The letter brings fear to the hearts of the Reverend Stephen Kumalo and his wife. To a Zulu, letters are rare and frightening. Once opened, they can never be closed again or their contents forgotten. Kumalo waits until he can control his fear before he opens the letter from Johannesburg telling him that his sister is sick and needs his help. The trip will be costly for a poor Zulu clergyman, but he has to go. Perhaps there he can also find their son Absalom, who was not heard from since he left the village. Stephen and his wife know in their hearts that, in Johannesburg, Absalom succumbed to the evil resulting from the white man’s breaking up the tribes and compelling black men to work in the mines.
Taking their small savings, Kumalo journeys to the city. He goes first to the mission and meets Msimangu, who wrote the letter. Msimangu is also a clergyman, working for his people in the city as Kumalo works in the country. He sorrowfully tells Kumalo that his sister Gertrude is a prostitute and a dealer in illegal liquor. She and her child are impoverished, even though she once made much money from her trade. Kumalo locates Gertrude, with the help of Msimangu, and finds her willing to go with him to the temporary rooms he found with a good woman. When his business is finished, she and the child will go with him to his home, away from temptation.
Before looking for his son, Kumalo visits his brother John, a successful merchant and a politician who is under surveillance by the police for his ability to stir up the blacks. John is discreet; he takes no chance of being arrested and losing his business. Many of the black leaders sacrifice everything to help their people, but not John. Expediency is his only thought. He left the church and turns a deaf ear to his brother’s pleas that he return to a holier life.
Kumalo begins his search for Absalom. With Msimangu, he searches everywhere. Each place they visit adds to his fear, for it becomes clear from their investigation that Absalom is engaged in stealing, drinking, and worse. Often they walk for miles, for the black leaders are urging their people to boycott the buses in order to get the fares reduced. Kumalo learns that Absalom was in the company of John’s son, and both of them were in and out of trouble. The trail leads to a reformatory, but Absalom was dismissed shortly before because of his good behavior. The white teacher of the reformatory joins Kumalo in his search, because the boy’s behavior reflects on his training. Next, Kumalo finds a girl who, soon to bear Absalom’s child, waits to marry him. The old man...
(The entire section is 1066 words.)