The white man has broken the tribe. . . . That is why children break the law, and old white people are robbed and beaten.See Important Quotations Explained
Summary: Chapter 4
The train to Johannesburg travels a full day and night, climbing through many hills and villages. The regions Kumalo passes through are unfamiliar to him, with foreign landscapes and signs written in Afrikaans, which he does not speak. The great mines of South Africa come into view, and Kumalo’s fellow travelers, many of whom are miners, explain how the mines are painstakingly excavated. They point out the great pulley that hoists the broken rocks, and Kumalo is awestruck by the scale of it all. Overwhelmed by the modern surroundings, he keeps mistaking the passing landscape for Johannesburg, but his fellow passengers laugh and tell him of buildings in Johannesburg so tall they can barely describe them.
The train arrives in Johannesburg, where Kumalo moves gingerly through the crowds that swarm throughout the station. Outside the station, the rush of traffic so terrifies Kumalo that he stands petrified on the sidewalk, unable to decipher the traffic lights. Speaking in a language Kumalo does not understand, a young man appears and offers to help Kumalo find his way to Sophiatown.
The young man leads Kumalo to the bus station, where he tells Kumalo to wait in line for the buses while the young man buys him a ticket. Eager to show his trust, Kumalo gives the young man a pound from his precious savings. He begins to suspect that something is wrong, however, as soon as the young man turns the corner. An elderly man takes pity on the helpless Kumalo and informs him that his money has been stolen. When it turns out that they are both headed for Sophiatown, the elderly man invites Kumalo to travel with him. He guides Kumalo safely to Msimangu’s Mission House, where the young Reverend Msimangu opens the door and introduces Kumalo’s companion as Mr. Mafolo. Mr. Mafolo takes his leave as Kumalo, safe at last, enjoys a cigarette and reflects on the days to come.
Summary: Chapter 5
Msimangu informs Kumalo that he has found a room for him with Mrs. Lithebe, a local churchgoer. Kumalo uses a modern toilet for the first time—in his village, he had heard of these devices, but he had never used one. The two men dine with the other priests, a group that includes both blacks and whites, at the mission. Kumalo speaks sadly and lovingly about his village, and about how both Ixopo and its neighboring villages are falling into ruin. One white rosy-cheeked priest wishes to hear more, but he excuses himself to attend to other affairs. The other priests, in turn, tell Kumalo that all is not well in Johannesburg—white people have become afraid because of a rise in crime. They show him a newspaper headline describing an attack on an elderly white couple. Nor are whites the only victims, they say, and they tell him how an African girl was robbed and almost raped.
After dinner, Msimangu asks Kumalo about Gertrude. Kumalo replies that his sister came to Johannesburg with her child to find her husband. Msimangu regretfully informs him that she now has many husbands—she sells cheap liquor and prostitutes herself in the worst area of Johannesburg. There have been crimes committed at her home, and she has been in prison. Msimangu also tells a distraught Kumalo that Gertrude’s son lives with her, but that her home is no place for a child. Msimangu has heard nothing about Absalom but promises to ask about him. As the sorrowful Kumalo goes to pray, he asks about his brother, and Msimangu informs him that John Kumalo is now a great politician but has little use for the church.
Msimangu explains that he does not hate the white man, in part because a white man “brought [his] father out of darkness” by converting him to Christianity. He confides to Kumalo, nevertheless, that he believes that white people have broken the tribal structure without leaving anything in its place. Msimangu explains that some white men are trying to rebuild the country for all people, but that they are not enough, and are held prisoner by the same fear that rules the rest of the country. He says that Father Vincent, the rosy-cheeked priest at dinner, is the best person to ask about such things. Kumalo retires to his lodgings and marvels that only forty-eight hours ago he had been with his wife.
Summary: Chapter 6
Msimangu accompanies Kumalo to the neighboring slums of Claremont, where Gertrude lives. It is a pity, Msimangu says, that the neighborhoods are not farther apart—the trams are filled with rival gangs of hooligans, and there is always trouble. Despite their pretty names, the streets of Claremont are filthy, and Msimangu points out a woman who is a prominent liquor dealer and explains that many of the children in the streets are not at school because there is no room for them in the classes. Msimangu waits up the street while Kumalo listens to the strange, unfriendly laughter coming from behind his sister’s door. Gertrude keeps Kumalo waiting while her unseen companions hastily rearrange and prepare the room.
