Head’s novel When Rain Clouds Gather begins in the small village of Barolong, at the border between South Africa and Botswana. The protagonist, Makhaya Maseko, is attempting to cross the border without being detected. Makhaya has been in trouble with the law in South Africa, having spent time in prison under suspicion for planning to sabotage the South African government. He belongs to a Zulu tribe, but he has grown frustrated by tribal thinking and exasperated by the harsh South African segregation policies known as apartheid. Makhaya hopes to find freedom in Botswana.
Once night falls, Makhaya makes a successful run into Botswana. He is not sure where he is going. He is only happy to be out of South Africa. He comes across an old woman, who offers Makhaya a hut for the night. Just before Makhaya falls asleep, a child appears in his hut and suggests that her grandmother wants her to sleep with Makhaya. Instead, Makhaya gives her money and sends her back to the old woman, who thinks Makhaya must be crazy. However, with this act, the author establishes Makhaya’s moral character.
The next day Makhaya runs into a British police officer, who recognizes him. Makhaya’s picture is on the front of a newspaper. The story in the newspaper refers to him as being dangerous. Makhaya denies this, and the officer, whose name is George Appleby-Smith, believes him and gives Makhaya permission to stay. George has a feeling that Makhaya will be good for the local village.
Next Makhaya meets Dinorego. The old man is impressed with Makhaya’s obvious education and invites Makhaya to come to his home. He lives in the village called Golema Mmidi. Dinorego thinks Makhaya might be the perfect husband for his daughter, Maria.
Four hundred people live in Golema Mmidi, a unique place in Botswana. It is not like the tribal villages that usually contain many extended families. Golema Mmidi is an experimental village, where Gilbert Balfour, a British expatriate (someone who is living in a place other than his or her native country), is trying to change the way people in Botswana grow crops and raise cattle. Chief Sekoto, ruler of the area, offered Golema Mmidi to his younger brother, who once tried to assassinate him. Sekoto thought ruling Golema Mmidi would keep his younger brother, Matenge, busy so he would not bother him. But no one in Golema Mmidi likes the way Matenge rules, so there are always complaints that Sekoto has to deal with. Chief Sekoto sent Gilbert Balfour and all his new ideas for agriculture to GolemaMmidi, thinking that Gilbert and Matenge would drive each other nuts. Then Sekoto would be rid of both of them.
Gilbert takes an immediate liking to Makhaya and offers him a job if he will stay and educate the women of Golema Mmidi in new ways of farming. Gilbert does not speak the local language, so when he discovers that Makhaya does, he wants Makhaya to teach the women how to raise tobacco as a cash crop. Chief Matenge does not take to Makhaya or to Gilbert. As far as Matenge is concerned, Gilbert thinks too fondly of the people that Matenge would rather keep poor. Gilbert often tells the people that if they work together in a cooperative, they will make more money and no longer have to work as slaves for Matenge. Matenge’s friend Joas Tsepe, a politically ambitious man, believes he knows how to get rid of both Gilbert and Makhaya. He tells Matenge that Gilbert is harboring a refugee (Makhaya), which is against the law.
Matenge goes to his brother and complains about Gilbert andMakhaya. Sekoto tellsMatenge to take the matter to the inspector, George Appleby-Smith. George and Chief Sekoto are close friends. Before Matenge gets to the inspector, Sekoto goes to the police station to visit George. They talk about Matenge and wonder what to do with him. The inspector asks Sekoto if he would mind if he put Matenge in jail. The chief confesses that he would love to see his brother in jail for a long period of time. The inspector hopes to catch Matenge and his friend, Joas Tsepe, red-handed as they plot against the new government.
