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It the beginning of the novel Stephen Kumalo is projected as simple devoted country priest, much concerned about the problems of his people albeit with little understanding of them. The desire to piece together his scattered family brings him to Johannesburg from thence starts a process of suffering and learning, which brings about a conspicuous change in Kumaloís characters.
Kumalo is a man of good will, always alert to the need of others; for instance he spends of his frugal savings to get clothes for his sister and her child. He is ready to acknowledge the goodness in others and feels highly indicted to them. This altitude can be seen in the way he treats Mrs. Lithebe and her house i.e. with respect and care. All though he is an old man he doesnít hesitate from taking inspiration from the selfless kindness of the younger priest Msimangu.
Kumalo is sensitive to the hurt he may cause others, as can be seen from his concern that he may be hurting his wife at the beginning of the novel. However, there are times when in a fit of anger the docile harmless Kumalo acts cruelly. However, each time he is immediately full of self-reproach and quick to apologize.
Kumalo is the suffering soul, a Christ like figure who undergoes acute suffering. Through suffering comes understanding of life and empathy with other suffering souls. Stephen Kumalo is liked to two political characters Stephen Kumaloís suffering is compared to the suffering of his namesake St. Stephen the fist martyr of Christianity. The anguish, he suffers due to Absalomís crime and his subsequent death, connect him to the predicament of David.
At the onset of the novel, Kumalo shows an inability to understand the trappings of city life and the nature of the native's problematic situation. This feature is seen in his inability to communicate with Gertrude and Absalom, and in his firm belief that in the restoration of the tribal unit lay the solution to native problems. Eventually, the reader sees that Kumalo understands the frustrations and exiguities of city life and also realizes that rebuilding the tribe is an impossible dream. All this leads to awareness and Kumalo gains in maturity.
On his return to Ndotsheni, the reader sees in Kumalo confidence and optimism that was missing earlier. He lordly confronts the chief to do something constructive to solve the drought problem. Suffering has given Kumalo courage to go on, in spite of losing his sister and his son to the city. He knows that his tribe canít be restored but he pins his hopes on the younger generation and works on them. Most importantly, he moves from the inclusive concern for his family to the larger concern for the progress of Africa.
A parish priest in the Mission House Msimangu has all the Makings of an ideal priest. He is selfless strong and delivers removes with a sincerity which has the power to enlighten hearts yet, because of his tendency to lose his cool he feels that he is not fit to be a priest but god has laid his hand on him. He has the ability to recognize and admit his weakness. Throughout Kumaloís stay in Johannesburg, Msimangu helps him, in every way he can. He devotes his time to search for Absalom and stands by Kumalo through thick and thin. His decision to join the community remains a bit of a mystery. However proves to be financial help to Kumalo, because Msimangu present his savings to Kumalo.
Msimangu is an important character in the novel, because he is the mouthpiece for the author to express his views on the core issues of the novel. Through him the author states that the crux of all native problems lay in the destruction of tribal order by the whites and their failure to replace it with another comprehensive system. This Ďcaught between two worlds syndrome' has led to anarchy and black misery. Msimangu has fairly good understanding of human behavior hence he knows that the torchbearers for native causes fall to corruption when they gain power just like the whites before them. Msimangu sees this cycle in John Kumalo whom he regards superficial and corrupt. Finally, it is through Msimangu that Paton pronounces the ominous caveat "I have one great fear in my heart that one day when they (the whites) are turned to loving, they will find us (the blacks) are turned to hating."
He is a wealthy landowner who lives on top of the verdant hills that tower above valley Umzimkulu. He is man of goodwill but marked by inaction; he is aware of the hard ships of the natives in the valley but refrains from helping them. He has instilled in his son Arthur, principles and values which he himself has not followed so religiously and is hence surprised to discover, that they had taken such deep roots in his son.
His son's tragic death brings him to Johannesburg and for the first time he discovers things about his son, which he was oblivious to. He is deeply affected by his sonís writing and the condolence he receives on his sonís death. His sonís writings make him aware of the white manís sin and the black manís suffering. Until then, he had viewed natives only as laborers, but now he starts looking on them as people; living and bleeding pain and suffering. This evokes compassion in Jarvis. Instead of nursing a spirit of vengeance, he chooses to help the natives. He not only helps them via charitable acts like donating money and supplying milk but also by bringing to their hearth an agricultural demonstrator who would make them more self-reliant.
His compassion for Kumalo is most heartening; it makes him cross the color boundaries to console him. He sympathizes with the old man and tries to help him in many ways. Personal tragedy makes Jarvis aware of the tragedy of the natives, and he contributes in his own way to alleviate the misery caused by the whites.