By? Bessie Head
When? Early 1960s
Who? Makhaya, Gilbert, Dinorego, Paulina, Mma-Millipede
Reading Botswana has never been high up on my bucket list; Botswana’s rather the quiet child of the SADC countries. It’s seldom in the news for either good or bad reasons. I’ve generally pictured an expanse of semi-desert-like veld stretching as far as the eye can see. Since studying macroeconomics, I can now add diamonds and mines to that image. There are no cities in my vision — more frighteningly still, the only people I can imagine are San hunter-gatherers in traditional clothes.
This is the kind of image Wainaina parodies in How to Write About Africa. The essay seems aimed at Europeans but with me, an African, painting such an image, it may as well be addressed at me personally. This kind of complicity in Eurocentrism and stereotyping Africa is what we as Africans need to end. I don’t want to think of vast resources to be extracted when I think of a neighbouring country; we need detail and nuance and personalisation when we think of our fellow Africans.
Thus, When Rain Clouds Gather arrives on my bedside table. The author, Bessie Head, has been a household name — the kind you know of but never really investigate — throughout my life. She was the only author I knew of from the country, standing alongside Nigeria’s Chinua Achebe and Kenya’s Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o in publishers’ African Classics collections. So, it was somewhat of a surprise to discover that Bessie Head was in fact born a South African!
If you’ve been following my Reading Africa journey, you’ll know that when I select a book, the author themselves, as well as their family, should ideally have lived in the country. I’m not a big fan of emigration either and favour authors who still reside in their country (no doubt due to the tone that emigration has taken on in this country since 1994). There’ve been exceptions, though, and, for Reading Botswana, I made another for Bessie Head. She lived in Botswana for years and eventually gained citizenship. Moreover, her story of living as a refugee there reminds me of the debt South Africa owes those countries who cared for our people when we couldn’t. And, of course, there is pan-Africanism.
So, did When Rain Clouds Gather live up to the lofty dreams I placed upon it? What did it teach me about Botswana?
Reading Botswana taught me that “God’s country”, as Dinorego calls it, is the setting for personal struggles just like mine. Makhaya is one of the most relatable heroes I’ve met while Reading Africa. Of course, it helps that he is South African, with all the rage and bitterness and exhaustion which that entails today.
The people Makhaya meets, though, are Botswanan. They, too, encounter the White man but with less intensity. The country may be on the brink of independence but this is a removed reality for the villagers of Golema Mmidi. Their concerns are farming and cattle-herding, which go hand-in-hand with their families’ well-being. Poverty is everywhere but it is always overshadowed by the tenacity of the women cash-crop farmers, the philosophising of Dinorego and Mma-Millipede, the ambitions of Gilbert and Chief Matenge, and the two great love stories of the novel.
It helps, too, that Makhaya is that rare thing in a man — a feminist. His feminism is not just for the benefit of his sisters, who he convinces to see him as an equal, but for himself. He rejects sex multiple times — he is tired of men being reduced to“grovelling sex organs”. This feminism has been at the expense of his traditional heritage which he, in many ways, sees as holding him and all of Africa back.
His critiques of African traditional society are many; still, he is fundamentally invested in the continent. In this regard, there are many parallels to be made with Things Fall Apart’s critique of traditional society. When Rain Clouds Gather is a straightforward condemnation of Apartheid and colonialism but it reaches further still. The independent Africa that Makhaya envisions is dynamic and open to change. Makhaya’s burden is one many of us Africans have experienced — that of trying to separate modernity from colonialism and fundamentalist traditionalism from African identity.
When Rain Clouds Gather takes all these heavy themes in its stride. Makhaya may be the main character but he is not the sole protagonist. The story weaves itself around multiple characters, drifting into the hearts and ambitions of each with effortless insight. The transitions from scene to scene are so harmonious you can see the style the film would take. This flow is so important in a novel centred on a community and its many characters. If ever I have read a novel that embodies the idea of “it takes a village to raise a child”, it is this one. As aloof as he is, Makhaya is no island and soon the villagers break down his walls, and new relationships change the course of his life.
The tenderness in When Rain Clouds Gather can only come from a woman with on-the-ground experience of her characters’ lives. During her life in Botswana, Bessie Head, like Makhaya, lived and worked on an experimental farm. She based Golema Mmidi on her life in Serowe, which she began in extreme poverty.
Today, Bessie Head remains all over Botswana. Her archive is in Botswana, at the Khama III Memorial Museum in Serowe. She’s not the only famous resident of the small town, though. Serowe’s best known as the birthplace of Seretse Khama, independent Botswana’s first president. Serowe’s also the country’s largest village and boasts its largest hospital.
Reading Botswana through When Rain Clouds Gather is probably one of my top Reading Africa experiences. Bessie Head’s debut novel is a page-turner that feels natural and realistic. I started out seeing Botswana as an expanse of land; When Rain Clouds Gather did not introduce me to Gaborone and other cities but it did something more important: it populated Botswana with characters I can identify with. And that’s really what Reading Africa is about.