Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Book 63, Botswana: "When Rain Clouds Gather" by Bessie Head

I actually really enjoy Alexander McCall-Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective series – even met the man at a literary reading in Singapore and found him delightful; not a snooty British ethnologist but a guy who really cares about and genuinely likes the country he sets his stories in.

Still, I’m really glad I’ve found a work by an author who’s actually from Botswana – a work that’s regarded as one of the top 100 African books of the 20th century, no less!

(Though to be precise, Head is from South Africa, the fruit of a clandestine liaison between a black man and a white woman who fled to Botswana as a refugee during apartheid. Whatevs: she actually took up citizenship and died in the nation. That makes her Batswana enough for me.)

Truth is, however, When Rain Clouds Gather isn’t that great a read. It’s clumsily written (her first novel), with weird motivations and structuring, and it’s didactic as all hell – spends an awful lot of time blathering about what agricultural and economic policies would most benefit the villagers of Golema Mmidi.

The plot’s okay, I guess. Makhaya, a forward-thinking and magnetically handsome young South African revolutionary, illegally crosses the border to become a refugee in the village. He’s discovered by a kindly old man and enlisted as the assistant to a young blue-eyed British economist intent on transforming the feudal agricultural system through collectivism, with tobacco as a cash crop, which kinda goes against our current PC thinking.

Oddly enough, the white folks in the book are good guys – very different in culture and perspective, certainly, but actually bearing the best of intentions for this bit of empire they’ve just lost. This thoroughly disorients Makhaya, who’s used to seeing white men as the enemies of liberation.

The real enemies turn out to be the chiefs: Matenge, who exploits the people by shorting them when he sells their cattle; also the two-faced opposition politicians paid by the CIA to bring down the elitist chief’s sons who’re ruling the nation now as elected officials, having turned against their fathers in the name of the people…

And this is where we link back to the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series again, because you’ll remember the books are full of Mma Ramostwe’s praise for Sir Seretse Khama, the first president and the founder of independence, who really was sincerely a good man and a good ruler.

In effect, Bessie Head is narrating the conflicts between the tradition-bound chiefs and the populist reformers who would eventually manage to change the land into a completely respectable modern state, a country that would be exemplary in the African continent if it weren’t for its raging rates of HIV.

Also of interest is the way it reveals how South Africa really underwent development before its neighbours: how Makhaya remembers the vast urban complexes of the country he’s abandoned for the droughty dusty deserts of Botswana, and then realises he doesn’t miss that stuff very much at all.

That’s enough for this post then! I’m flying to New York tomorrow and I must pack.

View Around the World in 80 Books!!! in a larger map

Representative quote: There were two such destinies which faced Africa – that of the followers of Solomon and that of a man with no shoes. But the man with no shoes had been bypassed, scorned, and ridiculed while the Solomons stalked the land in their golden Chevrolets. Who would eat then if all the gold and pomegranates went into the house of Solomon? Who would bathe if all the water went into his forty bathrooms? Who would have time to plough if everyone had to join the parade to watch Solomon pass by in his Chevrolet of molten gold, his top hat and silk shirt, glittering in the African sun?”

Next book: Nozipo Maraire’s Zenzele, from Zimbabwe.

No comments: