What’s The Story About?
Stephen Kumalo is a priest in the little village of Ndotsheni where very little happens. One day he receives a letter from another parson, Rev. Msimangu, from the big city of Johannesburg carrying grave news of his sister’s ailment.
Kumalo has heard many dreaded tales about the goings-on in this bewildering big city of Johannesburg but the gravity of the news of his sister’s ailment and other even more pressing reasons impels him to embark on this journey for Kumalo must also find his son, Absalom, who had initially gone to the big city to look for his aunt Gertrude and her son but had stopped writing home leaving them without any further news of his activities and whereabouts and so they feared for his safety. Moreover, he must also find his brother, John, whom he hadn’t heard from in a long while.
But what awaits him in the big city?
The whole narration was very moving and believable. It almost felt like watching a sad documentary of a rustic family whose misfortune and sorrow seemed to know no end. The characters felt real and one could easily identify with their pains. Take for instance the protagonist, Stephen Kumalo.
From the time of the receipt of that foreboding letter from Msimangu, he suffers a spell of misfortune throughout the book even to the very last page where we find him keeping vigil on the eve of his son’s execution. One would have thought that amid these dark times of his life, his faith would have ebbed away with the tides of his mounting sorrow yet the opposite seems to have been the effect for in several places, we find him giving advice and even maintaining a posture of gratitude for he reckons he still has a lot to be thankful for. Indeed, it wouldn’t be too farfetched to say Kumalo represents the quintessential village priest cum father!
Another lovable character is Theophilus Msimangu, who unhesitatingly plays the part of a good friend and advisor to Kumalo helping him every step of the way in first finding his sister, then brother and eventually his son. It would be safe to say he was even present at the execution of Absalom because he had promised Kumalo he will be there. Msimangu, unlike John Kumalo (Stephen Kumalo’s obnoxious brother with a selfish sense of self preservation), comes across as a level-headed man because he seemed to have a good grasp of the vicious cycle of the fear induced oppression with its resultant rebellious crimes. Thus he bemoans the systems yet refuses to hate the white man because he notes they are not all alike citing Father Vincent as an example of this exception while appealing to the marvelous care and training in craftsmanship he gives to poor and blind black kids at Ezenzelendi. Kumalo marvels and retort that even he with his sight cannot achieve such finesse as displayed by the blind kids at their craft.
However, the hero of this novel for me was James Jarvis whose son, Arthur was shot dead. The tragic irony of Arthur’s demise is that he was vociferously advocating the termination of the apartheid system when he met his untimely death at the hands of a black man. Jarvis had had a few altercations with Arthur over his heady insistence on pursuing this cause so one would have expected him to be bitter against the blacks and more especially the family of the man that killed his son yet that was not what happened. He was gentle to Kumalo when the latter unbeknown to him ended up at his house seeking information. He even went on further to seek the services of an agric extension officer in attempt to restore the fallow valleys of Ndotsheni to arable farmlands to benefit the people.
Moreover, he is quick to reassure Kumalo upon receiving his letter of condolence after the demise of his wife that though she was never quite the same after the demise of their son, the ailment she had suffered was not due to that incident and that she was in full support of all the philanthropic works he was undertaking. Even more shocking and commendable was the fact the he allowed his grandson who was on vacation in Ndotsheni to be frequenting the house of Kumalo. This is indeed a very magnanimous man with a heart of gold!
Without dispute, Mrs. Lithebe qualifies as the heroine of the novel because though she was childless, she was very welcoming to the Kumalos who were properly strangers to her and was always quick to spot “idle and careless laughter” between Gertrude and male passers-by whose salacious intentions were obvious and she will proffer sagacious advice accordingly.
A lot more can be said about this novel but in sum, the author tells the story in such a masterful way which poignantly captures the pathos of the apartheid era in simple language rich in indigenous expressions. Grab a copy if you can!