Joas continues to try to find a way forMatenge to be rid of Makhaya and Gilbert. Joas tells Matenge the two men are spies and are planning to recolonize all of Africa. Matenge waves Joas to the side when he sees Makhaya and Dinorego approaching Matenge’s house. When Makhaya approaches him, Matenge tells Makhaya that he does not like refugees because they are known to sneak out of their huts at night and kill people. Matenge also says that Gilbert knows nothing about agriculture in Botswana.Matenge wants Gilbert to go back to England where he came from. If both of them, Gilbert and Makhaya, do not leave, Matenge says he will make it very difficult for them.
Makhaya becomes angry. Dinorego tells Makhaya not to worry about Matenge because he is not well and might die of high blood pressure soon enough. Makhaya responds, ‘‘The chief is not going to die of high blood pressure.’’ Then he adds, ‘‘I am going to kill him.’’ Dinorego is shocked by this response. He appeals to Makhaya’s intelligence and suggests that Makhaya use his brain rather than a gun to defeat Matenge.
Dinorego introduces Makhaya to MmaMillipede who asks Makhaya many personal questions, such as what kinds of food he is eating and how is his health. This makes Makhaya both uncomfortable and yet at ease. He is not used to talking to anyone about his private thoughts and daily habits. However, he enjoys the mothering that Mma-Millipede offers him.
In chapter VI, Paulina is introduced. She is a newcomer to the village, a woman with two children and no husband. Paulina is described as a woman who is determined to get on with her life despite her challenges. Paulina’s hut is close to a path that Makhaya takes each night to watch the sun set. When Paulina’s eight-year-old daughter, Lorato, invites Makhaya to tea with her mother, Makhaya refuses, saying he does not know the girl’s mother. This makes Paulina think that Makhaya is interested in Maria, the unmarried and very independent daughter of Dinorego. Makhaya is attracted to Maria, but when he learns that Gilbert is interested in Maria, Makhaya backs away. Gilbert has indeed enjoyed his relationship with Maria, and one day he asks Dinorego’s permission to marry Maria. Dinorego asks his daughter what she thinks about this. Maria agrees.
Mma-Millipede decides Paulina and Makhaya would make a nice match. When Gilbert informs Mma-Millipede that he wants Makhaya to educate the women of the village in new agricultural practices, Mma-Millipede sees a way to bring Makhaya and Paulina together. She indicates that Makhaya should teach the women through Paulina, telling her what needs to be done and having her lead the other women through the projects. In the days that follow, Makhaya teaches Paulina how to build huts in which to dry tobacco and in this way gets to know her. Once, at Paulina’s hut, Makhaya notices a miniature village that Paulina’s daughter has made out of mud. The young girl is not around, but Makhaya thinks the play village needs some trees, so he makes some out of sticks. Through this act, Paulina begins to see Makhaya’s tender side.
The more Makhaya works with Paulina, the more he comes to appreciate her. He encourages her to put away her limited concepts of the roles of women and men. For instance, when Makhaya says he wants some tea and gets up to start the fire, Paulina pushes him away, telling him that making a fire is a woman’s job. Makhaya tells her she must start getting used to the idea that men live on earth, too. When he wants some tea, he tells her, he is capable of fixing it for himself.
Makhaya becomes more involved in Paulina’s life. He asks about her son, Isaac, who is not living in the village. Rather, Isaac is out in the countryside watching over Paulina’s herd of cattle. Makhaya thinks the boy, who is only ten, is too young to be doing this. When Paulina tells Makhaya that she cannot afford to pay an adult to watch the cows, Makhaya says that she should sell most of the animals. She will make much more money off the tobacco she will be growing.
Chapter X begins with Chief Matenge and the anger he has bred over the progress of Golema Mmidi, the village he is supposed to rule. The narrator states that Golema Mmidi is not only thriving, but the people are also ignoring the chief. Because of this, Matenge feels threatened. The narrator adds, ‘‘There were too many independent-minded people there [in Golema Mmidi], and tragedies of life had liberated them from the environmental control of the tribe.’’ The experiment at Golema Mmidi was the first of its kind: ‘‘Never before had people been allowed to settle permanently on the land’’ as Chief Sekoto was letting them do now. This was due to Chief Sekoto’s interest in Gilbert’s agricultural experiments. Previously, according to the narrator, anyone who tried to be a farmer had his or her huts burned to the ground. The independence of the farmers was always a threat to the authoritarian rule of the chiefs. This did not bother Chief Sekoto, but it was driving his brother mad.
