Welcome to Our Hillbrow

by

Phaswane Mpe

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Welcome to Our Hillbrow: Chapter 1 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The narrator addresses Refentše, “child of Tiragalong,” telling him that if he were still alive, he would have been happy Bafana Bafana (the South African soccer team) lost to France in the World Cup in 1998. This is because if they had won, like in 1995, Hillbrow’s streets would have been rowdy and dangerous. In 1995, people celebrating the win drove so recklessly that someone hit a seven-year-old girl with a car, killing her. Nobody ever found the driver. The people of Hillbrow continued celebrating as the girl’s mother wept, their chants drowning out her cries. When tragic or difficult things like this happen, the people of Hillbrow just say, “Welcome to our Hillbrow!”
This lays the groundwork for several crucial aspects of the novel. First, it announces that Refentše, one of the central characters, is already dead. This indicates that the story will likely travel through time in a non-chronological way. Also, it is significant that the narrator address Refentše directly as “you,” since this is an unusual narrative voice—one that intentionally draws attention to the narration itself. By doing this, the novel makes the narration a part of the story and brings the reader in closer, as though they are listening to a conversation rather than reading. This scene also introduces the symbolic significance of hit-and-run incidents—these happen frequently in Hillbrow, and they are tragic because a character dies, but they also symbolize the sudden way that life can change (and the randomness of life). Additionally, the refrain “welcome to our” will recur throughout the story (and is important enough to be in the book’s title). Here, early on, the refrain is used to convey characters’ frustration with the situation in Hillbrow and their feelings of powerlessness when it comes to changing anything.
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Refentše came to live in Hillbrow through “converging routes.” He was born in Tiragalong but left that small village to attend the University of the Witwatersrand, located in Johannesburg. Hillbrow, a poor neighborhood within Johannesburg, was a “menacing monster” to Refentše. Industry was leaving Hillbrow, and it was known for poverty and crime. Nevertheless, Hillbrow had a certain draw for Refentše, as it did for many young people from Tiragalong. 
The contrasting ways that Hillbrow appears to Refentše is noteworthy, since it underscores many characters’ ambivalence towards Johannesburg. Because Refentše was born in a rural village, he sees the city as “menacing”—this foreshadows the way many from his hometown will be prejudiced against people from the city. And yet, Hillbrow also appeals to Refentše, which shows that he has an adventurous nature and thinks for himself.
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The townspeople of Tiragalong, though, mostly saw the city of Johannesburg as a place of sex, sin, and sickness. AIDS, which people call the “strange illness,” is sweeping through the country, and people from rural Tiragalong blame people in the city. They particularly blame those they called Makwerekwere, which is a slur for any immigrant who comes to South Africa from a different African country. The narrator points out that, most often, these immigrants are Black Africans.
The townspeople of Tiragalong happily pass along rumors—this type of oral communication will play a huge role in the novel’s plot. Rumors, another form of storytelling, prove to be extremely destructive to many characters’ lives later in the story. It is also noteworthy that the people of Tiragalong are so prejudiced against immigrants from other countries, the majority of whom are Black. South Africa went through decades of legal Apartheid, where the country was racially segregated. During this period, Black South Africans had little to no rights. That the Black residents of Tiragalong hold such prejudices against Black immigrants from other countries show the ways in which the racist laws of Apartheid and colonization have seeped into the minds South Africans, even after the legal discriminatory system is no longer in place. Additionally, it is significant that the people from Tiragalong do not call AIDS by its name, instead referring to it as the “strange illness.” In this way, it’s as though they think they can keep the “illness” at arm’s length. And by blaming people migrating from other parts of Africa, they can pretend that AIDS is not a problem where they live. In turn, the people of Tiragalong manage to convince themselves that they have no responsibility to learn about the disease.
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The people of Tiragalong tell all sorts of rumors about AIDS, like that it originated in West Africa because of a certain kind of meat that West Africans eat. This leads them to be even more skeptical of and cruel towards Makwerekwere, since they blame them for the disease. The people of Tiragalong also talk about “bizarre sexual behavior”—referring to men having sex with men—and claim that this is what causes the disease, which they think only happens in Johannesburg and Hillbrow.
