ARC 6: "When Rain Clouds Gather"
My sixth and final book review for the Africa Reading Challenge.
When Rain Clouds Gather by Bessie Head, first published in 1969.
When Rain Clouds Gather takes place in Botswana, in the rural village of Golema Mmidi. The story focuses on several characters, beginning with Makhaya Maseko, who has fled South Africa after serving prison time on a false charge of conspiracy against the white government. Although educated and wishing to find some way to improve the lives of Africans, he is homeless, penniless, and essentially rootless once he reaches safety in Botswana and takes refuge in Golema Mmidi at the urging of an old man Dinorego who lives there and who takes an immediate liking to the young man. There he meets Gilbert Balfour, an Englishman who also is in a sense a refugee, in his case from the aristocratic class in Britain into which he was born but in which he has never felt at home. Gilbert has obtained an education in agriculture, and his goal is to transform the subsistence economy of the village into a thriving broadly-based agricultural economy, as a pilot program for much of Africa. The two men are attracted to each other immediately; Makhaya sees someone who is pursuing a program aimed at improving the lives of Africans, precisely the kind of goal he wishes to pursue, and Gilbert sees a strong, intelligent, dedicated man who wants to achieve the same long-term goals he does.
But there is opposition. This comes primarily in the form of the village chief Malenga, who has been appointed to this position by his brother the regional tribal chieftain Sekoto in order to remove the bad-tempered, mean-spirited Malenga from Sekoto's household where Malenga has been plotting against his brother and other family members; this situation makes Malenga himself also a kind of refugee. Malenga insists on upholding all the old tribal customs because they give him power. On the other hand, Gilbert and Makhaya know that, in order to introduce the agricultural changes necessary to improve the villagers, many of the old customs will also have to be changed. Conflict is inevitable and occurs.
Another thread to the story involves Paulina Sebeso, herself a refugee from northern Botswana and a bad marriage. The most strong-willed and independent of the women of the village, she becomes a valuable asset to Gilbert and Makhaya in their undertaking to teach the village women new agricultural procedures. She also finds that she is falling in love with Makhaya, who is likewise falling in love with her, but the independence of each prevents the two from accepting each other.
The novel culminates when the country is struck by a particularly severe drought. Tragedy ensues when most of the villagers' herds die, as does Paulina's son who has been keeping her cattle in the grazing grounds a day's journey away from the village. Malenga seizes on this opportunity by planning to bring charges against her for allowing her son to die supposedly of starvation (he actually died of tuberculosis). However, when the entire village stands up against him, Malenga commits suicide, removing the chief obstacle to Gilbert and Makhaya's plans for agricultural improvements. Makhaya and Paulina finally recognize and admit their love for each other.
The novel is textured with both comic and serious episodes intertwined. The ending may on the surface appear a simple happy ending, but Head makes sure we know that nothing in life is ever that simple. There is still the drought to live through, and the ever-present danger of future droughts, as well, and the difficult tasks of large-scale changes in agriculture remain to be faced. But the potential for change and betterment are there, because, as Head tells us, the real "rain clouds" are people, and, when they gather (as the title indicates), what ensues is life, life in abundance.
(Note: I had originally intended to read Bessie Head's A Question Of Power as my final book, but circumstances dictated that I change to her When Rain Clouds Gather instead.)