It came from Johannesburg; now there in Johannesburg were many of his own people. His brother John, who was a carpenter, had gone there, and had a business of his own in Sophiatown, Johannesburg. His sister Gertrude, twenty-five years younger than he, and the child of his parents’ age, had gone there with her small son to look for the husband who had never come back from the mines. His only child Absalom had gone there, to look for his aunt Gertrude, and he had never returned.
When Kumalo receives a letter from Johannesburg, the narrator describes all the people Kumalo knows who are in Johannesburg. They are all family members, but Kumalo has not heard from them in years. As the narrator explains several times, people leave for Johannesburg and never come back. However, Kumalo begins his journey there to care for his younger sister, Gertrude. Even though she is twenty-five years younger than he and has not kept in touch, Kumalo feels a duty to his family to find her.
You have shamed us, he says in a low voice, not wishing to make it known to the world. A liquor seller, a prostitute, with a child and you do not know where it is? Your brother a priest. How could you do this to us?
When Kumalo finds his sister, Gertrude, he discovers the life she has been living and reprimands her, saying that she has brought shame to their family. Gertrude lives far away from Kumalo, and they are not close, yet he still feels that their entire family will be blamed for her actions. His reaction here shows the strength of family ties in this world, even when family members are not particularly close physically or emotionally.
Yet where had they failed? What had they done, or left undone, that their son had become a thief, moving like a vagabond from place to place, living with a girl who was herself no more than a child, father of a child who would have had no name?
After Kumalo learns of Absalom’s crimes and the fact that he has impregnated a girl who is not his wife, Kumalo laments the situation and wonders what he and his wife could have done differently to turn Absalom into a more righteous person. As with Gertrude, Kumalo feels that his family member’s actions, and the consequences of those actions, are his responsibility. However, because Absalom is his son, Kumalo feels regret instead of the shame and anger he directed at Gertrude.