George is the British inspector who keeps the law in Golema Mmidi. He is a remnant of British colonial rule. He is kindhearted like Chief Sekoto. The two of them are close friends. George says he does not like people because they are always playing psychological games or not being honest about what they want. However, when he meets people who are sincere, he recognizes them for their straightforwardness and rewards them in any way he can. Thus, though he is reading a story about Makhaya in the newspapers as Makhaya makes his first appearance in the area, George does not believe the newspaper article that describes him as a criminal. He sees Makhaya’s character traits and decides to trust him. George also likes the spirit of Gilbert and his progressive ideas to help the people.
Gilbert is a British citizen who is described as being very tall and having blues eyes. As a student,Gilbert visited Botswana and became very interested in the way the people lived. He returned to England to finish his studies. Upon graduating, he came back to Botswana and became friends with the British inspector, George Appleby-Smith. George was also friends with the powerful local leader, Chief Sekoto. The chief also liked Gilbert and granted him permission and some land on which to put his new agricultural ideas into practice.
Gilbert is consumed with his projects as he tries to bring the people of the village out of poverty. He sees how the cattle are destroying the land and tries to encourage the people to rely more on cash crops. Gilbert also pushes the idea of working through cooperatives, which takes some of the money away from Chief Matenge. Gilbert thus becomes at odds with Matenge, who tries to get rid of Gilbert.
Not only is Gilbert well educated, he is also intelligent. He is focused so much on his projects that he sometimes has trouble understanding people. But this has not kept the villagers from accepting and trusting him. The person who confuses Gilbert the most is Maria. He enjoys her independent nature and her natural intelligence, but he does not know how to get her to marry him.
Gilbert represents one good reason for the villagers to trust white men. This is especially true for Makhaya, who has lived under the apartheid system in South Africa, where he was born and raised. Gilbert’s heart is pure, and he is very honest in his dealings with the people of Golema Mmidi.
Dinorego is one of the elders of Golema Mmidi. He is a soft-spoken man who makes blankets from animal skins for a living. Dinorego and Mma-Millipede are two of the most respected people in the village.
Dinorego refers to Makhaya as a son from the first time he meets him. He recognizes Makhaya’s education as well as Makhaya’s straightforwardness. Dinorego has been looking for a husband for his daughter, Maria. He believes Makhaya might be the right man. He takes Makhaya under his wing, counseling him when Makhaya’s anger gets the best of him. Though Dinorego is an elder, he is progressive in his thoughts and therefore admires the ideas of Gilbert and Makhaya, who are looking for change.
Isaac is the ten-year-old son of Paulina. He is never present in the story, but is talked about by some of the characters. He is away, living out in the bush, taking care of his mother’s cattle. While away, Isaac becomes sick with tuberculosis and dies. His bones are discovered after Paulina and Makhaya travel into the bush to find out why Isaac has not come home when all the other men have deserted their posts. Isaac represents the tragedy of living in poverty. His unmarried mother did not have enough money to hire an adult to take care of her cattle.
Lorato is the eight-year-old daughter of Paulina. Though Lorato has little to say in this story, her presence is felt when Makhaya helps Lorato build a miniature village out of mud. It is through Lorato that Makhaya first expresses his tenderness.
Maria is Dinorego’s daughter. She is described as being very independent and unlike most of the other village women. Maria works with Gilbert and likes him, but she is concerned that she is not educated enough to become his wife. So for three years, she turns Gilbert’s proposals down. Instead she asks that he teach her English. In turn, she tries to teach Gilbert her language. When she has mastered basic English, she tells Gilbert she will marry him.
Makhaya is the protagonist of this story. Although the narration often focuses on other characters, as well as on discussing various elements of the country of Botswana and its people and traditions, the novel begins and ends with Makhaya. Of all of the characters, Makhaya is the one who changes the most. He arrives in Botswana angry and emotionally closed but learns through the gentle guidance of the other main characters what it means to love and to care for other people.
Makhaya was born in South Africa into the tribal customs of the Zulu people, an ancient African group. He felt confined by the traditions of his people, but when he goes out into the world of white South Africans, he cannot stand the oppression that is placed on his lifestyle and beliefs. At one time, though the details not are thoroughly discussed, he rebels against the apartheid system of segregation and is put into prison. As the story opens, Makhaya is about to illegally sneak across the border between South Africa and Botswana. He is determined to find a better, less limited life.
Makhaya says that he wants to find peace of mind and a good wife who will bear his children. In the course of the story, Makhaya explains that he is attracted to independent thinkers. That is why he likes Gilbert and agrees to work with the British scientist. Makhaya understands that Gilbert is trying to improve the lives of the poor. Paulina teaches Makhaya how to love and care about a woman. Up until Makhaya meets Paulina, he thinks that prostitutes are the only African women who can think for themselves. Makhaya seriously dislikes the way tribal culture prohibits people from progressing. He believes that only free thinkers can progress.
Chief Matenge is a vicious, greedy man. He has no skills in dealing with people except as a dictator. He makes people give him part of everything they own and raise. Thus, he becomes rich, living in the only brick house in the village. He is proud of his fancy Chevrolet and expects no one to ever talk back to him.
Matenge is the younger brother of Chief Sekoto. He is also the opposite of everything that his older brother stands for. At one time, before the story begins, Matenge attempted to kill Sekoto. His brother not only forgave him, he also gave Matenge the land on which the village of Golema Mmidi lies. Matenge rules the people there poorly, and they have no respect for him. They ignore him, going to Sekoto when they have complaints.
Matenge would like to rid the village of Gilbert and Makhaya, but no matter what he tries, nothing works in his favor. In the end,Matenge panics when he sees all the villagers sitting outside his home. He is afraid of them because they have come together as one and he assumes they are against him. Instead of facing them, he hangs himself.
Mma-Millipede is a close friend of Dinorego. She and Dinorego, in their youth, were engaged to be married. However, the chief of their village in northern Botswana decided he wanted MmaMillipede for himself. So he threatened MmaMillipede’s family until Mma-Millipede agreed to marry him. Later, when the chief divorced Mma-Millipede, she accepted Dinorego’s invitation to move south and live in Golema Mmidi.
At the time of the story, Mma-Millipede and Dinorego represent the wise elders of Golema Mmidi. The villagers often go to both of them for advice. In particular,Mma-Millipede counsels both Makhaya and Paulina, two of her favorite people. She also tries to bring them together, believing they would be good for one another. Though not a devoutly religious person, Mma-Millipede often reads the Bible, through which she attempts to interpret why people try to oppress others.
Chief Sekoto is Matenge’s older brother. The two of them could hardly be more different. Sekoto is often praised throughout the novel as having a positive outlook on life. He is kind hearted and does not rule with a tight hold on his people. He enjoys watching his subjects figure out solutions to their own problems. He especially likes Gilbert and has made the unchieflike promise that if Gilbert succeeds in his plans, Sekoto himself will go to work for him. Of course this is a joke, but it shows how much Sekoto hopes Gilbert will succeed.
Sekoto is said to like fast cars, pretty women, and food. His appearance in the novel is limited, though his presence is felt. The people know that they have a friend in Chief Sekoto, especially when his brother, Matenge, is acting badly.
Joas is a coconspirator of Matenge’s. His main goal is to get rid of the elected Botswana government. Even though the people approve of the government, Joas wants to incite a rebellion. He needs Matenge’s help to do this. So he feeds Matenge stories of government corruption, spies, and people who want to kill him. Joas does not like Gilbert or Makhaya and what they are doing in the village. He wants Matenge to get rid of them. Little more is said about this character. He has no redeeming virtues.
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.