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The first chapter of Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country begins with a description of a road that runs from the village Ixopo into the hill and then leads to Carisbrooke and to the valleys of Africa. The grass is rich and matted, a holy ground that must be kept and guarded for it keeps and guards men.
Alan Paton begins Cry, the Beloved Country with a description of the land surrounding Ixopo, the village where the pastor (and protagonist) Stephen Kumalo lives. Paton establishes this as a rural and isolated area, which is significant to develop the character of Kumalo and his relationship to the larger urban area of Johannesburg where he will soon find himself. The style of this first chapter is grandiose, equating the survival of the soil to no less than the survival of the human race, but this serves an important function, relating the life and health of the country (in both its meanings) to the health of its inhabitants and, by extension, the novel's characters.
A small child brings a letter to the umfundisi (pastor) of the church, Stephen Kumalo, who offers the little girl food. This letter is from Johannesburg, and thus may be from either his sister Gertrude, who is twenty-five years younger than he, his brother John, a carpenter, or his only child Absalom, who had gone and never returned. Both Stephen and his wife hesitate when opening the letter, thinking it may be from their son, but it is instead from the Reverend Theophilus Msimangu, who relates to Stephen that Gertrude is very ill and advises him to come to the Mission House in Sophiatown, Johannesburg, to help her. Kumalo sighs, and tells his wife to get him the money intended for Absalom's education at St. Chad's, for now that Absalom has gone to Johannesburg, he will never come back. His wife tells Stephen to take the entire twelve pounds, five shillings and seven pence, just in case.
This chapter serves as the introduction to the protagonist of Cry, the Beloved Country, the pastor Stephen Kumalo, establishing his main conflicts and character traits. From his first encounter with the small child, Paton establishes Kumalo as a kind man yet powerful and respected within his community despite his poverty, as shown by the small savings that he and his wife had scraped together for their son's education.
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This chapter also introduces one of the major themes of Cry, the Beloved Country: the reassembling of the family. Paton establishes that three members of the Kumalo family are now in Johannesburg, and a major thrust of the novel will involve bringing these disparate family members together. The most important of these characters is the errant son Absalom Kumalo, whose fate will be the major preoccupation of Stephen Kumalo as the story progresses. Paton creates a definite sense that Absalom has been lost to his family, with the mention that he will never come back to Ixopo and the use of his savings for other purposes, as well as the dread with which the Kumalos approach the letter from Johannesburg; however, despite this dread it is important to note that Stephen and his wife have not given up hope for Absalom, and it is this hope that will provide a major motivation for Stephen Kumalo's actions.
The use of the word "umfundisi" is important, for it encompasses both the literal meaning "parson" as applied to Stephen Kumalo, but is also used as a sign of respect. Thus the use of the term to characters other than Kumalo and Reverend Msimangu does not necessarily indicate their occupation, but is used as a title of respect akin to "sir" or "mister."
The train takes Stephen Kumalo from the valley into the hills of Carisbrooke, as he worries about the fate of his sister, the cost of the trip, and the possible adversities he might face. He remembers the story of Mpanza, whose son Michael was killed in the street of Johannesburg when he inadvertently stepped into traffic. His most pressing fear, however, concerns his son. Before the train leaves, Kumalo's companion asks him to inquire about the daughter of Sibeko, who has gone to Johannesburg to work for the daughter of the white man uSmith. (the last name is, as expected, actually Smith; the prefix u- serves the same function as Mister in Zulu). Sibeko himself did not ask because he is not a member of their church, but Kumalo insists that he is of their people no matter. Kumalo travels with the fear of a man who lives "in a world not made for him, whose own world is slipping away."
Alan Paton again establishes Johannesburg as a place of great terror and danger in this chapter through both the anecdote about the son of Mpanza and the request by Sibeko for Kumalo to contact his daughter. The first anecdote deals with the literal physical dangers provided by the city, while the second anecdote bolsters earlier assertions that Johannesburg is a place where people from the country go, never to be seen again.
