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Journey to Jo'Burg


by Beverley Naidoo

Two children, Naledi (age 13) and her brother Tiro (age 9), are worried because "their baby sister, Dineo (1)" is quite ill with a fever.  Although their grandmother, Nono, and their aunt, Mmangwane, are trying to help the youngster, she is not getting better.  Naledi and Tiro know how serious the situation is, because the hospital is a long way away and they have no money with which to pay a doctor to visit them.  The two fear that Dineo will die but are certain that their mother, Mma, can help.  Courageously, the two concoct a plan to go to Mma for help; she works in "Johannesburg, more than 300 kilometers away (2)."  Naledi finds the last letter Mma sent them (so they know where to find her) and, with sweet potatoes and water given to them by a friend, the sister and brother set off on foot on the journey.

The two encounter dangerous situations along the way.  They worry that they do not have a pass that allows them to travel; children at school had made up a song about the pass and the dire effects if caught without one.  Indeed, their uncle forgot his pass one day, was stopped by police, and sent to a prison farm.

            People help them along the way: a boy at a farm insures a safe place for the first night and oranges for dinner; a truck driver drives them the rest of the way into Johannesburg and gives them money for the bus (23); and a girl (Grace Mbatha), whose mother works near theirs, helps them find the correct bus, directs them to the street where Mma works, and offers the siblings a place to sleep that night.  Through these peoples' help, Naledi and Tiro safely find their mother and return home with her.  Naledi and her mother take Dineo to the hospital, where the little girl recovers her health.

            Although this story is about a journey from one physical location to another, the journey is more about Naledi's journey to adulthood, to a mature comprehension of the world around her.  Although Naledi and her family love each other and help each other, the world around them is not pleasant. 

            Before the journey, Naledi is just beginning to understand apartheid and the restrictions to which she and her family are subject (e.g., the pass).  Along the way, and paralleling the story line, are descriptions about the treatment of blacks in South Africa.  These descriptions, along with language phrases from their native Tswana, and names, describe the difficult conditions in which the family lives.  These descriptions also comprise the cultural markers in the tale, for the family is living in a culture rife with racism.  A few examples follow.

  • When the young farm worker catches Naledi trying to take some oranges to ease their hunger, he admonishes:  "The white farmer could kill you if he sees you. Don't you know he has a gun to shoot thieves?" (11)
  • The siblings' father died from unsafe conditions in a mine:  "Our father worked in a mine and he got sick with the coughing sickness.  He died there." (22)
  • When the siblings attempt to board a bus, someone yells at them, and the bus drives off.  Grace intervenes, saying:  "…we have to wait by the black [sign] over there. . . . You must also look at the front of the bus for the small notice saying 'Non-whites only.'" (26)
  • The girl in the family where Mma works "thinks that [Mma] belongs to her mother." (28)
  • At work, Mma has an English name, Joyce.  "The Madam" claims that she "can't possibly let [Mma] go today" even though Madam knows that Dineo is very ill. (30)
  • Police converge on a train stop.  They slap and arrest a teen who claims he is too young to need a pass. (37)
  • Grace tells of the recent schoolchildren's demonstrations; how the police shot innocent, young, unarmed children; how her brother was arrested at that time and beaten but finally escaped South Africa. (45-8)
  • On the train ride home, Mma tells Naledi and Tiro how she is treated by Madam:  ". . . every day I must struggle . . . . to make everything just how Madam wants it.  The only time I sit is when I eat!  But I keep quiet and do everything, because if I lose my job I won't get another one.  This Madam will say I am no good.  Then there will be no food for you, no clothes for you, no school for you." (54) 

Eric Velasquez' black-and-white illustrations effectively portray the urgency and horrors of the situations described in the story.  The first shows Naledi urgently talking with Tiro, trying to convince him to go to Johannesburg.  In the illustration, Tiro is unconvinced, standing with his hands on his hips (3).  Two illustrations are especially moving:  Mma, holding Dineo while they wait at the hospital, with fear and concern obvious on her face (62); and the illustration showing the horror of the schoolchildren's demonstration (47).  There are angry faces, parents holding bleeding, dead and dying children, screaming and crying, and a poignant, bloodstained sign that reads "Blacks are not dustbins!"  A review in School Library Journal says Velasquez' illustrations:  ". . . extend the feeling of family closeness and warmth, all the while showing the anger and fear, the harshness and hostility of the characters and situations.  Plain and simple, yet evocative and haunting, they correspond perfectly with each chapter."[i]

            Despite the harsh realities of their lives, Naidoo ends her book on a hopeful note.  A seed of rebellion has been sown in Naledi's thoughts:  

What was it Mma had said about the children in Soweto? That they didn't want to learn just to be servants. . . . [at] her school too.  All those lessons on writing letters . . . for jobs as servants . . . always ending with 'Yours obediently.' 

            Naledi had never thought about it before tonight, but never, never, had she written about wanting to be, say, a doctor.  Yes, that's what she'd like to be.  Imagine how useful it would be if she became a doctor, especially in their own village.  She could even look after her own family. (72)


In speaking about her book, Naidoo pays tribute "To those young people in South Africa who are struggling to take control of their lives, and to reshape their future.  They face a cruel, corrupt, relentless power . . . . but somehow they keep picking up the pieces."[ii]  This is a fitting comment on the characters in her book as well.

[i] Henry, JoAnn Butler. 1986. Review of Journey to Jo'burg. School Library Journal 32 (10): 96.  

[ii] Naidoo, Beverley. 1987. The story behind Journey to Jo'burg. School Library Journal 33 (9): 43.



Naidoo, Beverley. Journey to Jo'burg: A South African story. Illus. Eric Velasquez. New York: J. B. Lippincott. ISBN 0-397-32168-6; 0-397-32169-4 (lib. bdg.)



This book was written for a graduate course in Library and Information Studies at Texas Woman's University, International Literature for Children and Young Adults.



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