Stephen Kumalo changes drastically during the course of the novel. He gains a great awareness of many facets of life by going on a journey to Johannesburg. Before this journey, he was a country priest who was a good man but who had no understanding of the wider world. He respected the tribal ways but had no understanding of why the tribe was breaking down and why the young people were leaving for the cities. Throughout the novel, from beginning to end, he is humble, pious, and sensitive. At all times he is very sensitive to any hurt that he might cause others and is aware of the feelings of people. Even in the first pages of the novel, he knows that he hurts his wife.
He is essentially a humble person, but several times during the novel his feelings of anger get the best of him and he intentionally tries to hurt some other person. After each outburst, he is deeply sorry for his anger and makes reparations in some manner.
Kumalo is the suffering hero; that is, before he can come to a complete awareness of life, he must undergo intense suffering. Only at the end of the novel does he come to understand the meaning of that suffering — that through suffering a person is made more aware of all aspects of life and can better sympathize with others.
His name, Stephen, refers to the Christian saint who first underwent martyrdom through suffering. Stephen's suffering is seen partially in the fact that he wants to restore the family and the tribal system. But through the course of the novel, he comes to an awareness that the tribal system can never be restored, and he fails in his attempts to restore his own family. Through these failures and the suffering caused by them, he matures into a man who has a larger appreciation for the trials that others must undergo.
If Kumalo has been a failure in his attempt to restore (reconstruct) his own family, he does not give up. Instead, he turns for hope to the younger people, that is, his son's wife and her child and Gertrude's young son. Furthermore, upon his return from the city, he no longer relies upon the chief's word but knows that if things are to be accomplished he must find some other method than relying upon the older traditions connected with the tribal chief. He then begins to work for a better Africa and devotes his energies to a larger problem than that of restoring his own personal family.