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 wife Tiro, and their son and 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 plow.
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 of sticks.
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, available in paperback from Amazon here.
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