Unborn child, the inheritor of our fear

Prof Timothy Wangusa

What you need to know:

  • In the hills, ‘the grass is rich and matted, you cannot see the soil. It holds the rain and the mist, and they seep into the ground

This might well alarm you, but please keep your cool – the title of this current recollection and reflection of mine is not of my own making. It comes from the classroom textbook that once enthralled my generation of teenage school-goers. 

Only two weeks ago in this humble column, I went down memory lane with that generation and other generations that have imbibed and savoured Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country, first published in 1948 – and still going strong like Jonnie Walker!

My focus two weeks ago was on what you might call (in any story) ‘what happens there and in what order of events’, as we traced Rev Stephen Kumalo’s journey from the impoverished countryside parish of Ndotsheni to the racial melting-pot of Johannesburg, in search of his socially and economically entrapped sister and brother and son, his tribulations there, the sentencing of his son Absalom to death for murder, and the emotional and intellectual high-point (or climax) of the heart-broken Kumalo having to reveal to his White counterpart James Jarvis, another heart-broken father – ‘It was my son that killed your son’. 

But – not bothered whether what we were reading was fact or fantasy – the enchantment of my generation was not confined to the story that is narrated and the particular events in their given order. 

Our enchantment, additionally, was hugely to do with the places where the story takes place, the persons in the story, the matter that is narrated and the manner of the narrating; that is to say, regarding the last two aspects, the ideas or themes in the story together with the methodology in the narrating. 

And a very good place to start with is indeed the passage from which ‘yours truly here’ picked the title at the head of this exploration of ours. The passage is as reproduced below:

‘Cry, the beloved country, for the unborn child that is the inheritor of our fear. Let him not love the earth too deeply. Let him not laugh too gladly when the waters run through his fingers, nor stand too silent when the setting sun makes red the veld with fire.’ 

Ah, the unborn child that is the inheritor of our fear – we were instantly gripped by that. Upon the yet-to-be-born child will be visited the sins of the parents: in a land where the natural beauty of the hills starkly contrasts with the ugliness of the over-cultivated and eroded lands in the valleys. 

In the hills, ‘the grass is rich and matted, you cannot see the soil. It holds the rain and the mist, and they seep into the ground….But the rich green hills break down. They fall to the valley below, and falling, change their nature. 

For they grow red and bare; they cannot hold the rain and mist, and the streams are dry in the kloofs. Too many cattle feed                                                                                                             upon the grass, and too many fires have burned it.’

This is the very same land where the city’s population of many colours is scared stiff by the prospect of enduring fear between ‘the haves’ and ‘the have-nots’. In their desperation, ‘the haves’ say to themselves, “We do not know, we do not know. 

We shall live from day to day, and put more locks on the doors, and get a fine fierce dog when the fine fierce bitch next door has pups, and hold on to our bags more tenaciously….We shall be careful and knock this off our lives, and knock that off our lives… and we shall live with fear.”

But above and beyond all this, is the redeeming vision of a future grounded in Ubuntu or ‘humaniliness’, as exemplified by Rev Kumalo when he thanks Ms Lithebe for her exceptional kindness, and she cheerfully replies, “Why else do we live?” (= ”For what else were we born?”)

Prof Timothy Wangusa is a poet and novelist. [email protected]