A little girl runs through the small South African village of Ndotsheni. Somewhat fearfully, she knocks at the home of Reverend Stephen Kumalo. When he answers the door, she gives him a letter and explains that the white man at the store asked her to deliver it. The reverend thanks her and, when she does not immediately leave, tells her she can ask his wife for something to eat.
The girl leaves the room, and Kumalo stares at the envelope. It is stained and dirty, which shows it has made a long journey. The postmark says it comes from Johannesburg, an enormous city in the center of South Africa. Because the people of Ndotsheni find they cannot make a living off the land anymore, many of them leave home. Most seek work in Johannesburg’s mines and factories, or become servants in the white city dwellers' homes.
This situation is very personal for Kumalo, who has lost many family members to Johannesburg. His brother, John; his sister, Gertrude; and his only son, Absalom, have all gone away to Johannesburg over the years. None of them writes home anymore, so Kumalo has no way of knowing what has become of them. It is not even certain that they are alive.
The letter in Kumalo’s hands probably contains news of his loved ones—but such news, when it finally comes, is often bad. He puts off opening it until his wife admits out loud that they are both afraid. Then Kumalo's pride does not allow him to continue waiting. He orders his wife to open the envelope and read the letter aloud.
The letter is from Reverend Theophilus Msimangu, a man Kumalo has never met. Msimangu explains that Kumalo’s sister, Gertrude, is ill and in need of help. Msimangu asks Kumalo to come to Johannesburg immediately.
After reading the letter aloud, Kumalo’s wife asks what he will do. He tells her to bring him the money they saved to pay for Absalom’s education. His wife gets a small coffee can, but Kumalo hesitates to look inside. He says that Absalom will never go back to school if they spend the money they have saved. His wife replies that Absalom was never going back to school anyway. “When people go to Johannesburg, they do not come back,” she says.
This makes Kumalo angry, not because it is untrue but because it is easier not to admit the truth. He complains that his tribe and family are broken, and that the people who abandon Ndotsheni seem not to care that they are hurting the people they leave behind. Sarcastically, he suggests that maybe they send letters all the time, and the letters simply do not reach home. He orders his wife to go look for them.
Kumalo’s wife does not go anywhere; she merely says that he is the one being hurtful today. This accusation quiets him, and he apologizes. They open the coffee can and count the money, which amounts to a little more than twelve pounds. They have an additional ten pounds in a post office book—a kind of savings account—that they were hoping to use to buy a stove. These twenty-two pounds constitute their entire life savings. Kumalo wants to take only about eight pounds, but his wife insists that he take everything they have.
When Kumalo goes out to prepare for his journey, his wife remains in the kitchen, silently mourning. She has lost half her family to Johannesburg, and now she may lose her husband, too.