Again, the story outlines early on that Tiragalong is a place where rumors and gossip freely circulate, and that these rumors are often based on ignorance and prejudice. By making the implicitly homophobic suggestion that “bizarre sexual behavior”—or sex that is not heterosexual—only happens in other countries or in the city, the rural people of Tiragalong can pretend that they have the moral high ground and that they do not have to worry about AIDS. Also, suggesting that this is the only way that someone could be HIV-positive shows a critical ignorance about the disease. Moreover, by blaming AIDS on food that is only eaten in West Africa, they give themselves more of a reason to discriminate against immigrants while pretending there is no way the disease could show up in their village.
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Welcome to Our Hillbrow PDF
For “formal” news (in addition to rumors), people listen to the radio, which always seems to be broadcasting stories of robberies, rape, drug dealing, or murder in the city. People from Hillbrow say “Welcome to our Hillbrow…” when they hear these stories, and the people of Tiragalong consider these crimes a city problem. But the young boys in Tiragalong also see crime glamorized on television and go around town “driving” cars made out of wire and tennis balls.
The novel positions “formal” news like the radio next to the informal rumors that move through Tiragalong, which shows that radio reporting, too, is a form of storytelling and can completely influence someone’s opinion about a topic. The young boys’ desire to “drive” around toy cars is an eerie callback to the original story of the hit-and-run, since so far cars have been shown to be the bearers of death. That these toy cars are made from wires and tennis balls also highlights the poverty in the area of Hillbrow.
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Refentše stayed with his cousin in Hillbrow after getting accepted to the University of the Witwatersrand. Cousin did not live in the center of town, but rather in the suburb’s outskirts, accessed by a winding array of side streets. His apartment was on the fifth floor of a building called Vickers Place. Refentše was amazed, at first, by the sheer number of people he saw in Hillbrow, rushing this way and that to get to work. He wondered when they have time to make their meals and sleep. Refentše, at first, did not see much of the violence Hillbrow is known for, though he did see a few “semi-naked souls”; Cousin told him that these people are sex workers.
Refentše’s reaction when he first comes to Hillbrow is one of awe—because he is so used to the rural way of life in Tiragalong, seeing this many people all living together shocks him. This shows how people often change their outlook on the world when they move to different places because they have to readjust to the reality around them. It is also important that Refentše’s initial view of Hillbrow includes some things he expected to see (because of the way the city was described in Tiragalong) like sex workers, but also some things he did not, like a lack of violence. This shows that rumors and gossip, though compelling stories, very rarely tell the whole picture.
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Refentše thought that Vickers Place was surprisingly quiet—quieter than he expected because of the stories about what Hillbrow is like. He guessed that this was because Cousin’s street was not in the center of town. He thought about the many central streets of Hillbrow—Kotze, Pretoria, Twist—where there was a large shopping center and a number of banks. Cousin’s apartment was in a good spot because it was not in the noisy part of town and because was near grocery stores and a liquor store (called Sweet Caroline).
Again, Refentše’s believes that he understands Hillbrow because of the rumors that were passed around in Tiragalong, but he finds things different than he expected, and this helps him realize that it’s worth judging something for oneself instead of unquestioningly believing what everyone else says. It is also noteworthy that so many streets and stores are named English words—“Twist” and “Sweet Caroline”—because this shows how African languages have been overwritten, which emphasizes the long-lasting effects colonization.
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Refentše thought that Cousin’s place was more “harmless” and “pleasurable” (“to the extent that anything in Hillbrow could be either of these things”) than deeper into the suburb. However, on the first night in the apartment, while Cousin is out, multiple gunshots woke Refentše up. The gunshots, and a woman screaming, made Refentše miss the safety of Tiragalong. That night, Refentše had nightmares filled with screams and sirens.
The narrator editorializes Refentše’s way of thinking: in other words, it is significant that the narrator acknowledges that “harmless” and “pleasurable” are not ordinary adjectives used to describe Hillbrow. The gunshots and screaming that Refentše hears show that there are real difficulties of living in the city, particularly in this poorer neighborhood, and that people in rural areas like Tiragalong do not understand what people in the city go through in their day to day lives.
