OVERVIEW OF THE STORY
The story sets in South Africa. In this story, Peter Abraham portrays apartheid through following the life of Xuma, a villager in search of a better life. Xuma first lived in Malay camp where he was offered accommodation by Leah on his first night in the city. After getting a job, he moves to his own house in Vrededorp.
Leah earned her living through selling illicit brew. There was also Dladla who was bitter about Leah controlling him and betrays her to the police. Leah found out about it but before she could deal with Dladla, he was found dead in the bush stabbed in the back. Johannes, a strong well built miner, was a timid person who became bold and loud only when drunk.
Daddy was never sober and died after being hit by a car. Xuma falls in love with Eliza. He constantly rejects Maisy who loves him.
However, in the end he accepts her and promises to marry her as soon as he gets out of jail as Eliza left him.
Leah gets sent to jail after being caught red handed with the illicit brew by the crafty policeman nicknamed the Fox who had been trying to catch her for a long time. She had managed to escape the police dragnet by bribing some policemen who kept her informed.
Johannes and his white boss Chris died under the mine as they tried to prevent it from collapsing. Paddy, Xuma’s boss sides with the blacks and is arrested when a riot breaks out in the mine. Xuma flees but later surrenders himself at the police station.
CHAPTER BY CHAPTER SUMMARY OF THE BOOK
It was three o’clock in the morning when a man arrives in a town on a narrow street. The whole town was in darkness. He wondered where he was. Suddenly, he saw a woman at a door standing in the darkness.
He moved closer and asked her if he could get a place to rest and have a drink.
The woman asked him if he had but the man said he had none. She further enquired to know his name. The man identified himself as Xuma, form the north. After speaking for sometime the woman left to bring light. She returned without him noticing.
From the door, a beam of powerful torch struck on Xuma with a voice calling him to come. He followed the beam of light and the woman into a room where he met three men and an old woman. The woman introduced Xuma to the people and asked Ma Plank to give him food. Xuma got to know Dladla, a man fond of playing with knife. Xuma saw a knife in Dladla’s hand. Xuma however carefully placed his bundle on the table and went round a long bench.
Dladla raised his knife and showed his teeth. Leah commanded Dladla to give her the knife but he refused with a plea in his voice. He later lowered his eyes and gave her the knife.
Daddy showed displeasure towards Leah. Xuma’s food was brought to him by Ma Plank.
Whilst Dladla and Ma Plank went out, the man who had remained silent expressed his suspicion and asked “How do we know if he’s not from the police?” Leah was however optimistic about Xuma’s identity.
She identified the man as her man’s brother. Leah’s man was in jail for killing a man who tried to kiss her.
There was no work at the north. This was what brought Xuma into the town, to work. He however expressed interest in working in the mines.
Leah took her time to tell him about the dangers involved in working in the mines and tried to convince him to work with her but Xuma refused.
Xuma was finally given a place to sleep but he found it hard to sleep because he was tired.
When Xuma woke up the next day, he met the house empty. However he found himself among a crowd forming a ring outside, and Daddy hopping and shouting at the top of his voice. Two women, Lena and Drunk Liz, were also on the ground engaged in a fight.
Xuma pushed his way through the roaring crowd wanting to get away. But he heard a voice shout “stop it”. He turned and it was Leah. When she arrived at the scene, Lena (the thin dark woman) was on top of
Drunk Liz who was fat and pale. Leah walked through the crowd and picked up the thin woman and flung her away from the fat one. The crowd grumbled yet no one was able to speak to her hearing. Leah challenged the crowd to fight but they broke up in silence and walked away.
Leah picked up the thin woman, who was woefully injured, into the yard. She was followed by Xuma and Daddy. Upon entering the house, Daddy brought a sack and spread it in the shade for Leah to place the woman on.
Leah prepared food and they ate. She saw Daddy in the yard and called him to come and tell Xuma about the custom the city. Daddy spoke drunkenly about the custom and the city. After he had finished, he picked a sack and spread it a little distance away, stretched himself and slept. Soon it began to rain. Xuma went into the yard and watched the three sleeping people.
In the house, Leah sang a guy song full of happiness and laughter. Xuma went back into the house and saw Joseph, the brother of Leah’s man. Leah asked Joseph to take Xuma to see the market. At the market, Joseph and Xuma saw many people on the street. One street was crowded as another. The people were in their colourful clothes with a lot of money to spend. The big men among them wore singlet and sometimes fought among themselves to determine who is the strongest.
