When Rain Clouds Gather

by Bessie Head, Bessie Amelia Emery

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When Rain Clouds Gather Summary

When Rain Clouds Gather is a novel by Bessie Head in which protagonist Makhaya flees South Africa and settles in Botswana. He starts working for a British agriculturist named Gilbert.

  • Makhaya flees South Africa and settles in Botswana. He is hired to work for an agricultural specialist named Gilbert.

  • Gilbert's agricultural work is undermined at every turn by Chief Matenge, a lazy troublemaker.

  • Makhaya falls in love with Paulina. When Paulina's son dies, she fails to report the death to Chief Matenge, who takes offense. A crowd follows Paulina to Matenge's house, and a fearful Matenge commits suicide.

  • Makhaya and Paulina happily marry.


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Last Updated September 19, 2022.

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.


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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...

(This entire section contains 905 words.)

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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 initiates, but their interest only serves to infuriate Matenge. When Matenge finds out that Gilbert has hired a refugee on his farm, he approaches his brother Sekoto, who informs him that he will have to speak to the police.

Despite being burdened with the anger he carries as a result of living as a second-class citizen in apartheid-era South Africa, Makhaya succeeds in winning over everyone he meets, including the police constable, George Appleby-Smith. George agrees to support Makhaya after questioning him. The constable believes that Makhaya’s quiet and respectful deameanor underscores his past, which at times makes him indignant over situations that he cannot control. Makhaya also meets Mma Millipede, who takes an instant liking to him based on his vulnerable state. Without realizing it, Makhaya has also made an admirer of Paulina Sebeso, who is attracted to Makhaya’s good looks. Unaware of her interest, however, Makhaya unintentionally spurns Paulina’s advances. When Gilbert undertakes a large-scale millet plantation project, he puts Makhaya in charge of instructing the women of the village. It is only after the millet project begins that Makhaya starts to realize Paulina’s feelings.

Paulina is a single mother to two children. Her eight-year-old son works at the cattle post for most of the year, in return for which Paulina receives payments that help her and her daughter subsist. When a famine strikes the cattle post, many cattle die, and the men who have been at the post return to their villages. Paulina asks Rankoane, one of the ranchers, why he did not send her son home. He responds that he expected her son to have arrived two weeks ago, as he had sent him home with a severe cough. Distraught, Paulina decides to go into the bush to find him. Makhaya accompanies her, and they find the bones of her son huddled in an empty mud hut. After returning to Golema Mmidi, Paulina holds a funeral service for her son that the whole village attends. A week passes, and Paulina receives a visit from one of Matenge’s servants, who tells her that she has offended the chief and must report to the court.

Paulina’s offense to the chief is her failure to report her son’s death. A crowd of Paulina’s friends has gathered at her house, expecting to report for work to begin planting millet. The women accompany Paulina to Chief Matenge’s house, and on the way they draw a large crowd of other villagers, including Dinorego, Makhaya, and Gilbert. The crowd waits, unsure of what to expect, until George Appleby-Smith arrives. Makhaya tires of waiting and breaks down the door; he finds the body of Matenge waiting, hanging from a rope. George determines that Matenge was fearful of the crowd and decided to take his own life; he phones Sekoto to explain that his brother has killed himself.

Makhaya is haunted by the vision of vultures surrounding the body of Paulina’s son. He struggles to come to terms with the idea of a world where children can face such a wretched end. He finds comfort in his ability to create a new beginning with Paulina, to whom he proposes marriage; she happily agrees.


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