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The next morning, Refentše washed himself in Cousin’s apartment, which was a “treat” because he was only able to bath once a week in Tiragalong. Refentše was impressed with the running water that went right to the apartment. That morning, Cousin walked Refentše to his first day at the University of the Witwatersrand. They crossed Twist Street, Edith Cavell Street, and Clarendon Place. Before they reached the university, Cousin stopped and pointed to two different buildings, telling Refentše that if he wanted “it” he can go there. As Cousin said this, a “semi-naked soul” came out of one of the buildings, and Refentše realized that he didn’t need a clarification about what Cousin meant by “it.”
Although Hillbrow clearly is not a wealthy part of Johannesburg, Cousin’s apartment having running water shows that even people in Hillbrow have more amenities than those in rural Tiragalong. This suggests that wealth is concentrated in cities, which are where most of the colonizers lived during Apartheid. This emphasizes the continuing gap in wealth between native South Africans and colonizers. Also, again, the English street names are reminders of the legacy of colonization. Here, also, Cousin admits to Refentše that he sees sex workers, and Refentše has to process that there are ways of living that are different in the city than in rural life.
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As they continued their route, Refentše and Cousin saw a group of beggars, and one of them called out a greeting in Zulu. Refentše waved, but Cousin didn’t. Cousin told Refentše that he can’t “go around greeting every fool in Hillbrow.” He said that this is dangerous, because although the beggar looked harmless, there were people in the city who might hurt him. Refentše noted that the beggar’s clothes were dirty, covered in grime and urine, and that he was drunk. But the beggar seemed pleased that Refentše responded to his hello.
Similar to the way people in Tiragalong look down on “Makwerekwere,” Cousin shows Refentše that people in the city look down on the poorest among them. The fact that the beggar speaks Zulu instead of English (like Cousin does) perhaps suggests that there is a link between poverty and not speaking English—a link that exists in the wake of Apartheid and colonialism. It is noteworthy that Refentše feels empathy for the man who says hello—even though Cousin says he should be wary of the beggar—since it shows that Refentše is interested in working through the prejudices people hold towards the houseless people of Johannesburg.
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Refentše and Cousin continued walking, and they soon arrived in front of a large building called the Civic Theatre. People played soccer in a park nearby. Although they were now in the suburb of Braamfontein—which Refentše had heard was much nicer than Hillbrow—Refentše saw young kids huffing glue. They continued walking and finally arrive at University Witwatersrand’s entrance. Refentše noted that just across from the university stands the headquarters for the South African Breweries, and he was pleased that “knowledge” and “relaxation” were right near each other.
It is significant that Refentše is surprised that there are drugs and crime even in the wealthier parts of the Johannesburg—this suggests that the stories the news tells only focus on the crime in Hillbrow (which he is used to hearing about) and not crime in other areas (which he has never heard of). This shows that once a certain narrative gets popular—like that Hillbrow is the only part of the city dealing with drugs and crime—it can be hard to unlearn.
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As Refentše walked up the university’s steps, he thought that the building was “dull” and that its gray appearance indicated how serious and important it was. In fact, all of the university buildings were grey. He sees the Ernest Oppenheimer Life Sciences Building and the Wartenweilder Library across from it. Although Refentše admitted to himself that he didn’t know much about architecture, he wondered how a school with Architecture as a specialty could allow such ugly buildings to be built on campus.
Refentše’s idea that “dull” and gray are “serious” suggests that there is something oppressive about the university, even though it is giving him an exciting opportunity to learn more. This could be a reference to the fact that the university was built by colonizers, so even though he is happy to be there, it is a monument to European influence in South Africa.
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After he found the Central Admissions Office, Refentše was shown around campus. When his day was over, he leaves for Vickers place. On his way back to Cousin’s apartment, Refentše responded again to the beggar’s greeting (“Aibo!”). The beggar’s warm behavior made Refentše want to give the beggar whatever change he had in his pocket. This scene repeated itself throughout the time that Refentše lives with Cousin while going to university.