Joseph and Xuma stopped on a corner and watched the crowd across. A little further up the road, they saw two coloured men fighting. Still further, there were two “swankies” on their way down the road. A crowd of cheering and laughing people followed them.
Suddenly, a pick-up van swerved round a corner. Policemen jumped out and run down the street. The crowd scattered except the coloured people who claimed they have done nothing. However, Joseph warned them that the police would not ask them.
A policeman who was ten yards away came straight ahead to Xuma. But Xuma waited because he had done nothing. The policeman came nearer, raised his stick but it missed Xuma’s head and struck his left shoulder. Xuma whispered and struck the policeman in the face repeatedly till the policeman collapsed.
Xuma looked around and saw the police van still a distance away but two policemen were closing in on him so he decided to ran.
The two coloured men stepped into the road. Xuma felt afraid, to run and knock two men at the same time was impossible. But an unbelievable thing happened, the second coloured man knocked the first one down and ran down the street waving to Xuma to follow him. Xuma followed him into a house. The coloured man locked the door and flopped down into a chair breathing heavily.
The man’s woman came into the room and Xuma noted with surprise that she was black. She expressed her disappointment at Xuma for striking the policeman.
Finally, when Xuma requested to leave, the man’s woman cautioned that it was not safe he left.
Xuma came out and found the street free of trouble but it was difficult for him to find his house. He saw the fat Drunk Liz and touched her shoulder to ask her for direction to Leah’s house. The woman looked at him with bleary eyes and shook her head barely refusing to help him.
Xuma met Daddy who thought he was in jail. Daddy was drunk but he agreed to take Xuma to the Leah’s house if only he (Xuma) would buy him a drink again. At the house, old Ma Plank sat over a huge vat in the yard and in the kitchen was Joseph who was busy. Joseph was happy to see Xuma. Leah entered the house; she grabbed Xuma and hugged him.
They stood on the corner and waited. Leah kept looking up the street that cut across the one where they stood. After ten minutes a black policeman on a cycle came down and stopped. Leah smiled and counted five pound notes from her leather bag and gave them to the policeman.
Leah led the way through the yard to the door at the far end of the yard. She introduced Xuma to a girl they met in the house. Xuma asked the girl’s name, who said she was called Eliza.
Eliza asked Xuma to help her lift a machine. Xuma jumped up and grabbed the sewing machine but he felt a sharp pain stab in his shoulder. Eliza found a bottle of ointment and rubbed it on where Xuma’s pain was.
She gave him a cigarette and looked at his face and laughed. Xuma turned and saw huge towering shapes almost in the sky. He pointed and asked what they were. Eliza replied and said “those are the mine-dumps”. Xuma shifted his eyes from the mine-dump to Eliza and longed for her.
All that night people drank at Leah’s place. Xuma and Eliza returned and saw more people crowded at Leah’s place.
Dladla attacked Xuma with a knife accusing him of stealing his woman and gave him a cut on his face. Eliza took Xuma into a room and washed his bloody face. They returned and found a doctor who fixed Xuma’s face.
The streets were empty after being crowded on Saturday. Xuma and Johannes walked up and down the empty street. They left Johannesburg behind them and in front of them were the towering peaks of the min-damp. They eventually found themselves at the mines.
For Xuma, the day was strange. Stranger than any day he had ever known. There was the rumbling noise and the shouting and explosions and the trembling of the earth. Xuma was frightened.
When the whistle blew for the workers to stop work for food, one of the men called Nana asked Xuma to eat with him. He divided his food and gave Xuma half. When they had finished Nana stretched himself full-length on the ground and slept.
The men who had gone underground that morning came up. Xuma watched them coming and shading their eyes against the light. Xuma asked Nana if it is dark underground. But Nana laughed at Xuma.
Xuma looked up quickly when he heard Johannes voice. Johannes had a confrontation with one of the white men. He called Xuma who flung his spade and followed him. Johannes took Xuma to the shed of the mine doctor.
Xuma stripped and lay on the long table. The doctor examined him while Chris and Paddy watched. Johannes led the way to the washing place for the mine boys. He pushed a few men out of the way and the men made place for them.
They went in and washed and set off for Malay Camp.
When they got to Leah’s place, a group of women were just leaving and Leah was at the gate watching them go. Leah welcomed them. Johannes went inside the house leaving Xuma and Leah outside to talk.
