Review: When Rain Clouds Gather by Bessie Head

When Rain Clouds Gather Book Review When Rain Clouds Gather [1969] – ★★★★★

You may see no rivers on the ground but we keep the rivers inside us. That is why all good things and all good people are called rain. Sometimes we see the rain clouds gather even though not a cloud appears in the sky. It is all in our heart” [Bessie Head, 1969: 191]. 

This is a tale of Makhaya, a refugee from South Africa, who desires to build his life anew in a small village of Golema Mmidi, Botswana. There, he meets eccentric Englishman Gilbert Balfour, who would like to revolutionise farming methods to help people of the village. Both men are running away from the past and are in search of wives. However, before both start to live free lives, trying to help others, they have to face and fight political corruption, unfavourable climatic conditions and village prejudice. When Rain Clouds Gather tells an important story of finding hope in the most hostile and dangerous conditions, and can really be considered a modern classic.

The novel starts with Makhaya, a well-educated refugee, who escapes South Africa by crossing the border to reach Botswana. He stumbles upon one village, but will it be a place where his dreams of living a peaceful life are realised? Or will it prove to be a hostile area populated by hostile people? In the village of Golema Mmidi, there exists a complex power relationship between two brothers Sekoto and Matenge, giving rise to corruption and exploitation of people. Makhaya and Englishman Gilbert Balfour decide to utilise the uneasy relationship between two brothers to bring benefit to the people of the village, but can they be successful when there is so much against them? Part of the appeal of the book is that we do not know the whole story of Makhaya and what previous life he led, and it is intriguing to find out more about the man. He appears to be a good man on the run, but is it really that simple? There are hints that Makhaya might have lived a life of hardship (and even forced violence) in South Africa, and is now on the road to peace and redemption. “I want to feel what it is like to live in a free country and then maybe some of the evils in my life will correct themselves” [1969: 5], says Makhaya, who is immediately the one the reader can sympathise with. The narrative also says that “[h]is reasons for leaving were simple: he could not marry and have children in a country where black men were called “boy” and “dog” and “kaffir”. The continent of Africa was vast without end and he simply felt like moving out of a part of it that was mentally and spiritually dead through the constant perpetuation of false beliefs” [1969: 11-12].

Bessie Head’s novel has character depth and many characters are multi-dimensional. Reading character descriptions, there is a feeling that the author is a keen observer and expert on the human nature. Makhaya is a rather sensitive human being who is eager to help others: “he wanted to undo the complexity of hatred and humiliation that had dominated his life for so long” [1969: 77]. Englishman Gilbert Balfour is also intriguing; he says at one point: “I’m running away from England. You know what England’s like? It’s full of nice, orderly queues, and everybody lines up in these queues for a place and position in the world. I let all that go hang and hopped out” [1969: 30]. There is also this description of him: “he had not felt free in England either, at least not in the upper-middle-class background into which he had been born, where the women all wore pearls, and everyone was nice and polite to everyone, and you could not tell friend from foe behind the polite brittle smiles”… [1969: 113]. Even Matenge, an opposing force, is not easily labelled and appears complex: “it was the face of a tortured man, slowly being devoured by the intensity of his inner life, and the tormented hell of that inner life had scarred deep ridges across his brow and down his cheeks, and the icy peaks of loneliness on which the man lived had only experienced the storms and winter of life, never the warm dissolving sun of love” [1969: 69].

When Rain Clouds Gather is not just a story of an outsider saving the day in one village – there is a special lesson there somewhere. From ignorance, corruption, hunger and thirst to establishing fairness and peace, the story paints a vivid picture of a village in distress, as well as of its colourful inhabitants who desire survival and prosperity. “Many factors had combined to make the village of Golema Mmidi a unique place. It was not a village in the usual meaning of being composed of large tribal or family groupings. Golema Mmidi consisted of individuals who had fled there to escape the tragedies of life” [1969: 18]. Other eccentric characters are Mma-Millipede and Paulina, who becomes romantically involved with Makhaya. In that way, the novel also shows romance, and explores who may have feeling for whom in the village.

Clearly-written and easy-to-read, When Rain Clouds Gather may just be a “must-read” book for anyone interested in reading a fascinating story with a heart taking place in Africa. Life in the village of Golema Mmidi has always been one of oppression for people, and the question is whether newcomers will change the situation and ensure that the village is free from oppression and starvation. Complex agricultural and political situations play a role in this tale of finding love and hope in the most unlikely of places. It may be a cliché to describe a novel as beautiful, but, in many ways, this one really is.

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