Bessie Head was born in a mental hospital in 1937 to a white mother from a rich family. Head’s father was a black stable hand (at a time when interracial relationships were illegal in South Africa). After her birth, Head was put into foster care. She never knew her parents or her grandparents; her only family was the son to whom she gave birth. Because of her own fragmented, racialized sense of identity and her lack of all family ties, Head’s work frequently focuses on issues of isolation, land, and race, while her characters often struggle with tribalism, feelings of outsiderness, and frustration over political stagnation.
Head’s first novel, When Rain Clouds Gather, is used by the Peace Corps, where it is required reading for members serving as agricultural volunteers in Botswana. Like many of Head’s novels, it is based on her own life experiences. The cattle cooperative that Head writes about is based on the Bamangwato Development Farm cooperative, where she worked in 1966. The character of Makhaya is based on the author herself—both were South African refugees living in Botswana. Makhaya is driven by the desire to find peace after abandoning the dangerous life of a political freedom fighter. He wants to settle into a simple life with a wife and children.
Makhaya’s exposure to Gilbert and the cattle cooperative gives him something positive to strive toward: The cultivation of the land into something to be shared by everyone, for the...
(The entire section is 608 words.)