are those who are able to take the best from both belief systems. Another main theme is that of oppression. This is expressed through the narrative that explains Maseko's background and the experiences he suffered under the Apartheid system. However, even in Botswana, some of the local chiefs believe it is their privilege to live at the expense of those people they are in charge of. Therefore, slave labor provides the chiefs with luxuries while the villagers often go hungry.



When Rain Clouds Gather Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Makhaya has fled South Africa because of his involvement in a bomb plot. He crosses the border into Botswana, and after being befriended by Dinorego, he decides to stay in the village of Golema Mmidi. Dinorego immediately introduces him to Gilbert, a British agricultural specialist who has also made the village of Golema Mmidi his home. Dinorego calls Gilbert his son, and explains to Makhaya that Gilbert is a giving person, always wanting to help people become more prosperous. He tells him that Gilbert can even eat the local food—sour milk porridge and goat meat—which has turned European stomachs in the past.

Gilbert has been working diligently on a cattle cooperative in Botswana for three years, and everyone has been looking forward to reaping its benefits except Chief Matenge. Matenge, who is a spoiled and authoritarian troublemaker, has been dispatched by his brother Sekoto to Golema Mmidi to keep Gilbert from becoming a nuisance. Matenge and Gilbert have been at loggerheads for many months over the cooperative, and every advance that Gilbert makes in the project results in two steps back because of Matenge’s intrusions.

Dinorego refers Makhaya to Gilbert, believing the newcomer can assist the Englishman in his agricultural undertakings. Gilbert invites Makhaya to share a meal with him at his house, and he is amazed when Makhaya explains the simple tribal name that he was given. Gilbert decides that Makhaya is not interested in tribalism and decides to take him on as a worker on his farm. He teaches Makhaya how to drive a tractor and gives him lessons in agriculture; Makhaya then utilizes his knowledge of the Tswana language to pass on the European’s agricultural information to the women of the village.

Golema Mmidi has suffered a drought, and without cultivation the land and streams were taken over by dry grass. Gilbert sees that fencing the area would prevent the livestock from freely grazing and would prevent desertification, but Matenge tells people that Gilbert wants to enslave them by putting up fences on their land. Gilbert wins the elders over by showing them the progress made by fencing his own land. Soon, everyone is interested in the changes that Gilbert...

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When Rain Clouds Gather Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Survival and rebirth resonate in When Rain Clouds Gather. The protagonist, Makhaya Maseko, nervously waits in an elderly man’s hut in Barolong, South Africa, before daring to cross into independent Botswana. Makhaya burns a note linking him to a bombing plan and reveals he dislikes his tribe and has been imprisoned. Police sirens wail as they pass in the darkness before he climbs barbed wire fences to freedom. Moving blindly in Botswana, Makhaya hears melodious bells that replace the harsh sound of sirens.

Makhaya spends the night with an older woman and a girl, who tell him the bells are worn by the cattle, which move freely. After sunrise, a truck driver offers Makhaya a ride to a crossroads where Makhaya hopes to register as a refugee. At the police station, the policeman knows Makhaya’s name, showing him a newspaper article identifying him as a saboteur. Makhaya denies that charge, and the officer says he realizes that Makhaya only thinks about violence but does not pursue it.

Makhaya sees an elderly man, Dinorego, outside the post office and tells him that he desires contentment. Dinorego, an outsider originally from northern Botswana, contemplates Makhaya’s fortitude for living in rural Botswana, commenting that God has blessed his village, which is free of crime and violence and rich with generosity and tolerance compared to urban South Africa. Dinorego invites Makhaya to his and his daughter Maria’s home in Golema Mmidi. Here, Makhaya encounters a community of women because most of the male villagers are at cattle posts tending their livestock. Dinorego introduces Makhaya to an Englishman, Gilbert Balfour, who aids the natives by providing scientific and cooperative agricultural methods to ease impoverishment. The village’s punitive subchief, Matenge, is aware of...

(The entire section is 743 words.)

When Rain Clouds Gather Bibliography

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Abrahams, Cecil, ed. The Tragic Life: Bessie Head and Literature in Southern Africa. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 1990. The essays in this collection discuss the themes commonly found within Head’s work, as well as the author’s imagery, narrative strategies, feminist discourses, and representations of madness.

Brown, Coreen. The Creative Vision of Bessie Head. Flushing, N.Y.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2003. Discusses Head’s life and the ways in which her novels reflect the personal struggles she faced in her lifetime. Provides a good critical interpretation of each text and addresses the importance of each one within Head’s oeuvre.

Eilersen, Gillian Stead. Bessie Head: Thunder Behind Her Ears—Her Life and Writing. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 1995. A basic biography; provides useful background to the author’s work by recounting her life and exile.

Head, Bessie. A Woman Alone. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 1990. Collection of Head’s essays, in which she writes about her troubled beginnings as a “colored” woman growing up in South Africa and about her migration to Botswana. She also discusses the process of writing and how her life experiences have informed her fiction.

Ibrahim, Huma, ed. Emerging Perspectives on Bessie Head. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 2006. This collection of commentary from scholars around the globe constitutes a detailed and comprehensive critical work on Head. Evaluates Head’s contribution to the canon of African literature, as well as the range and scope of her fiction and nonfiction.

Johnson, Joyce. Bessie Head: The Road of Peace of Mind—A Critical Appreciation. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2008. Focuses on Head’s creative process; seeks to detect and analyze the author’s use of oral traditions in her written work.

Sample, Maxine, ed. Critical Essays on Bessie Head. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Greenwood Press, 2003. A collection of scholarly essays that focus on themes commonly found in Head’s work. Maureen Fielding’s essay focusing on agriculture and healing and Maxine Sample’s commentary on space and perspective are both equally imperative to anyone interested in When Rain Clouds Gather.