On his Granpa's farm in the province of Natal in South Africa, an unnamed blonde infant is suckled by his black Zulu nanny. She sings to him of warriors and women washing at the baboons' water hole. At five, the little boy's mother has a nervous breakdown and he is sent to an Afrikaans boarding school. He is the youngest student by two years, and is hated because he is the only English-speaker in the school, which makes him a "rooinek" (Afrikaans for "redneck," a derogatory term for the British, inherited from the Boer War).
Two eleven-year-olds put the little boy to trial - he is made to kneel naked in the shower, where he says a prayer to his Zulu nanny instead of to God. The Judge, along with his "council of war", pee on the boy. The little boy has never seen a shower before - his nanny always washed him in a tin tub. The matron of the hostel, simply called "Mevrou" ("Missus" in Afrikaans), smells the pee on the boy and drags him to the showers. She switches on the cold faucet, but the boy thinks that she too must be peeing on him. The Judge asks the boy why he wets his bed. The boy cannot answer. The Judge pulls down the boy's pants, and the kids all look and laugh at his "hatless snake" - his circumcised penis. They all chant "pisskop" ("pisshead"), which becomes his nickname. The Judge now displays his own large, uncircumcised penis.
The little boy manages to whittle the tortures down to one hour a day. His bedwetting still lingers, however, causing him shame and misery. Mevrou examines his bed every morning and sends him to wash the rubber sheet until his hands reek of the carbolic soap. The boy learns that he needs to adopt a camouflage in order to cope. As part of this camouflage, he resolves never to cry. This decision infuriates the Judge. The boy gains some respect from the other kids for holding the school record for the largest number of beatings, yet they continue to ostracize and torment him verbally and physically. At the end of the first term, the boy's district doctor and the flyhalf for the Northern Transvaal rugby team, Dr. Henny Boshoff, picks him up to drive him home to his Granpa, and nanny on the farm. The Judge, impressed by this grand exit from the school, promises the boy better treatment after the holidays. Dr. Henny tells the boy that his mother is recovering from her breakdown, but is not ready to return home yet.
It is late summer, and on the farm, the black women spend their days singing as they gather cotton. Nanny prays for Inkosi-Inkosikazi, the great black medicine man, to visit them to solve the little boy's bedwetting problem. Inkosi-Inkosikazi eventually arrives in a black Buick. The women gather gifts of food for him, among them being some "kaffir chickens," not quite dead. One of the chickens reminds the boy of his Granpa. The only difference rests in the eyes: the cock has beady eyes whereas the boy's Granpa has eyes "intended for gazing over soft English landscapes." The boy's Granpa despises Shangaan people (one of the black tribes of South Africa), but he respects the Zulu medicine man, Inkosi-Inkosikazi, who once cured his gallstones. Inkosi-Inkosikazi is considered the last of the sons of the famous Zulu king, Dingaan, who fought off both British and Boers (Afrikaners). The boy's Granpa welcomes him to the farm. Inkosi-Inkosikazi orders the black women to let the chickens loose and catch them a second time. Then he uses "low-grade magic" to put them to sleep. He beckons the boy to sit with him on the "indaba" (meeting) mat - a great honor, since only chiefs are allowed to sit on these mats. Inkosi-Inkosikazi now summons Nanny to tell the boy's bedwetting story in Shangaan. Nanny brings the women to tears with her impressive elocutionary skills. Dee and Dum, the twin kitchen maids, are dazzled by Nanny's story. But Inkosi-Inkosikazi simply scratches his backside and orders "kaffir beer." That night Nanny hugs Peekay, telling him he has brought honor on her by allowing her to show that a Zulu woman can rival Shangaans in tale-telling.
The following day Inkosi-Inkosikazi's magic Ox shinbones tell him to visit the boy in his dreams. In his dreams, the boy must leap over three waterfalls and cross ten stones of a river. Inkosi-Inkosikazi puts the boy to sleep and speaks him through the dream landscape, calling him the "little warrior of the king." Then he wakes the boy and tells him that he can always find him in the "night country." Inkosi-Inkosikazi now teaches the boy his magic chicken trick and gives him one of the chickens - the one that looks like his Granpa - on which to practice. The boy names the chicken Granpa Chook.
The novel opens with the startling image of a blonde boy being suckled by a black wet nurse. We are immediately confronted with the issue of race, and more specifically of idiosyncratic racial relationships. The voice narrating-that of the protagonist Peekay-is critical of any racial intolerance it encounters. A reflection on Afrikaners' hatred for the English, spawned during the time of the Boer War, ushers in the description of five-year-old Peekay's arrival at boarding school. As the narrator explains, the Boer War (1899–1902) was fought between the Boers (the Afrikaans-speakers of South Africa) and the British (the English- speakers of South Africa) for full possession of the country. Both Boers and British believed themselves to be the rightful inheritors of South Africa. It witnessed the first concentration camps in the world—the British confined the Boers to these concentration camps, where twenty-six thousand men, women, and children died. The derogatory Afrikaans term "rooinek" (redneck)-used to describe the British-was coined at the time of the war since the necks of the British burnt crimson under the hot African sun. By introducing the historical conflict between the two "white tribes" of South Africa, Peekay reminds readers that racial tension goes beyond difference in skin color-in his words, it enters the "bloodstream," and extends to all kinds of cultural and ideological differences. He subtly critiques this inherited "hatred," which the descriptions of his torture at the hands of the boarding school boys serve to illustrate.
Peekay's adult voice uses hyperbole, or exaggeration, to describe the torture sessions the Judge and his "council of war" forced upon his five-year-old self. The military and legal metaphors that Peekay uses seem apt when one considers the extreme violence exercised upon the boy-he is urinated on, caned, and severely beaten. Moreover, many of the terms-such as "standing trial" and "passing sentence"-are the boys' own invention. We are required to compare the cruel imagination of the boarding school boys with the imagination Peekay discovers at the end of the novel through Inkosi-Inkosikazi. While the narrator keeps an ironic distance between himself and the younger self he is narrating (demonstrated by the narrator's sophisticated vocabulary such as "stentorian" and "carbolic"), he often portrays events through five-year-old eyes. He introduces the theme of the difficulty of defining death by providing us with young Peekay's thoughts on the topic: "I wasn't quite sure what death was. I knew it was something that happened on the farm in the slaughterhouse to pigs The squeal from the pigs was so awful that I knew it wasn't much of an experience, even for pigs." The latter quotation also reveals the narrator's sense of humor-throughout the novel, the narrator finely balances tragedy and comedy, suggesting that laughing is sometimes the only way of coping with adversity.