Leah told Xuma about life in the city. She said “to live in the city you must be hard. And money must be your friend. With money you can buy the policeman, you can even buy someone to go to jail for you”.
There was a long silence between them. Rosita who lived across the way had turned on her gramophone and came on her veranda. She called Leah from across.
Leah and Xuma got startled. They got up and went inside the house.
Xuma was offered food, finished eating and left the room. He felt dissatisfied and unhappy. He went on the veranda and watched the street. Maisy came out and joined him. On the corner of the street, under the light of the lamp, a group of men and women formed a ring. And in the centre of the ring a couple danced and made signs to each other as they mimed.
Xuma and Maisy joined the ring. When they got home, Xuma sat on his bed and held his hands. He thought about Eliza for a while. He blew out the candle and sat in the dark. As soon as he lit his cigarette, there was a knock at the door. He responded and it was Eliza’s voice.
Xuma had left Leah’s place and lived in a room in Malay Camp for three months now. Eliza is now like a devil in Xuma’s blood and he did not want to go to Leah’s place again to see Leah for the fear that he should meet Eliza. As he sat alone he longed to see all the people he left at Leah’s place but for the fear of Eliza he would not go.
It was Saturday night and in spite of the cold the streets were crowded. But it was not as it had been that first Saturday when he had gone walking with Joseph. He went up the street and walked in the direction of the heart of Johannesburg. He neared the heart of Johannesburg and the people grew fewer. There were more white people now and they were different. They were not his people so he did not give attention to what they did or said.
Xuma saw some cakes in a window and stopped to look at them. He felt a tap on his shoulder and when he turned it was a policeman. Without a word Xuma gave his pass to the policeman for inspection. As the policeman goes, Xuma carried on up the street. The crowd on the street was thick that it was difficult for Xuma to move among them. The only place that Xuma could be free was underground in the mines. There he was a master and knew the way.
Xuma met his white man, Paddy, who was with a woman. Paddy led Xuma a little way down the street and showed him where he lived. Xuma looked around Paddy’s house. He had never seen a place like that before. Paddy and Xuma sat down while the woman came in with three glasses. They raised their glasses and cheered Xuma. However, Xuma kept on thinking about Paddy’s woman.
The atmosphere at Paddy’s house made Xuma thought he knows what Eliza wants. Paddy came in with food and when they had finished eating they drank more wine. Xuma and Paddy talked about the mines. Paddy took the things away. And Xuma forgot that they were white and even spoke to the woman.
On his return, Paddy asked his woman what she thinks about Xuma. The woman replied “he is just a mine boy”. The man and his woman argued extensively about Xuma as the woman spoke favourably about Xuma. Paddy looked at her. His face clouded. And Di got up and went into the kitchen but the argument continued.
Xuma was glad to be away from the two white people. It had been uncomfortable there. Only when he had been with the woman had he felt all right. He crossed the street and went his way back to Malay Camp.
Gradually he left the heart of the city behind him.
He turned down Jeppe Street where he came across people standing at the lower down the street. A man being chased by the police has climbed a rooftop. The roof sloped steeply. One wrong move and the man would be plunged down, either to death or a broken body. Fear rose from the crowd. The man had lost his hold and was slowly sliding down. For a minute the man was in space. Then with a dull thud, he fell to the ground. But the doctor was there to administer help.
The doctor tried to lift the man up but could not. Xuma however stepped forward but the policeman tightened his grip on his club and waved it from side to side. Xuma lifted the man. The first policeman prodded Xuma with his club. Xuma got up. His body trembled and bunched his fist into hard ball.
Xuma picked up the wounded man to the doctor’s car. The doctor pleaded with Xuma to go with him to help him.
At the other end of Malay Camp the doctor pulled up. Between them they carried the man into a house. A coloured woman met them at the door. They carried the man into the surgery where the doctor worked on the man. Xuma sat on a little chair and watched.
The wounded man was revived. The man expressed fear that the police would arrest him.
The doctor and Xuma left him behind as they went for some tea. The two men entered a room where Xuma felt as he had felt in the place of the Red One.
Emily reported that the wounded man had escaped through the window. The doctor got up and went to the surgery while the others followed. The doctor spoke harshly to Xuma. This made Xuma felt hurt. He was angry but more the anger he felt hurt. He turned abruptly and walked to the door.
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Jonathan Tetteh Korletey