A hard reign

Posted on December 9, 2012

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If you live in a mud hut, beware of the rain – Botswana Proverb

BessieHeadI’m not entirely sure what this proverb means given that Botswana, though admittedly hot and arid most of the time, has a rainy season – every year in fact.  And while 60% of the population live in urban areas, that still leaves quite a lot of mud hutters who must be a tad fidgety 11 months of the year waiting for the rain to fall.  I’m guessing the emphasis of this saying is on the dwellers, then, rather than the dwellings, that the mud hut is a metaphor and that it’s a proverbial precipitation of which they need be wary – it being a proverb an’ all.   This suits our purpose rather well, since Bessie Head’s When Rain Clouds Gather is about the delicate (in)balance of tribal power structures in rural Botswana.

I was unsure when choosing this book whether it fitted within my self-imposed rules.  Bessie Head was born in South Africa and only lived in exile in Botswana.  I was reliably informed by someone whose opinion I allow myself to be informed by, that she is considered a Botswanan writer and that, in fact, all her fiction writing was done once she was in Botswana – she was a journalist in South Africa.   Weighing it up, and reading a little more about her, she had an amazing life, I decided that it might be interesting to read an ‘outsider’s’ view.[1] After all, in my humble opinion, the best book about the impenetrable codification of British manners – The Remains of the Day – was written by Kazuo Ishiguro who moved to Britain aged 5 and maintains:

“I’m not entirely like English people because I’ve been brought up by Japanese parents in a Japanese-speaking home. My parents didn’t realize that we were going to stay in this country for so long, they felt responsible for keeping me in touch with Japanese values. I do have a distinct background. I think differently, my perspectives are slightly different.”[2]

Maybe there’s something to be learned from these different perspectives. To misquote Burns, it gives us some power to see oursel’s as others see us.

When Rain Clouds Gather begins with Makehaya, a South African activist, escaping across the border into independent Botswana.   In the village of Golema Mmidi, Makehaya falls under the protection of the idealistic Englishman, Gilbert, who is building a prototype Utopia in the East of Botswana.   Here Makehaya finds a sort of peace and purpose as well as falling in love with the strong willed Paulina, also an outsider.  It is through these outsiders that Head problematizes modernity and the retrogressive stranglehold (as she sees it) of tribal tradition and chiefdom.  Through the efforts of Gilbert (intellectual), Makehaya (physical), Paulina (organizational), modern farming methods are brought to the village and the traditional ways, designed to keep tribal chiefs rich and villagers in a state of subsistence, are overthrown.  A power struggle is inevitable, but one of the strengths of Head’s writing is that she never writes as if this were a thriller, there is no violent crescendo. Tragedies befall characters throughout. Some arise out of the blindness and strength of tradition, for instance, Paulina’s first husband commits suicide after being accused, though innocent, of stealing from his company (his tribe’s tradition is to commit suicide when one’s honour is called into question); the villages subsist on little to no food because their tradition is not to grow millet – not even as a cash crop, even though it would grow well, year round; the men live away from the village because they don’t have a tradition of building fences so their cattle wander. But tragedy also arises simply out of living in such a place at such a time – the harsh weather, an outbreak of TB, a heart attack brought on by high blood pressure. Struggles are played out on a small-scale, the characters ultimately being overwhelmed by the only thing they can’t control, Botswana herself.   Luckily, in Head’s vision of Botswana, there is hope and the novel ends with a satisfyingly realistic measure of optimism.

This is one of those books that even a speed-reader has to read slowly. Not because it’s dense or difficult, but because the journey is so beautiful you need to stop and look at the scenery along the way.   Head’s prose is simple; she’s sparing with adjectives (hallelujah!) and light-touched with metaphors:

‘The chief is not going to die of high blood pressure,’ [Makehaya] said, ‘I’m going to kill him.’ And he said this with all the calm assurance of a fortune-teller making a prediction.

It may be that her training as a journalist taught her the power of keeping prose lean, but for whatever reason, this lean style matches the barren landscape of Botswana and the limitations of the world in which the villagers live

Although I hate to add to the huge pile of recommendations already given, I really would recommend Head’s work.  Being mixed-race, Head suffered racism from both white and black Africans, she had a nervous breakdown after years of abuse living as a refugee in a Botswanan village, yet she always believed in love.  She wrote, ‘I believe in the contents of the human heart…a silent secret conspiracy against all the insanity and hatred in mankind.’ Her work is about the transformative power of love not in a romantic sense, but in the strength wrought when two people meet each other with open hearts as equals.


[1] If you’re interested – and Head’s life rewards the effort – the introduction by Helen Oyeyemi to the Virago edition is worth reading. Alternatively there’s a whole site dedicated to When Rain Clouds Gather  – http://bit.ly/TJ626e

[2] Swift, Graham “Kazuo Ishiguro”, BOMB Magazine Fall, 1989. Retrieved on [7-25-2012.]

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