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.
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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