An Analysis of Bessie Head's "Looking for a Rain
Bessie Head's "Looking for a Rain God"
Commentary by Karen Bernardo
Bessie Head's "Looking for a Rain God" tells the story of a family of African villagers who make their living by
farming the scrubby land known as the bush. Such farmers do not actually live on the land they farm; they have to
journey out into the bush, some distance from their villages, to reach their plots. The distance may be only a few
miles -- Head is not specific, except to say that the farmers reach their plots on foot -- but because of the heat,
the farmers and their families seek out shady areas along the way to rest during their journey.
Normally the rest areas are shady, lush, and green, "with delicate pale-gold and purple wildflowers springing up
between soft green moss, and the children could hunt around for wild figs and any berries that might be in season."
But this year, the land has been ravaged by a terrible drought, and the moss is crinkly and dry; the flowers are
gone, and the soil is arid.
Nonetheless, families who subsist by farming must try to farm or die, and the small family headed by the elderly
Mokgobja is encouraged by a slight misty rain which they hope will turn into something more substantial. They head
out into the bush -- Mokgobja, his son Ramadi, Ramadi's wife Tiro, and their three daughters. One of the daughters,
presumably a teenager, is old enough to help with the farm work, and in the warm mist she and her parents mark off
their plot with thornbush to prevent it from being trampled by goats. Ramadi then tills the ground with a hand
But then the rain, as Head puts it, "flies away." As days pass and it becomes drier and drier, the family begins to
panic. The oldest sister, Nesta, and her mother weep incessantly; the nerves of the men are "stretched to
breaking-point" because men are supposed to do something, and there is nothing they can do. Only the littlest
girls, who are too young to realize the seriousness of their family's situation, happily play house with dolls made
Suddenly Mokgobja remembers something from his earliest childhood, from the days before the indigenous religion was
"buried by years and years of praying in a Christian church." In the old days, he recalls, children were sacrificed
and their bodies dismembered across the fields to make the land more fertile. It sounds, to our ears, monstrous.
But the children are prattling their childish nonsense; the women are moaning their despair; and the men feel
impotent. Perhaps the rain god is out there; if they appease him, perhaps he will help. The children are
sacrificed, and still it does not rain; a "terror, extreme and deep" overwhelms the adults, and they roll up their
blankets and return to the village.
Upon the family's return, all the villagers ask about the missing girls, and at first the family merely says they
died. However, when the police ask to see the graves, "the mother of the children broke down and told them
everything." Mokgobja and Ramadi are sentenced, convicted, and executed for a crime that did not exist back in the
old days when human sacrifice was an acceptable way of ensuring a good harvest. Their blood metaphorically joins
that of their children.
This story can be found in the collection "The Collector of Treasures."
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