Kumalo has a problem: he wants to improve farming in Ndotsheni so that fewer young people leave the village for work in the Big Bad City (Johannesburg). So he goes to the chief, the local Zulu leader (whom he addresses with the Zulu word for chief, inkosi) and he visits the headmaster of the Ndotsheni school. He tells the chief that the only way to keep the people in the valley is "By caring for our land before it is too late. By teaching them in the school how to care for the land" (3.31.13).
The problem is, though, that none of the people in the village—neither Kumalo nor the chief nor the headmaster—can put this plan into practice on their own. They don't have the resources to make the necessary improvements in education and farming practices. So the chief goes to the local magistrate (which is a local-level government official), and the magistrate comes to Ndotsheni with James Jarvis. James Jarvis brings with him a stack of sticks with little flags attached to them, which no one in Ndotsheni can recognize or understand. And he starts placing them in the ground at precise places.
The important point here is that Jarvis is doing something to help the people of Ndotsheni. Clearly, he has the influence and the money to get things done, in a way that Kumalo or the chief can't. But the people of Ndotsheni can't always understand what he is doing to help. What could those little flags be for? Why can't the sticks be moved? The villagers have no idea, even though it has to do with their own town's future wellbeing.
The book never totally confirms what these sticks are for, but it does tell us that there is a rumor going around that they have something to do with a dam Jarvis wants to build to improve the water supply to the village.
This whole section implies two things: (a) you can't just expect people to do better. There have to be resources in place to improve people's quality of life. And (b) people don't always know or recognize where their best interests lie. As we find out from Napoleon Letsitsi, some of the Ndotsheni villagers resent being told how to plant, even if these new farming techniques will improve their lives in the long room. Jarvis's sticks show that he has the power to go in and make things better, whether the people of Ndotsheni understand and agree with him or not.