Paton also establishes the character of Stephen Kumalo in greater detail. In dealing with the case of Sibeko, he is both kindly and stern, insisting that Sibeko has no reason not to make his request directly, for they are both from the same people despite having different churches, but he nevertheless admits that he may find some matters more pressing. Kumalo is single-minded in his quest in Johannesburg, despite the multitude of worries. Despite the immediate danger for Gertrude, Kumalo displays a much greater worry concerning the missing Absalom, thus foreshadowing that the main narrative of the novel will involve his son and not his sister.
Perhaps the most important trait of Stephen Kumalo that Paton establishes is that Kumalo is a man who is reaching obsolescence. He is a small rural pastor who does not live in the modern world and is growing to find that the remnants of his world are collapsing around him.
The train passes the mines outside of Johannesburg, which Kumalo suspects might be the city, and the signs shift from Kumalo's Zulu language to the Afrikaans language that dominates the city. When the train reaches Johannesburg, Kumalo sees tall buildings and lights that he had never seen before. To Kumalo, the noise is immense, and he prays for Tixo (the name of the Xosa god) to watch over him.
A young man approaches Kumalo and asks him where he wants to go. He tells Kumalo that he must wait in line for the bus, but that he will go to the ticket office to buy the ticket for him. Kumalo gives him the money, but the young man does not return, and an elderly man tells Stephen that he can only buy the ticket on the bus: he has been cheated. Kumalo travels with the elderly man, Mr. Mafolo, and they arrive at the Mission House, where Reverend Msimangu greets him. At the Mission House, for the first time, Stephen Kumalo feels secure in Johannesburg.
This chapter focuses primarily on the descriptions of Johannesburg as an imposing and threatening place. Paton establishes that the city is foreign to Kumalo in many ways, even in language; Kumalo has so little experience with urban areas that he mistakes a mining area for a metropolis. Kumalo is therefore the quintessential outsider when he reaches Johannesburg. This is important in several respects. His outsider status allows Paton to use characters, most importantly Msimangu, to explain the workings and logistics of Johannesburg that would be obvious to an actual citizen of urban South Africa. Also, the novelty of the situation allows Kumalo a greater attention to detail, thus creating opportunities for detailed description of horrors that may seem routine to any modern reader. Lastly, Kumalo's status as an outsider, as this chapter certainly demonstrates, makes the pastor a ready victim for opportunists. Despite his age and experience, Kumalo possesses a demonstrable naïveté that will be significant throughout Cry, the Beloved Country.
The relationship between Reverend Msimangu and Stephen Kumalo will be an important one throughout the novel. Msimangu, like Kumalo, is a deeply religious man, yet his experience in Johannesburg has given him a much different perspective. He will serve essentially as the guide to Stephen Kumalo as he journeys throughout the South African city on his various quests.
Msimangu offers Kumalo a room in the house of the elderly Mrs. Lithebe. Before they eat, Kumalo washes his hands and witnesses indoor plumbing for the first time. Kumalo eats at the Mission House along with a priest from England and another priest from Ixopo. Kumalo describes to the priests how people leave from Ixopo, leaving the tribe and the house broken. They also discuss news from the Johannesburg Mail reporting how an elderly couple was robbed and beaten by two natives. After dinner, Msimangu and Kumalo speak privately: Kumalo tells him that Gertrude came to Johannesburg when her husband was recruited for the mines, but when his job was finished he did not return. Msimangu tells Kumalo that Gertrude now has "many husbands" and lives in Claremont, where she makes bootlegged liquor and works as a prostitute. She has been in prison more than once, and now has a child. Kumalo tells Msimangu about Absalom, and Msimangu offers to help him find his son. Msimangu also tells Kumalo that his brother John is no longer a carpenter, but is a great man in politics, despite having no use for the Church. Kumalo explains that the tragedy of South Africa is not that things are broken, but that they are not mended again and cannot be mended: it suited the white man to break the tribe, but it has not suited him to build something in its place