When Rain Clouds Gather

by Bessie Head, Bessie Amelia Emery

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Why did Chief Matenge commit suicide in When Rain Clouds Gather?

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When Rain Clouds Gather by Bessie Head depicts the clash of cultures and values in rural Botswana as the fledgling nation develops its own identity after decades of colonialism. The novel was published in 1968, two years after Botswana achieved independence in 1966. The novel can be read allegorically, where the tension between Chief Matenge and Makhaya, the protagonist of the story, stands in for broader societal tensions.

Chief Matenge represents factions who want to maintain a traditionally-gendered and extremely-limited monopoly on power. Makhaya, on the other hand, represents the progressive possibilities that arise when all manner of people come together. Makhaya (a non-Botswanan) joins with Gilbert Balfour (a European) to create a farming collective that brings together all manner of "commoners" to create a version of the agricultural system that benefits all the people of the village. Previously Chief Matenge had been the primary beneficiary of the system.

A woman named Paulina also becomes very involved in the new agricultural system and specifically helps create a plantation that will stop desertification of the land and provide an income for the village. Paulina grows to be very respected by other workers despite being a woman who would not necessarily have been respected under a traditional power regime.

In the novel, the death of Paulina's son sets off a chain of events that lead to Chief Matenge's suicide. Paulina's son worked herding cattle and was not valued by his employer. He was sent home while sick despite the long distance he would have to walk, and he died trying to return home. After Paulina discovers the bones of her son she has a funeral ceremony without asking Chief Matenge for permission. The chief does not respond well to this, and Paulina decides to confront him. On her way she is joined by many other workers, until they form a large group outside Chief Matenge's home. At this point, the chief commits suicide rather than face them.

In a broader sense, Matenge's suicide could be read as coming from cowardice: he could not face the angry commoners he once disparaged once they decided to rise up. Allegorically it also functions as a commentary on the power of people unified against oppression. A group of people who come together despite a lack of power and different backgrounds end up toppling an authority figure who is weak in the face of their collective power. In the context of a newly independent Botswana, this can be seen as a call for progressive coalition building for a country struggling with the legacies of oppressive traditions and government.

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