In When Rain Clouds Gather, Head tells the intertwining stories of several characters and circumstances. Readers follow the successes, failures, and challenges of a South African refugee, a British expatriate, local chiefs, a British inspector, and several Golema Mmidi villagers. Interspersed throughout this storytelling, however, the author (either through her narrator or her characters) often thinks about spiritual, philosophical, and psychological reasons for why life in Africa is the way it is. In the process, the narrator subtly lays out what might be called a history of life in southern Africa, relating what has gone on before to explain what still exists and what might occur tomorrow. Through various characters, she personifies the oppression, customs, trials, failures, successes, and hopes that she herself might have experienced. She also hints at what might lie ahead.
Taking on the discussion of oppression, Head offers the character of Matenge, chief of Golema Mmidi, and the system of apartheid in South Africa that overshadows the life of her protagonist, Makhaya. One might say that both Matenge and apartheid represent the worst of the past. In Matenge, readers witness the oppression of black people at the hands of a fellow black citizen. Matenge enslaves his people and keeps them in poverty to better rule them. He is a dictator with no compassion for his fellow man. Matenge is as greedy as he is strict. He lives in luxury off the labor of his people who often go without food. Matenge embodies what can happen when a ruler thinks only of his own comforts. In some ways, he also represents the oppression of the traditional tribal system.
Apartheid is related to Matenge’s form of oppression with a few exceptions. With apartheid, white people dominated blacks, the oppression was less personal than Matenge’s, and the cruelties imposed were more aggressive. The results, however, were similar. Matenge’s rule, for the most part, went unquestioned. The same was true for apartheid. Or to be more specific, those who did oppose apartheid were quickly silenced by death, torture, or life in prison. Under both systems, apartheid’s and Matenge’s, the people under the systems suffered, while the people favored by the system grew rich. Apartheid is a model for the most terrible aspects of colonialism (the exploitation of a weaker country by a stronger one) and extreme prejudice.
There is a pair of figures in this story who might represent a more benevolent past. However, these two characters are presented more as transitional icons, tied to the past but looking toward the future.
First, there is Chief Sekoto, the older brother of Matenge. He shares some of his brother’s tastes for good food, lots of women, and big houses, but he rules his people with a gentler and more understanding attitude. He has compassion for their struggles and is curious about the changes that are happening in the village. He is also very forgiving, comprehending human nature in a much more liberal frame of mind than his more conservative brother. Head might be presenting Sekoto as the more modern chief, one who knows that his days are numbered because of the newly voted into power democratic government. Sekoto might be the product of the same oppressive history as his brother, but he sees more clearly what lies ahead for him and his country.
George Appleby-Smith is Chief Sekoto’s Caucasian equivalent. George is a remnant of British rule. His country was once in charge of Botswana, making the rules as well as protecting the local people from invasions from land-grabbing warmongers from neighboring countries. George’s authority is demonstrated when Matenge must appeal to George for support when Matenge tries to force Makhaya out of Golema Mmidi. George is the one who decides who stays and who leaves. But like Chief Sekoto, George also understands that he is an authority figure in transition. The rule of Britain is all but over. His role as law enforcement officer will soon end. Unlike Matenge, who desperately wants to hold onto his power, George has loosened his grip. Though he often states that he does not like people, George is a good judge of character. He senses that Makhaya will be beneficial for the village, just as he knows Matenge is up to no good. At one point, the narrator states that George looked upon people as crossword puzzles that he liked to figure out. George and Chief Sekoto also represent the transitional powers of black Africa working in concert with the transitional roles of white outsiders. Though their backgrounds and interests differ, George and Chief Sekoto are best friends. They provide a glimmer of hope for progress in the relationships between blacks and whites.
At the heart of the story, however, is another black man and white man, Makhaya and Gilbert Balfour, who also work well together. Makhaya and Gilbert represent the present in Head’s novel. It is a present that is leaning toward a future of its own making. Makhaya’s life and psychology is marred by the consequences of both the apartheid system and traditional tribal conservatism. He is filled with anger when he arrives at Golema Mmidi for the harsh and unfair treatment he experienced in South Africa. He is determined also to release his mind from the confines of tribalism with which his Zulu tribal elders attempted to mold him. Makhaya might be Head’s image of the new black African. Makhaya only wants peace of mind and freedom. Many times throughout Head’s novel, Makhaya is praised for being different from the traditional African male. He is educated. He has progressive ideas. And he wants to learn how to love a woman, which makes him compassionate. It is when Makhaya meets Gilbert and settles in Golema Mmidi that he begins to fully explore his personal goals. He finds in Gilbert ideas that stimulate his imagination. Being an educated man, he appreciates the knowledge that Gilbert has attained and wants to work with him to improve the living conditions of the other villagers.
Gilbert, the white outsider, is not interested in making a name for himself or gaining wealth. All he wants is to teach the people of Golema Mmidi how to best use the resources they have been given. He wants to rid them of the burdens of tribalism in which they are bound to their chief and must sacrifice their own well-being for the benefit of one man. Gilbert is a scientific man who understands the underlying elements of agriculture. He knows how to make the arid land produce a livelihood for the people. Using old traditional ways of life is killing the land and starving the people. Though Gilbert’s people skills are somewhat lacking because his mind is focused on the land, he is a compassionate man. He is never boastful and appreciates the gift that Makhaya offers, that of knowing the language of the people. Whereas Gilbert is the scientist, Makhaya is the communicator. Together, the novel suggests, the two men will lead the villagers out of oppression and poverty. They are the transitional present moving toward the future. Who in this novel best represents the future? There is no one better than children to do this. Head focuses on two children in her novel, the children of Paulina. Isaac is a ten-year-old living solidly in the adult world. On his small shoulders is placed a huge burden: he must keep his mother’s cattle alive. In order to do this, Isaac sacrifices his youth and eventually his life. If Isaac represents the future of black African men, then Head is making a very strong statement. Isaac is sick and succumbs to his illness. Head might be saying that if the African male does not change his traditional ways, he too may die. In Botswana today, AIDS is wreaking havoc on the population. Head might not have foreseen this turn of events, but she did praise Makhaya for not treating women merely as sexual objects. For Isaac, though, it was the reliance on raising cattle for money that killed him. Or maybe it was Paulina’s misguided belief that a ten-year-old could forsake his childhood and take on the duties of a man. Makhaya chides Paulina to let go of the past customs that allowed this. The price for not doing so was the sacrifice of her son.
But there is another child in this story, Paulina’s daughter, Lorato. She is only eight. However, she is the maker of a village. Though her village is made of mud and sticks, she is definitely portrayed as a creator. Is it through Lorato that Head puts forth her beliefs in the power of the African woman? Is the strength of the African woman the foundation of the future? With strong and loving parents, such as Paulina and Makhaya, to encourage her, the African woman could do well in molding the villages of the future. The concept is foreshadowed as the women build the huts for the drying of tobacco. While the men are tending the cattle many miles away, the women are being educated. They are being shown how to better their lives. The women represent progress and change. Head suggests that Lorato will emulate these women in the future to build better African villages.
Sara Constantakis (Editor), Novels for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Volume 31, Bessie Head, Published by Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.
Joyce M. Hart, Critical Essay on When Rain Clouds Gather, in Novels for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.