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How does Bessie Head use symbolism in her novel When rain clouds gather and what effect does it have on the way we read and respond to the story? In the novel When rain clouds gather, Bessie Head uses symbolism to express the transition from the harsh life of tribalism, to the development of modern day co-operatives and the effect it has on the community.
One of the main symbolic images in the text is the recurring theme of When rain clouds gather. This incomplete and open statement refers to the progression and change Golema Mmidi is facing now that Makhaya and Gilbert have joined up with the community.
Rain clouds gathering at first suggests a negative atmosphere to the novel, as clouds lead to the blockage of the sun and so provide a cold and dark mood.
However, rain clouds make a transition from being negative to positive through the book, as it is later discovered that rain clouds gathering are desired and looked forward to, with the Botswana people going so far as to call “all good things and all good people rain”. Those rain clouds come to symbolize hope, recovery, the rewards of faith, new growth” (P, I).
The reader is asked to change his earlier preconception on rain clouds and realize that rain provides water which is a necessity in the Botswana desert.
It is required to grow the crops, vegetation, and quench the cattle’s thirst, who provide the only source of income in the village. Moreover, the rain clouds symbolize the villagers of Golema Mmidi getting together once they realize through Makhaya and Gilbert that by co-operating they can achieve much more then they could individually.
They join forces against Matenge because they have more influence in bigger numbers. The reader is told that “the rain clouds always gathered in September”, except for now. This signifies the breaking of tribalism and the tradition that has kept the villagers underdeveloped and poor for so long. Those metaphorical rain clouds stop following the routinely tradition, where in they didn’t question their situation, and start exploring new options and ideas. Like the gathering of rain clouds, Bessie Head uses the goats to symbolize
Golema Mmidi. She shows how one single goat cannot sustain an entire village, while an entire herd of goats joined together can. The same principal goes to the residents, who united can change their state of living into a better one using co-operatives. “Goats just walk about all day eating dry paper and bits of rubble and then turn it into meat and milk”, analogues to the villagers who, although having very little, work hard and manage to be content and happy about their lives.
Once again the theme of gathering and working together to improve living conditions comes through. In addition to that, the simple images of goats allow the reader to recognize the development of characters, such as Makhaya. The contrast between the simplicity of the goats and Makhaya’s developing life grows larger as the end of the novel nears. “Makhaya found his own transformation in this enchanting world”, from having nothing and nobody, to gaining respect, family, hope, dignity and a name.
He went from being a dangerous refugee to becoming a loved resident. An equally important developing character is Matenge, who is the antagonist of the book since he symbolizes tribalism. “Chief Matenge really believed he was ‘royalty’/But he was ailing these days”. He went from a chief embodying tribalism to being weakened by the gathering rain clouds, which descended him into oblivion. This eventually led to him dying, because “he was faced with the progress of mankind”, and would not change his ways.
His death symbolizes the end of the tribalism era and the beginning of a developed, modern cash-crop co-operative Golema Mmidi. Another important recurring symbol in the book is fences which represents entrapment. There is both a literal and metaphorical fence surrounding South Africa, Botswana, and Golema Mmidi. The villagers are confined to the geographically poor agricultural areas, where there is hardly rain and vegetation growth is poor because of the temperature. On the other hand the Botswana people are also confined to the fences of traditions or “The Botswana prison”.
They are fenced in by prejudice. Moreover, although the people of Botswana are entrapped in their traditional ways of living, they are oblivious to their oppression. “A Motswana without any cattle might as well be dead” shows how they are so blinded by traditions and its rules that they don’t realize that reality could be much easier and better for them if they broke away from it. They are ignorant to their suppression because that is the only life they have led; a life where they are mistreated and have no freedom of speech.
Whilst this may be true, Gilberts methods allow the reader to see fencing as something positive as “he explained that without fencing he could not gather all this valuable information [about cash-crops]”. By fencing the land and dividing it into four areas which resulted in more rapid and healthier vegetation, Gilbert managed to modernize the way the villagers act with their environment. However this still allowed them to retain their connection with their original land, just with a new set of rules. Another piece of symbolism in the book is the model village, which acts as a microcosm representing Golema Mmidi.
The model village being created by Paulina’s daughter symbolizes how the new generation will lead Golema Mmidi into a developed and more modernized age. Since the girl built it, it might suggest that woman have a more positive future role. “[Makhaya] held up one of the pieces of wood which he shaped into a palm tree” ,which he then proceeded to add to the minute village, showing the collaboration between genders as Paulina’s daughter and Makhaya worked on it together. This might also suggests that there will be equality in the future.
Consequently, because Makhaya helps Paulina’s daughter by planting grass and trees into the model village, it symbolizes the new ideas he will bring to the real Golema Mmidi; it shows a smaller view of what he will put into the village. “Makhaya crouch[ing] down on one knee beside the miniature village”, leaning over it to plant the trees makes the reader acknowledge that Makhaya will be there to protect the village from harm and mistreatment. In conclusion Bessie Head uses a lot of symbolism in her book through her characters, like Makhaya and Matenge, but also through the surroundings of Golema Mmidi and animals like cattle and goats.
This subconsciously aids and emphasis the reality of the story and the message Bessie Head is trying to get across to the reader , about the problems Golema Mmidi has being a microcosm to the problems and potential of the whole of South Africa. How the solution to them is through collaboration, a strong theme running out through the whole of the novel. This suggests that if people work together they can overcome their differences to improve their lives.
Bibliography: Head, B. , 2008(1969)), When rain clouds gather, Heinemann Harlow .