Tribalism versus Progress
Tribalism in Head’s novel refers to the concept that everyone must follow the dictates of the tribal chiefs, who rule according to long traditional practices. These principles include the power of men over women; the division of labor, in which men tend to the cattle and women grow the crops; as well rules about the clothes people wear, the mannerisms people use, and the way they cook their food and what they eat.
Makhaya, the protagonist, makes it very clear in the beginning of the story that he does not believe in the tribal ways. He does not even like his name because it is a tribal name. Makhaya represents a more progressive view. He is interested in what Gilbert is doing because Gilbert is always trying to push the people ahead and to make the village progress into the future. Gilbert represents the sciences and education, which have made him aware of better ways for the village people to live. For thousands of years the people have been destroying the land as well as themselves. The people raise cattle because that is what their forefathers did. They do not see that the cattle are turning their homeland into a desert. However, for many of the tribal people, progress is scary. It is unknown to them. Most of the people in Golema Mmidi do not have a formal education in the sciences, so they have to put all their faith in Gilbert, a white man. This is difficult to do for two reasons: first, white people have not always treated black Africans fairly, and second, traditions are hard to break. For example, an old man in the beginning of the novel tells Makhaya that it is his education that makes him want progress over his traditional, tribal ways. The old man is afraid of change and represents the tribal elders, who have, in the past, made all the rules.
The conflict of tribalism versus progress is woven through much of this novel. The arguments for and against one side or the other are taken up either in the conversations of the characters or through long narration, which breaks into the plot line of the story. The whole village of Golema Mmidi is an experiment that sits in the middle of this conflict as the traditional village chiefs look on and observe the changes.
Poverty and Oppression
There are many images of poverty and oppression in When Rain Clouds Gather. One of the strongest occurs when the drought begins to kill off the animals. When the animals die, the people come home empty handed. They know that they too could die if the drought lasts much longer. When Paulina is summoned to face Chief Matenge, the people follow her to Matenge’s house. They go for two reasons: first, they want to know why the chief has called Paulina. But second, and more importantly, they want to see what his face looks like when he sees that they are suffering and he still lives in the midst of his riches. His cattle are safe. His food lockers are as full as his belly. And yet his people are starving. The chief has kept a tight control of his people, demanding their labor and their goods to feed his greed. In the past, the people did as they were told because they were used to the oppression. It had become a way of life for them. Whether it was through the influence of Gilbert and Makhaya, the reader is not told, but something awakens these people to the unfairness of their situation. Poverty and oppression are not a natural way of life but become a habit for them, at least until that day when they went together, all of the same mind, to find out why the chief had so much and they had none. Head does not lecture on poverty and oppression, but she does use many examples to show the effect on people’s lives. Examples include the apartheid system in South Africa and hints of the oppression the people experienced under colonial rule. What surprises some of the characters most is the oppression of black Africans by black Africans.
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.