Monday, December 22, 2008

"Cry, the Beloved Country"

I just finished reading "Cry, the Beloved Country" by Alan Paton.
Set it rural South Africa during the 1940's, Paton writes about the effect of the gold industry on the native people. The main character is Kumalo, an old priest in a small rural town. His son, brother, and sister have all moved to Johannesburg for one reason or the other and have lost their way. The story begins with a letter from a fellow priest in Johannesburg asking him to come because his sister is ill. Having never been to Johannesburg due to financial restraints, he sacrifices the things he was saving for in order to go and help his sister as well as search for his lost brother and especially his son.

It is a tender story showing the struggle of a nation that has been inundated with white speculators who have made it "big" in the gold mining industry. Native labor has been brought from the redistributed country side (the land with no gold) with promises of good wages they can feed their families on. As seems the story with all places that are taken over by Europeans, education and equal rights are colored as dangerous for the native peoples. "It is best to keep them in ignorance for their own good." But I digress. The unfairness of one people over another always gets me going. So, moving on...

Kumalo goes to Johannesburg and the story unfolds itself. White and black come together, boundaries are crossed and unexpected respect, forgiveness, and hope are shown. It is beautifully written in the prose and way of speaking that is evidenced in all of Africa.

Perhaps the expression that struck me the most was the use of 'mother'. A young African student used to work in dining services with us on campus. He is from Sierra Leone and plans to return there to help his people after he finishes his doctorate. He always spoke of how good he was treated here and how truly thankful he was to work for such people. He would refer to his boss and sometimes me as a 'mother' to him. I found it odd at first and chalked it up to cultural differences, but I had no idea the term of respect it was. "Mother" is used for someone who shows kindness and nurtures the body or the spirit. It is a term of respect not given lightly.

I highly recommend the book for anyone to read. It is well worth your time. Again, a beautifully written story of respect, forgiveness and hope.

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