Transactions In Bessie Head’s Novel, When Rain Clouds Gather,
The transactions in Bessie Head’s novel, When Rain Clouds Gather, involve exchanges that can be described as social, economic, and political. The most significant exchange is seen in the life of Makhaya Maseko whose departure from South Africa is not only a political strategy but an earnest search for “peace of mind” in exchange of the “fame and importance” he would have had or pursued in his homeland. This exchange becomes beneficial to Golema Mmidi, his new home in exile. By teaming up with other people who have found refuge in this small village, Makhaya transforms Golema Mmidi both economically, socially, and politically to create an ideal community that is bent on promoting development aspirations by overcoming cultural limitations. This ambitious project is only achieved when the villagers make an exchange of retrogressive traditional practices for progressive activities.
Makhaya pursues inner peace by engaging himself in constructive activities. He finds fulfillment of inner peace and communal progress in the village of Golema Mmidi through his involvement in cooperative farming. The people he finds in Golema Mmidi willingly share whatever little they have both materially and spiritually. There is a “feeling of great goodness” which is translated into practical activities and cooperation (MacKenzie 36).
Another socio-economic exchange that takes place in the initial stages of Makhaya’s journey happens when he crosses the border and chances upon an old woman who not only offers him shelter for the night in exchange for money but sells to him her young granddaughter too for the night. Despite the old woman appearance as a mean and unscrupulous person, her plight and living conditions evoke sympathy and she is seen as a victim of her own helplessness in a poverty ridden society.
According to Mackenzie, the old woman is a victim of male dominance in a society guided by traditions. She has no qualms against child prostitution as she has not only surrendered to male domination but is also deeply convinced that a man is “nothing more than a groveling sex organ” (Mackenzie 32). This is one of the reasons why she sees Makhaya as an insane person when he turns down the sexual offer by crying out aloud, “I have not yet known a man who did not regard a woman as a gift from God! He must be mad” (MacKenzie 32). This form of exchange of a granddaughter for money is used by the author to portray the prevalence of sexism in tribal societies which when incorporated with poverty and oppression represents the destruction wrought by tribal life.
The economic activities of Golema Mmidi village represent another form of exchange. The village, which derives its name from its economic activity of crop production, is trying to make a shift from traditional agricultural practices to new methods of crop production. The inhabitants of the village are mostly people who have found a refuge here from the “tragedies of life.” They have brought with them new progressive ways in their effort to start a new life and survive. They have to find a way forward without the benefit of traditionally acquired wealth. This is the main reason why they have to break free from the binds of traditional practices to seek for possibilities in the new life. This exchange from traditional agricultural practices to modern ways of crop production largely benefits the entire village.
There is a political exchange of alliances in the village from the exploitative rule of Matenge, the sub chief, to the progressive and liberal leadership of Makhaya and his fellow exiles. With the shift in alliances, Makhaya not only poses a threat to Matenge’s authoritarian rule but also promises to bring the questionable traditions to an end. The traditions have lost relevance since they no longer provide a solution to starvation and poverty. This is why the villagers are willing to exchange their alliance to Matenge with modernity.
Choosing to be led by Makhaya, Gilbert, Paulina, and Dinorego, the villagers have found an alternative to starvation and misery. Their break from traditions provides a new future for not only the village of Golema Mmidi but for the whole of Botswana too. This exchange is referred to as “the progress of mankind” (MacKenzie 37).
The villagers’ disapproval of Matenge’s leadership is best exemplified by the statement made by one unpretentious sage who remarks:
“In this world are born both evil and good men. Both have to do justice to their cause. In this country there is a great tolerance of evil. It is because of death that we tolerate evil. All meet death in the end, and because of death we make allowances for evil though we do not like it” (MacKenzie 35).
The statement implies that tolerance of evil is borne of man’s fear of death. People are most likely to accept evil in exchange of death.
The idea of cooperatives plays a significant role in moving the plot along by discussing themes like love and gender roles. For example Paulina and Mma-Millipede are involved in the cooperative project for personal rather than economic reasons. Mma-Millipede recommends Paulina to work under Makhaya in the cooperative for tobacco farming with the intention of matching the two for a love relationship rather than for professional purposes. The running of the tobacco cooperative is thus being exploited to create a romantic match. This brings in a new dimension to the roles of the cooperative and helps to move the plot of the story ahead. The theme of romance is portrayed in the novel’s ending where both Gilbert and Makhaya prove their dedication to the country when they marry Batswana women.
The cooperative project is significant in the theme of gender roles in the Batswana traditions. Traditional rules do not allow women to participate in leadership and decision making processes. This is why sub chief Matenge summons Paulina to his house as a punishment for her involvement, spearheading participation of women, in Gilbert and Makhaya’s agricultural project. In the sub chief’s opinion, and by extension the cultural opinion, Paulina’s role in the agricultural project is against the law and a violation of traditional customs. However, Matenge can not overcome the combined force of the villagers led by Makhaya and Gilbert so much that he eventually commits suicide.
In the eventual analysis, there are two factions in the village of Golema Mmidi. The first one is made of traditionalists who are trying to resist change and are stuck to the old ways of practicing agriculture. This group is led by sub chief Matenge who tries to frustrate the introduction of new and progressive farming methods. His main reason for opposing these projects is the fear of losing his exploitative grip on the villagers. This faction eventually becomes the main losers in the novel when the villagers side with Makhaya. The other faction in the novel is led by the Makhaya, Gilbert, Paulina, and Dinorego who are keen on improving the people’s lifestyle by eradicating poverty and hopelessness. They are the authors of the cooperative movement and bear a lot of good promises for the villagers. This faction represents progress and this is why it eventually wins the hearts of the villagers.
The tobacco cooperative represents a growing small scale capitalism that is structured to benefit the entire society. It reflects a business model that emerged in post-colonial Africa which emphasized on mutual benefit of the entire community in exchange for ideas and labor. In this new system, the villagers are organized in cooperative structures that allocate duties and resources to each member and trade with other tribes. The cooperative system in Gomela Mmidi is a remedy to the exploitative structures set by traditions and enforced by individualistic leaders like Matenge.
The social, economic, and political transactions in When the Rain Clouds Gather serve to bring about a small scale form of capitalism that is practiced on a co-operative basis. The society is making gradual shift from an exploitative traditional set up to a new progressive system that ensures the Batswana fully develop and utilize resources to the maximum. The benefits of these exchanges are directed to the people themselves. Traditional leadership under the exploitative reign of Sub chief Matenge represents rampant capitalism which only benefits a few but the new communalism or cooperative development is beneficial to the entire society.
MacKenzie, Craig. “Chapter Four: When Rain Clouds Gather (1968).” Bessie Head. New York,NY: Twyne Publishers, 1999. Print.