The primary opposition that Bessie Head presents in the novel is between foreign, imposed innovations and native traditions. These conflicts are primarily set in Golema Mmidi, a rural village in Botswana. Another realm of conflict concerns the political and racial strife that is tearing up South African society.
The English agricultural officer, Gilbert, represents the foreign perspective and the technologies of modernity. He is determined to reform the local farming and ranching practices. One of his main projects is enclosure of the commons, based on his concern that unhindered livestock grazing is damaging the land. At the other extreme is Chief Matenge, the indigenous tribal leader. He is extremely concerned over the foreign interference because it threatens to destabilize the existing power structure. Denying any cattle-herder free access to the grazing land violates the collective rights of the entire community.
The rivalry between the characters and their divergent approaches to society and technology exerts a strong influence on the protagonist, Makhaya Maseko, who has fled apartheid and political persecution in South Africa. Although he understands the importance of indigenous lifeways, he knows that the land must somehow be preserved for the future benefit of all the people, and he is sympathetic to the Englishman’s good intentions. Makhaya also serves as a cultural broker by translating and teaching the local farmers.