When Rain Clouds Gather is Bessie Head’s first novel. Like much of her other writing, including the short stories she was known for, the novel deals with the effects of apartheid in South Africa. Bessie Head’s writing was actually one of the first ways that many outsiders became aware of the troubling political system of apartheid. The trials and tribulations of her characters while dealing with the segregationist political system, under which blacks were systematically abused, can be seen throughout her works, including in When Rain Clouds Gather.
In the novel, the main protagonist, Makhaya Maseko, flees from the racially charged environment in South Africa to neighboring Botswana, where the story itself takes place. He was involved in a bomb plot back in South Africa, and as the political system is particularly violent towards blacks, he must flee for his life. In Botswana, he befriends Dinorego, and after a time, decides to stay in the village of Golema Mmidi. Makhaya is introduced to a British agriculturalist named Gilbert who is also staying in the village. Dinorego speaks highly of Gilbert, saying that the man is his son and a giving person.
Makhaya also learns that Gilbert has been working on a cattle cooperative for the past three years. Though the villagers are excited about the possibilities of the project, which would make them more independent, Chief Matenge is not happy with Gilbert’s work. In fact, Matenge, who is portrayed as spoiled and authoritarian, has been sent to the village specifically by his brother Sekoto to ensure that Gilbert does not cause too much trouble with his cooperative plans. From all accounts, Matenge and Gilbert are at war over the cooperative and its potential success.
One day, Makhaya is referred to Gilbert by Dinorego. While the two eat, Gilbert assesses Makhaya and finds that he does not seem interested in tribalism, and so agrees to hire him as a worker on the agricultural farm. Gilbert teaches Makhaya how to drive a tractor, and instructs him in agricultural farming. In turn, Makhaya uses his knowledge of the Tswana language to share the agricultural information with the women in Golema Mmidi.
Makhaya’s life is soon changed again when Matenge attempts to get the local police involved in the cooperative’s business. He had tried to get the village elders and others to go against Gilbert’s wishes to put up fencing so as to corral livestock, but failed in doing so. When Matenge informs his brother of this latest development, it is Sekoto who suggests bringing in the police. Makhaya, however, makes a good impression with all those he meets, including George Appleby-Smith, the police constable. The constable even agrees to support Makhaya in his efforts for the village.
Makhaya is also introduced to several other notable individuals, including Paulina Sebeso. Paulina is actually attracted to Makhaya, but he does not initially realize her infatuation. It is not until he is placed in charge of instructing the village women, when the two undertake a large-scale millet project, that Makhaya finally realizes Paulina’s feelings for him. The two become closer over a troubling event involving Paulina’s eight-year-old son. The child worked at a cattle post, but when a famine strikes and kills most of the cattle, the workers are sent home. Paulina asks a rancher, Rankoane, why her son was not sent home as well. She is informed that the child had been sent home some time ago due to a severe cough. An agitated Paulina decides to search for her son, and Makhaya accompanies her into the bush on her search. Sadly, the two find her son’s remains, and when they return to the village, have a funeral for him.
Paulina then receives word that she has offended Chief Matenge, and later finds that her offense has been that she failed to report her son’s death. While on the way to Matenge’s house, a large crowd gathers in support of Paulina, including Dinorego, Makhaya and Gilbert. As the crowd waits outside the chief’s house, George also arrives due to the commotion. Makhaya, tired of waiting, breaks down the door to find Matenge hanging from a rope. The consensus is that he was afraid of the large crowd and so hung himself. George is left to inform Sekoto of what has transpired. Though Makhaya is still plagued by images of Paulina’s deceased son, he takes comfort in the idea of starting a new life with her. He eventually proposes to Paulina, and she eagerly accepts.
The novel deals largely with the struggle between traditional tribal ways and the advances of science. Sekoto and Matenge are representative of the old system, a tribal system where people feel justified in taking advantage of those they deem as their subjects. Gilbert’s cooperative, and the hope that the villagers see in the project, represent progress and scientific advancement. Though it may seem as if scientific advancement wins out over the old ways, Bessie Head’s novel shows how a more balanced approach to the two sides is better: Tradition and older belief systems can exist alongside scientific advancements and independent thinking. The villagers who understand this are truly capable of changing. In turn, their progress is representative of a new system capable of changing apartheid and other old, oppressive systems of government.
Zeela’s statement is an accurate description of the village that is represented in the story. Gomela Mmidi is an underdeveloped village in Botswana and it is no surprise that before Makhaya and Gilbert arrived, the land was a reject, suffering under immense poverty despite being ruled by chiefs of the land. But the arrival of Makhaya and Gilbert was a result of new progress and new things for the village.
The undertone in the novel are what keep the novel well above sentimental and futile. Golema Mmidi was the sort of a village to allow traditions and cultures role to the way people ae supposed to be living. This is where woman were subjected to being treated cruelly. Men were in charge of the community. During the chapters when Makhaya arrives in the village; he describes in particular the land of Gomela Mmidi. The village was situated in the eastern part of the country; it received an annual rainfall of at least eighteen inches. But with opportunity and the overpopulation due to overgrazing, the land deteriorated.
But there was another fascinating growth taking place with regards of the carrot- seed plants. It further enhanced Gilbert to want to save the land. He then consulted Chief Mantege with his plans. It seemed he was pleased with the way things were going. So Chief Mantege allowed or gave him permission to continue with what he was about to start. But later on the evil side of him showed in which he thought of his reputation as the chief of the village and so this was the time where he tried to stop Gilbert. But the presence of Makhaya changed everything.