When Rain Clouds Gather by Bessie Head

“Gilbert prided himself on being an unusually well-informed man. No doubt the sun did too. No doubt the sun knew why the clouds formed and why the wind blew and why the lizards basked in its warmth, and all this immense knowledge made the sun gay and bright, full of trust and affection for mankind. But there were shut-away worlds, full of mistrust and hate, and it was about this side that Makhaya was particularly well informed.” (p. 89)

Bessie Head, like her protagonist Makhaya, emigrated from South Africa to Botswana and took up farming, which is why her knowledge is immense when she writes about this town and about farming in general. The only thing I can’t understand is why she would choose a male protagonist. As a female South-African writer, she holds a unique perspective on women’s issues, although she does integrate feminism/Eco-feminism into the story. This is probably a failure on my part to grasp all the nuances of the subjects she covers, much like Tony Morrison, Bessie Head’s writing contains an immense amount of issues surrounding race and African nationalism. 


Despite the heavy subject matter, this didn’t feel like a hefty read. It was easy to follow, easy to enjoy, easy to love. I personally can’t wait to read more of her writing, and am surprised it took me this long to find her. 


To summarize the plot; Makhaya escapes South Africa during apartheid to Botswana; a small village with its own internal political struggles on a much smaller scale that mean the world to its inhabitants. Gilbert, like Makhaya, has also sought refuge in Botswana from his middle-class life in England. The two men form a friendship and help the women in the village successfully farm the land in order to help provide for their families. The focus shifts between characters to explore in more depth the local situations in Botswana which one can’t help apply on a more global scale.


I’m not sure how I felt about Gilbert as a white man, in the context of Makhaya’s experience with apartheid, being such an influential figure in the story. He reminded me of ‘media volunteering’ types that travel abroad to volunteer in impoverished places in order to post pictures on social media as a way to gain social approval. Despite the fact that Gilbert genuinely wants to make a difference, I think my perceptions on current volunteer culture clouded my understanding. I’m unsure whether this was my own projections on the text or if Bessie Head intended you to feel uncomfortable with Gilbert’s presence. Food for thought I guess!


If you’ve read this, or have anything else to contribute; I’d love to hear it! 

Goodreads: When Rain Clouds Gather 


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