Tuesday, 21 February 2012

“Looking for a Rain God” by Bessie Head: an analysis


The story is in rural Botswana, Africa, where the people basically farm off the vast bush land. The year is 1958.


“Looking for a Rain God” is about an African family’s desperate struggle against a drought that results in tragic outcome. An African village is plagued by a 7-year drought. The villagers, who are mainly farmers, suffer from starvation as they are dependent on the rain to grow their crop. The rain finally comes and many families rush out to resume farming. Mokgobja and his family are one of the first to clear and plough their land. Their hopes are dashed when the rain only lasts for 2 weeks. Fearing the starvation that they have to face the following year, Mokgobja’s daughter-in-law and her sister, become hysterical. Mokgobja remembers an ancient rain-making ceremony which involves the ritual sacrifice of young children to appease Rain God. Mokgobja and his son Ramadi, sacrifice Ramadi’s two young daughters. Unfortunately, the rain does not come. Eventually, Mokgobja and his family return to the village, filled with despair, guilt and fear. The other villagers become suspicious about the missing children. Soon the police arrive and Tiro, the children’s mother, breaks down and confesses. Finally, Mokgobja and his son are sentenced to death.

1.      Man’s survival against the forces of nature

The entire farming community is dependent on nature (the land, crops, animals and rain) for their survival. When the drought comes, the farmers become absolutely helpless.

      Nature remains merciless and unrelenting even after the family sacrifices their most precious possession – their children.

      When nature becomes unkind to man, man too becomes unkind and there is a loss of humanity. The fear of death and suffering brings out a type of survival instinct in man which transcends the limits of sanity and rationality. Consequently, what is considered as unnatural (the ancient custom of sacrificing children to a Rain God) becomes natural and acceptable.

2.      Hope and desperation

For the people in this farming community, hope is all that is left for them to hold on to. They can only hope for the rain to come in order to relieve them from their misery. Some men lose this hope and commit suicide. Mokgobja and his family carry on, hoping for the rain. When the rain finally comes they rush to their farm, full of hope, excitement, anticipation and joy. They think that their problems will be resolved. However, their happiness is short-lived. The rain stops falling, shattering all their dreams.

Nevertheless, they do not lose hope. They wait for the rain again. After a long wait, their hopes turns to desperation, and they reach a point where they are willing to grasp at anything that might resolve their problem. Hoping that the rain will come if they offer the “ultimate” sacrifice, the family does the ritual killing of the 2 children. Pushed to the very limits of desperation and hope, these people lose their sense of humanity and rationality.

3.      Nature’s law, man’s law and tribal law

Nature’s law is independent to man’s law. The concept of justice, as perceived in man’s law, is meaningless in nature’s law. Man’s law comprises modern law and tribal law. Sometimes what is acceptable in one might be unacceptable in another. The community represents modern law. Though tribal law once accepted the ritual killing of the children, modern law does not accept it anymore. The 2 men are sentenced to death.
Character analysis
Description of characters
Evidence from text


Hardworking farmer, 70 years old. Believes in tradition. Head of the family who decides to start farming after the rainfall – a decision-maker. Maintains self-control. The desperation of the situation drives him to an irresponsible act – he convinces the others to sacrifice his two granddaughters.

-Mokgobja, who was 70 years old.
-The men sat quiet and self-controlled.
-He began consulting in whispers with his youngest son.
-The two men began whispering with the two women.


Mokgobja’s filial son. Farmer, and supporter of his family. Initially he is in despair but maintains self-control as he believes that man has to be strong. The absence of the rainfall and the wailing of the 2 women affect his self-control. He becomes irrational and agrees to his father’s suggestion to sacrifice his 2 children.

..supporter of the family.
-The two men sat quiet and self-controlled.

-Ramadi’s nerves were smashed.

Tiro and Nesta

Ramadi’s wife, Tiro and her sister, Nesta are hardworking women and good home-makers. Strict. When confronted with the prospect of another year of starvation, they become emotionally weak and disillusioned. They eventually break down.

..making home like their mother.
..scolded them (the rag dolls) severally like their own mother.
-It was the women of the family who finally broke down under the strain of waiting for the rain.

Neo and Boseyong – the 2 children

Innocent and cheerful. They imitate the adult world when they play with each other. Their innocent and untainted nature results in them being considered as appropriate sacrifices to appease the Rain God.

-Neo and Boseyong, were quite happy in their little girl world.
..adults..did not even hear the funny chatter.
-a certain Rain God who accepted only the sacrifice of the bodies of children.

Sequence of events

Sequence of events

The narrator sets the background of the story against the African bush where a village faces a 7-year drought.

Hopes of the farmer are raised with the arrival of the rain.

Mokgobja and family are one of the few to rush out to clear and plough the land.

Complication and conflict set in when the rain stops after about 2 weeks.

The family in despair waiting for the rain to come.

Tiro and Nesta break down completely and start a strange, frenzied wailing. This sets off a further conflict in the men, who first try to be self-controlled but who slowly become affected.

To find a solution, Mokgobja remembers an ancient rain-making ceremony whereby children are sacrificed to appease the Rain God.

The climax of the story occurs when the 2 children are sacrificed. Unfortunately the rain does not come.

The family is ridden with guilt and fear when the rain does not come. Unable to bear the deathly silence, they flee back to the village.

The villagers become suspicious over the absence of the 2 children.
Soon the police come and demand to see the graves of the children. The mother, Tiro, breaks down and confesses.

There is a resolution as the 2 men are sentenced to death.

On the other hand, there is no resolution to the problem of the drought as the rain still does not come.

Techniques – Some examples
Contrast and imagery
-  shady watering places full of lush tangled trees with delicate pole-gold and purple wild flowers springing up between soft, green moss.
-      as dismal as the dry open thorn-bush country; the leaves of the trees curled up and withered;
-         the moss became dry and hard
-  a number of men just went out of their homes and hung themselves to death from trees. (hints at death)
-         Only the charlatons, incanters and witch-doctor made a pile of money during this time because people were always turning to them in desperation for little talisman and herbs to rub on the plough for the crops to grow and the rain to fall. (hints at the importance and hope people place on supernatural beliefs to solve problems)

-  the rain clouds fled away and left the sky bare
-         the sun danced dizzily in the sky, with a strange cruelty
-         the sun sucked up the last drop of moisture out of earth

-         as dismal as the dry open thorn-bush

-    the children represent new life
-         the act (sacrifice) that the 2 men perform to ensure their survival which eventually becomes the cause of their own deaths.
-         the desperation to have rain to grow crops that leads to the killing of the two growing children – the future generation is sacrificed for the growing of the crops.
-         the sun that is usually a life-giving source becomes the cause of death.

Point of View
Third-person narrative (the narrator).