Gertrude is sullen and fearful at first, and she tells Kumalo that she has not yet found her husband. Kumalo reproaches her for not writing and demands to see her child. When it becomes clear that she does not know where the child is, he tells Gertrude that she has shamed them, and announces that he has come to take her back. She falls on the ground in hysterics, saying that she wants to leave Johannesburg but is not a good enough person to return home. Softened by her remorse, Kumalo forgives her, and they pray together.
Although Gertrude and Kumalo are now reconciled, she is unable to give him news of his son, although she says that their nephew—John’s son—has spent time with Absalom and that he will know. A neighborhood woman brings in Gertrude’s son, and Kumalo urges his sister to collect her things while he secures her a room at Mrs. Lithebe’s. Kumalo returns with a borrowed truck to collect Gertrude, and, in the evening, greatly encouraged by the success of this first mission, he feels as if the tribe is being rebuilt and the soul of his home restored.
Analysis: Book 1: Chapters 4–6
Kumalo’s inability to understand his surroundings throughout these chapters underscores that his visit to Johannesburg is a rite of passage for him. The novel leaps forward from Natal directly to the outskirts of Johannesburg, and the novel’s omission of Kumalo’s actual journey means that we see the abrupt change in landscapes without a smooth transition. From the train window, everything is immediately and overwhelmingly different: the dominant language is now Afrikaans (a Dutch-based language spoken by the original white immigrants to South Africa), and the black Africans are from different tribes. The shared points of reference that characterize village life are gone—when a man on the train likens the height of the buildings in Johannesburg to a hill behind his father’s home, Kumalo does not know what he is talking about. Even familiar sights and sounds appear to be corrupted. Behind Gertrude’s door, Kumalo hears the sound of laughter, but even this sound is so twisted that it is more terrifying than reassuring.
On the other hand, Kumalo is also quick to adapt. He finds the lavatory at Msimangu’s Mission House a curiosity, but he is able to use it without difficulty. It is true that Kumalo requires Msimangu’s help just to find Gertrude’s place, but, impressively, he returns that same afternoon with a truck and is able to help his sister move. Initially unable to decipher even the smallest details of city life, such as a traffic light, Kumalo learns rapidly and shows remarkable resourcefulness despite his foreign surroundings.
Though intimidating, Johannesburg is not wholly symbolic of evil in the world. There are factors that ease Kumalo’s transition and that more generally provide hope that all is not lost for South Africa. Kumalo is helped and treated with respect by the men he speaks to on the train and by Mr. Mafolo. It would seem, then, that the young man who robs Kumalo is an exception, not the rule. The priests at the mission sit together regardless of color, demonstrating that racial harmony is possible, and they greet Kumalo’s story with friendship and interest. Thus, although Johannesburg, with its chaotic nature, has the potential to destroy individuals and families, as Gertrude’s separation from her child demonstrates, it also has the power to bring people together.
This section shows the complicated relationship between Christianity and white domination. On the one hand, the priests of the mission appear to be the only people both concerned enough and strong enough to heal the city’s wounds. Furthermore, Msimangu appreciates that a white man “brought [his] father out of darkness” by converting him to Christianity, demonstrating that some natives welcome this religion imported from Europe. On the other hand, Christianity is partly responsible for the decimation of the tribal structure in South Africa. With two separate communities whose values differ so greatly—the indigenous South African tribes and the transplanted white colonists—so deeply ingrained in the cultural landscape of South Africa, it seems unlikely that one would wholly suppress the other. Kumalo is caught between these two communities, as evidenced by the fact that he often refers to God as “Tixo,” the Xhosa word for “Great Spirit,” instead of using European words. This apparent synthesis of his Zulu and Christian heritages suggests that Kumalo has managed to find a middle ground between these cultures.