Friday, December 26, 2008

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.)


Blogger Eva said...

This sounds so interesting-I've never read any lit from Botswana, but I've read some nonfiction about it and it seems like a fasicnating place.

8:50 PM  
Blogger Hedgie said...

Botswana is one of the very few African nations that did not undergo some kind of violent civil war after the end of colonialism. Blessed with excellent government, it has one of the most prosperous economies in Africa. Unfortunately, precisely because of that economy, it has been a gathering point for refugees from all over central Africa. That, in turn, has led to Botswana having one of the highest rates of AIDS in Africa. In 1960, the average life expectancy was 64; in 2000, it had dropped to 34 because of AIDS. There are projections that it will drop to 24 by 2010. The government is just totally overwhelmedby the situation. I think it's perhaps the most tragic story of what's happened to any African nation since the end of colonialism.

9:01 PM  
Blogger Charmaine said...

Kikulaela. Egufsasa kea kula ungo tando. Kea kula iling e langa utando lia busa tika lae le quile shaba wa tu.

(Zulu, one of the 11 official languages of South Africa.) Courtesy of Stevie Wonder. I memorized the song. I used to recite it to every person I met from South Africa.

That means one guy.

I have NO idea why I do this.

So sad about Botswana. Africa is the mother of us all.

10:04 AM  
Blogger Hedgie said...

Actually rather appropriate, Charmaine, since Makhaya is a Zulu.

"I have NO idea why I do this."

Zo, tell us vhat you tink about zat.

11:08 AM  
Blogger Hedgie said...

Idiot -- I hit the wrong button and deleted your comment entirely by accident, Charmaine. Sorry. It was definitely not intentional.

The tarts are fine; there's just too many of them. I accidently made more than I intended; they've taken over the kitchen and are spilling out in the dining room.

5:14 PM  
Blogger C. E. Chaffin said...

Excellent precis, Hedgie! You should write book reviews professionally.


12:04 PM  
Blogger Hedgie said...

Thanks, C. E. But if I did it professionally, that would mean I was doing it for money, and that would be -- WORK!! Ick! I gave that up at the same time as I did smoking.

Thanks for stopping by, and congratulations on your recent spate of publications. Keep it up.

12:50 PM  
Blogger Charmaine said...

Awe Hedge. You're kind to folks.

I like that about you.

Maybe I'll post a smattering of rejects from my dating website someday..."The horror, the horror".

Why don't you go on some dates?

7:43 PM  
Blogger Hedgie said...

"You're kind to folks."

If you only knew. I was twice voted by the students at the college where I taught "The Faculty Member Most Likely to Sacrifice a Virgin to a Raging Volcano."

As for dating, see my profile over on your blog (more blog-jumping). That should explain it all.

8:42 PM  
Blogger Charmaine said...

Everyone is beating me up about my "profile.

Their criticism is spot on. I lifted my second paragraph from some other guy. I thought he would read it, see we had similar skills, then ask me out.

It didn't work. I didn't bother changing it despite the fact that it was not my brand of humour.

You, on the other hand, are always authentic. I don't know how you do that. I suspect it is confidence.

8:47 PM  
Blogger Charmaine said...

You are SO going to win my challenge.

Tell me now. Do you want the Tupperware, wrinkle cream or pots and pans.

9:09 PM  
Blogger Hedgie said...

"You, on the other hand, are always authentic. I don't know how you do that. I suspect it is confidence."

I honestly don't know quite what to say about that. I suspect it has something to do with why one is posting. At places like, posters tend to post what they think others want to hear rather than what's strictly speaking true because of what they think they stand to gain. That's a theory, anyway.

8:15 PM  
Blogger Charmaine said...

What? You sacrificed the virgins?

In college these days...probably hard to find.

In college, the profs who were irrationally difficult, impossible to please and relentlessly demanding were the only ones who ever taught me anything...with the exception of the fine arts...oh, an tennis.

4:38 PM  
Blogger Hedgie said...

Yes, those professors were the ones who taught me the most, too. Whether I successfully emulated them or not, only my former students could tell you.

Virgin scarcity is not a new phenomenon, especially on college campuses.

5:01 PM  
Blogger Gracia said...

What is the purpose of the author in creating When Rain Clouds Gather? Because I cannot find it. it is very difficult to know more about this book. Can you help me?? Thank you ^^

10:39 PM  
Blogger saphyswan said...

i've read this book..its quite interesting though.....

2:31 AM  

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