Bessie Head and her When Rain Clouds Gather

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This entry is part 10 of 10 in the series Reviews season one

Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy writes that Bessie Head’s When Rain Clouds Gather was her little way of protesting South Africa’s apartheid regime.

When I opened the first page of Bessie Head’s When Rain Clouds Gather yesterday, my intention was just to read a few pages to put me in a relaxed state after the stress of composing several pages of an essay I had been working on all through the day. But I found myself reading more than the few pages I had earlier anticipated. Little was I to know that the novel would hold me spellbound late into the night and till the early hours of this morning when I arrived at its last page!

Before my encounter with Bessie Head’s works, what I have read about her here and there was that she was a writer who tried to escape the oppressive life of apartheid South Africa into a world where she could live, love freely, and be at one with Mother Nature. Well, being a little bit of a radical myself, I decided that I would not like her at all. I could not understand why a writer would make the choice of becoming an exile and take refuge in another country yet would refuse to criticise the system that had made her an outcast and an alien scratching the earth for survival in foreign Botswana!

Yes, Bessie Head said she wanted to be away from it all, the hatred and racial chauvinism did not quite agree with her and she wanted to tell stories of simple and rustic people scratching out their daily existence from the soil. She wanted to speak of love and not hatred, she wanted to tell stories; not of racial prejudice but story; about societies where people regarded themselves as equals. This did not agree with my radical element so I struck her out as one of the writers I might not enjoy reading. How dare she stay aloof from the whole issue of racial prejudice and oppression running free in her country?! I thought her a coward. So I had thought then but after reading about four of her works, I begin to have a different opinion of the writer called Bessie Head.

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I did discover that, like the Romantics of the English Romantic period, turning away from a thing does not make you an escapist in the actual sense, staying away from a thing one abhors might just be another way of showing how that thing affects you negatively. The Romantics saw a world carried away by modernisation and technological advances leading to a highly pronounced poverty and they wanted out, they would rather stay away from the whole thing and think of rural, rustic or exotic scenes. They sought out nature for healing. Bessie Head’s situation is like that of the Romantics. She might have escaped physically from her home country in South Africa but she was still rooted to the place psychologically. Her setting might have been villages in Botswana but the things she spoke of resonate with the condition of things in South Africa.

I have come to notice that when man is confronted with a problem, he can either react by confronting the problem directly or he may choose to avoid it. In the case of the former, he might be said to be brave while in the latter case, he may be labeled a coward. I had always thought Bessie a coward who could not stand up to her problems and that of her nation but I was wrong. She did not face her problems directly but by avoiding a headlong confrontation, she was making a loud protest. Her story speaks of ideals such as love, mutual respect between human beings, equality, and the need to overcome the control which the urge to acquire power has over us.

Bessie tells of humans trying to control other humans psychologically, man seeking the destruction of others but most importantly, she shows us the need to seek a tranquil existence; to live a quiet life and be at one with the soil (nature). The need to live in a society where one is sure of returning home if one leaves it in the morning, where there are no law officers to threaten you for what you write and even throw you in jail or restrict you to a particular rural area and you were not allowed to travel as you would like in your country or speak to anyone, be in a political gathering or speak to more than two people in public at a time. Such a society could turn anyone psychotic and it was the society the South Africans lived in during the apartheid regime!

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Bessie Head’s major characters were always seeking escape from it all and most have a similar experience as the writer; they are always seeking escape from a brutal world to a beautiful one where they could be peace of mind and rest; where the racial hatred is watered down to infinite love and concern for each other. I suddenly realised that, all along, Bessie Head had been protesting! Yes, the protest may not be as loud as that of Nelson Mandela, Robert Sobukwe or Steve Biko or that of Masizi Kunene, Arthur Mybuseni, Peter Abrams and Athol Fugard to mention a few but it was protest all the same. Did I mention Alex La Guma? His spirit would haunt my dreams if I did not mention him here. Hahaha! While these other writers focused on the physical brutalisation of the black man in apartheid South Africa (not that these writers focused on physical aspects alone), Bessie Head was more concerned about the psychological aspects of racial prejudice. Perhaps this explains why her novels are nearly philosophical and convoluted. In fact, they are philosophical.

The need to turn away from it all, seek an escape route, is because not all humans are built the same way. While some can confront adversities and remain standing, others might just collapse and stop breathing. Such was the case with Bessie Head and some of her major characters; they could not stay and stomach it all so they needed the escape. I do not remember where I read it or was it one of my lecturers who once said that “A WRITER CANNOT WRITE OUTSIDE THE EXPERIENCES THAT CONDITION HIS BEING!” He is a product of a society and must select his writing tools from the communal accessible pools in his society. The above words ring true for Bessie Head. If Bessie Head wrote about love and happiness, it is a reaction against the hate and racial prejudice in her homeland. If she told a story about women and men living harmonious life in rustic milieu, it is a reaction against the violent scenes that had characterised her homeland for too long.

Bessie Head’s attitude is not unusual as human beings are often moved to speak of the things they do not have but so much wanted as if they have it, speaking of these things is a comfort zone and they prefer to live in that make-believe world of theirs. This is why your friends in school may come telling you of how their father bought a new house, a new car and is now building another house in the village when in actuality, the father is just one poor factory worker etching out a living from a miserable salary. Ridiculous right? But it is the truth haha!

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Writers are human after all and Bessie Head is not an exception. Maybe she did see the kind of world she wanted in Botswana but the world she described in the novel I just read is a world of escape for her likes. A world she could rearrange and make into what she wanted. Writing also was a means of escape for her. I think she once enunciated so herself.

Now, one last thing I wish to note here is Bessie’s fondness for neurotic characters. Was it because she had that fear of madness in her blood because her mother suffered from acute madness and that she may one day fall into that same state of despondency? There is always that character in almost all of her novels, who is at the precipice of becoming neurotic. I saw it in Maru and I have seen it in When Rain Clouds Gather also.

I think Bessie painted most her major characters to have a little of her in them and one could clearly see it in the sense that there were often aliens or exiles. So, that one character does things extreme or that a character actions are sometimes inexplicable or incomprehensible is a usual thing one finds in her works.

When Rain Clouds Gather is a novel which tells the story of Makhaya Maseko, a South African refugee who escapes the South African border to a small village in Botswana. The village has a white man, Gilbert, who is dedicated to improving the lives of these rural people by teaching them mechanised farming and ways to grow crops in a region that is witnessing two years of drought. Makhaya’s presence in the village set it on a path of change but there are elements like the local chief who found this change unfavourable because he stands to lose some of the special privileges and booties he gets if he allows the change take place for he would not want the people to rise above their poverty level and become as comfortable as a chief like him. To effect this change totally, the people must stand up to their chief. When they finally had the courage to do this, Chief Matenge, out of fear, commits suicide.

The story is Bessie Head’s first published novel and most likely the best of her stories that I have read.

Well, these are all I have to tell you of the great writer known as Bessie Head. Thank you for reading through, we should meet again to do this some other time. Au revoir!

Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy

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Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy

Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy holds a degree in English language and literary studies. He is a short story writer, copy editor, book reviewer, literary critic, poet, and essayist. He teaches English as a Foreign Language in Hargeisa, Somaliland.

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