The rainy season comes and goes without any precipitation. Soon the cattle begin to die because all the water holes have dried up. The men of the village, who have been away for several months because they take their cattle to other areas to graze, start arriving back in the village. Their tales of how many dead cows they have seen frighten everyone. Paulina, whose son tends her cattle, has not returned. So Paulina asks one of the men if he knows where her son is. She finds out that the last time someone saw Isaac, the boy had complained of having a cold. The narrator, however, tells readers that Isaac is actually sick with tuberculosis, which Paulina does not know. When Paulina tells Makhaya of her concern for Isaac, Makhaya tells her they will travel together to find out how Isaac is doing. For the first time, after hearing Makhaya’s offer, Paulina tells him that she loves him. In response, Makhaya says that he has never known love, but he hopes, with her help, he will learn to love.
Gilbert decides he will drive Makhaya and Paulina to find Isaac. On the drive, all three of them are amazed at the number of dead animals they see. The full impact of the drought finally hits them. Vultures circle in the skies. When they reach the hut where Isaac lived, Makhaya, suspecting the worst, tells Paulina to wait in the car while he goes inside. When he enters the hut, he finds a pile of bones, all that is left of Isaac. Paulina wants to see the remains of her son after Makhaya tells her that her son is dead. Makhaya does not allow this. Paulina says she must because it is the custom of her people. At this, Makhaya tells her he is tired of old customs. Then he adds, ‘‘Can’t you see I’m here to bear all your burdens?’’ On the drive home, Makhaya realizes how much he loves Paulina. The narrator exposes Makhaya’s new awareness that ‘‘it was only people who could bring the real rewards of living, that it was only people who give love and happiness.’’
In the last chapter of the story, Paulina is surprised by a deep happiness she feels, in spite of the loss of her son. Mma-Millipede tells Paulina that it is all right to be happy. Not many women are given a man as good as Makhaya. The narrator explains that the typical African man does not love as Makhaya loves. Most African men either have many wives or one wife and many mistresses, she says. Women are possessions for these men. Paulina agrees that Makhaya is very different.
Paulina walks out into her yard one morning to find one of Matenge’s servants waiting for her. He tells her that she has been summoned to meet with Chief Matenge. Paulina is concerned. A summons usually means that the person has done something that has angered the chief. All she can think of is that she has forgotten to report the death of her son to Matenge. As Paulina begins her walk to the chief’s residence, other villagers accompany her. The news has traveled fast. Soon the whole village is trailing behind her. The villagers are curious about what the chief wants, but they also want to see his face: ‘‘They wanted to see this man who had all the privileges, who had never known a day of starvation.’’ They are not there to threaten Matenge or to forcibly take away his possessions. However, they do want him to understand that ‘‘it was only their lives they wanted to set right and he must not stand in their way.’’ As the crowd gathers outside Matenge’s house, the villagers are pleased with themselves. It is the first time they have all come together for the same cause.
When Matenge looks out at the crowd, he is frightened. He locks the doors and does not go outside. Meanwhile, noticing the deserted huts in the village, Gilbert and Makhaya drive quickly to Matenge’s and ask the villagers what is going on. The people are all sitting quietly in the courtyard. Dinorego replies that they are waiting to see the chief. Makhaya, too impatient to wait, climbs the stairway to the chief’s house and breaks down the door. Inside he finds Matenge hanging at the end of a rope. The chief has committed suicide.
Days later, after things have settled down, Paulina is cooking dinner for Makhaya. As he watches her, he finally remembers something very important: ‘‘I forgot to ask you if you’d like to marry me. Will you, Paulie?’’ And Paulina says that she will.
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.