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 prosperity of all, fits with Makhaya’s need to see beauty in humanity. Gilbert’s ability to live among the people of Botswana and to work toward the success of Golema Mmidi is enough to make Makhaya believe in people again. Likewise, just as Gilbert is the first white person that Makhaya has met who has good intentions toward Africans, so too is Makhaya one of the first Africans Gilbert has met who is not hindered by tribalist ties. The two figures are able to work together toward a community that benefits black people and white people—something unheard of in a country so close to apartheid-era South Africa. Makhaya, like the author he is based on, searches for simple connections to the world in order to make sense of the tragedies and traumas he has experienced.
As in many of her novels, Head showcases the role of women in the task of bettering communities. Paulina Sebeso leads the women to build a plantation of tobacco that will not only provide monetary relief for them all but will also turn their land from desert to pasture. In the heavily patriarchal society that predominates in southern Africa, Paulina’s group has been able to surpass the definition placed on them by their society and make an astounding contribution toward their own livelihood. In this way, the land and the women who cultivate it serve as a metaphor for the rebirth of the community, which, if neglected, can lead to a severe drought of the human spirit. Moreover, working together on the land, they work toward reconciliation between men and women, Africans and Europeans, and the past and the present. They thereby forge a new national identity out of the colonial past. As a land so close to the racial stratification of South Africa, Botswana struggles in Head’s work for an identity separate from colonialism and the racism that remains in the nation of which it was once a protectorate. Written in 1966, When Rain Clouds Gather portrays a country at the hopeful beginning of what it later blossomed into—the Botswana that would come to be known as Africa’s “success story.”