Who do I want to be like when I grow up? Good question. I’m already grown up. And so are you. For me, I want to strive to be like Msimangu. He is one of the lead characters in a favorite book by Alan Paton. It’s called “Cry, the Beloved County.”
So what does “Cry, the Beloved Country” have to do with the elderly, the group of people I rub shoulders with every day? Plenty. It deals with racial secregation of the worst kind. Today we tend to segregate by age, not so much by color. But separation for any reason is wrong. And sinful. “Cry, the Beloved Country” illuminates that sin, but also the redemption that can be possible through love. Msimangu is a big part of that love.
Back to the story. The book is set in South Africa, during apartheid, the period of strictest separation between races. Stephen Kumalo, a parson, is a frail old man, living in a tiny drought plagued village. He is loved by his people but life is hard.
One day Kumalo gets news that his only son, Absalom, has been charged with the murder of a white man. He must go to Johannesburg, the city of crime, to find his son and others in his family who have disappeared earlier, including his sister.
Fortunately Reverend Msimangu, enters the scene. With a combination of wisdom, energy and compassion, he becomes the old man’s emotional and physical shepherd. They wind through the sin-filled city, searching for Kumalo’s loved ones.
Msimangu stands by Kumalo in the face of many losses. Kumalo discovers his sister has become a prostitute. His brother John, a hater of whites, lies to blame the sole responsibility for murdering a white man on Absalom. In truth, John’s sons were also involved. Absalom will be executed. John’s sons face a lesser sentence. Kumano struggles with forgiveness. Msimangu offers support.
Hope is dashed time after time. Kumalo’s sister agrees to return to the village but later flees in fear back into prostitution. Absalom’s girlfriend becomes pregnant. Absalom repents and the two marry not long before Absalom’s execution.
More loss. Absalom’s new wife abandons her tiny son to return to a life that while evil, is known. And Kumalo goes home, with a little boy, his grandson, whom he and his wife will raise as their own.
The ending offers Kumalo hope. He discovers that the white man whom his son killed was the son of the plantation owner living above Kumalo’s village. The younger man, too, had a son who is now living with his grandfather. Now there are two little boys: one white and one black, who will grow up knowing each other.
Msimangu is my favorite character. Impatient, hot-headed, he pulls Kumalo through the city and through the system. He is a tough love sort of a guy, who is generous with his time,
compassion, and money. He gives Kumalo his lifetime savings, to help him with expenses of the trip and raising of his grandson. When Kumalo thanks him, Msimangu responds, “I am a weak and selfish man, but God put his hands on me, that is all.”
As I go about my days, working with seniors and their families, I want to be like Msimangu. “I am a weak and selfish person. but God put His hands on me, that is all.”
Happy New Year!