Journey to Jo'burg Summary

Extended Summary

Journey to Jo’burg by Beverly Naidoo is the story of two South African children who embark alone on a long journey to find their mother, who works far from home. The children are black and, at the time the story takes place, South Africa is governed by a racially unjust system of laws called apartheid. On their journey, the children face a series of difficulties that demonstrate apartheid’s unfairness and cruelty.

When Journey to Jo’burg was published in 1985, the book received critical acclaim in England, the United States, and many other countries around the world. In South Africa, however, it received no attention at all. Naidoo writes:

When I sent two copies of my first children’s book to nephews and nieces in South Africa in 1985, they never received the parcel. Instead, my sister-in-law received a letter telling her that the books had been seized and banned.

Journey to Jo’burg remained banned in South Africa until the early 1990s, when apartheid was abolished. Today the book is widely available, and many South Africans consider it an important reminder of their country’s troubled history.

As Journey to Jo’burg begins, thirteen-year-old Naledi and nine-year-old Tiro have a big problem. Their baby sister, Dineo, is sick. Their mother, whom they call Mma, works far away in the city of Johannesburg. Naledi knows that another baby in her village died last week, and she worries Dineo may die too—unless Mma comes to help the baby get better. Naledi decides that she and Tiro should walk to Johannesburg and find Mma. The two children take a couple of sweet potatoes, a bottle of water, and a letter that bears Mma’s address, and they set off.

The two children are accustomed to walking long distances, but they have never gone as far from home as they go today. In the afternoon, they come to a small town. As they walk through the town, they worry about police. They know that black adults must carry passes, identification documents that show whether they are allowed to work in towns. Naledi and Tiro are too young to need passes but they know the police may hurt or harass them. They walk as quickly as possible until they leave the town behind them.

As night falls, Naledi and Tiro grow hungry. Their water and sweet potatoes are gone, so Naledi pushes through a fence to take some oranges from a farm. A boy offers to help them. Naledi is scared of the boy’s boss, a white farmer, because she knows such men can be cruel to black children who trespass or steal. However, she decides she has no choice but to accept the farm boy’s help. The boy leads Naledi and Tiro to a shed where they can sleep, and he brings them some pap, cornmeal porridge, to eat.

As soon as it gets light the following morning, Naledi and Tiro return to the road. They are soon stopped by a truck driver. The driver does not think the children should be out walking alone, but he knows his white boss will be angry if he takes the time to drive the kids back home. He allows Naledi and Tiro to climb onto the back of his truck and ride. The children have never been on a truck before. Tiro gets excited and leans so far over the side of the truck that he almost falls off.

As she rides, Naledi reflects on the sad business of having her mother live so far away. Her mother is very concerned that the children get a good education, and she needs to earn money to send them to school as well as to provide food and clothes. Once, some time ago, Naledi asked why she and Tiro could not live with Mama in Johannesburg. Mama said, “The white people who make the laws don’t allow it.”

On the way into Johannesburg, Naledi and Tiro see a large mountain of sand. They know it is a dump from the mines that surround the city. Both children are very quiet, thinking of their father, who worked in the mines until he became ill with a cough and died.

The truck driver wants to take the children all the way to their mother, but he knows the lost time will make his boss angry. He finds the bus the children need to take to Parktown, the neighborhood where their mother works. When Naledi explains that she has no money for a bus, the driver scolds her:

What children! You’ve got a lot of guts, but you know nothing about Jo’burg. It’s dangerous!

He gives Naledi some coins to take the bus to her mother’s neighborhood.

Naledi and Tiro wait until they see a bus labeled “Parktown.” When they start to jump aboard, a voice stops them: “What’s wrong with you? Are...

(The entire section is 1910 words.)

Ed. Scott Locklear