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.