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 I: 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.
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