Again, the beggar’s presence reminds the reader—and Refentše—that colonization has left South Africa a financially stratified country. Refentše’s desire to help the beggar shows his interest in thinking beyond the commonly held ideas that colonialism and decades of oppression have forced upon the country. More specifically, Refentše critically examines cultural ideas about who deserves kindness and who doesn’t.
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Refentše’s family in Tiragalong did not have much money and, because of this, he could never afford the deposit for student housing. All of his applications for campus housing were unsuccessful, despite having excellent grades. This is why he lived with Cousin at Vicker’s Place for all three years of his undergraduate studies. The money he needed for books and materials comes from “hefty” student loans. In 1994, Refentše graduated with a BA with honors and distinction. The next year, he received a scholarship to pursue an MA, and he finally had funding to move into student accommodations on campus. One year later, after he completed his graduate degree, the university offered Refentše a job as a lecturer.
The narrative speeds up time here, moving through years and dates very quickly. This shows how the novel’s plot is not organized by standard chronology and is implementing its own deconstructed method of storytelling. It is also noteworthy that Refentše needed to take out “hefty” student loans, which shows that a university education is not accessible to many people in South Africa, particularly poorer residents of rural neighborhoods. This only further stratifies a country already divided after years of racist laws and colonial oppression.
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Two months into teaching at the university, Refentše saw his “friend” (the beggar) being pushed in a wheelbarrow towards the Hillbrow Hospital. The beggar did not say “Aibo!” this time. Refentše knew the man for five years (his whole time at the university) and believed that they’d become friends, even though they only ever exchanged kind greetings. He was pained to see this turn of fate for the man.
It is not clear whether or not the beggar has died, but he clearly is not well. It is important that the beggar was in the same place for all five years that Refentše was at university—this shows that, left without any type of support, people on the lowest levels of a divided society will likely not be able to improve their circumstances. Refentše’s concern for the beggar—whom he considered a “friend” and whom he enjoyed saying hello to—shows that he wants to break past the feelings of indifference that most people have towards the poorest people in the city.
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The narrator again addresses Refentše, reminding him that, if he had still been alive, he would not have been sorry (despite his love for soccer and for Bafana Bafana specifically) that the South African team lost the World Cup. In this hypothetical world (where Refentše was still alive), he would have been able to easily walk to Hillbrow from campus, stopping for a drink at a bar. He would have ordered the South African Breweries Castle lager because he could not afford a Guinness. Some people at the bar would be saying how disappointing it was that someone had missed a field goal, while another person might be saying that the French goalkeeper was simply too good.
This hypothetical scene shows the communal aspect of living in the city and how people gather to talk about current events at bars. This can be seen as a reference to the way that, in the rural Tiragalong, people gossip as a form of entertainment. Though there are so many differences between the city and Tiragalong, it is noteworthy that in the city, too, people gossip—here, about what the reason was that the South African team lost. This works with the story’s broader insistence that all places share fundamental similarities, because they are made of up people who have both good and bad in them.
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Despite the fact that Refentše would have been working at his university office and would not have been able to watch the game, he would have known how it ended before leaving campus. This is because Refentše would have received a phone call from a woman named Lerato, who would have been calling Refentše to keep him updated on the game, knowing as she did that the “Bone of her Heart” loved soccer.
Here, the story introduces Lerato and shows that she is a caring and loving girlfriend to Refentše. That she would have called to let him know about the game proves that the two are very close, because she would have anticipated that he’d want to know the score. This is a meaningful way to introduce Lerato—a pivotal character—because it suggests that her bond with Refentše was very strong when it was at its best, even if they will soon confront difficulties in their relationship.
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Refentše would have been able to picture Cousin’s look of disappointment after South Africa lost. Cousin, just like most people who lived in Hillbrow, really cared about soccer. Cousin and Refentše had many discussions about soccer and politics, because Refentše noticed that Cousin was a loud supporter of Black non-South African teams (especially when they played against European teams), but this was in “glaring” contrast towards his prejudice towards Black immigrants or foreigners (Makwerekwere) in real life. Cousin always retorted that Hillbrow’s high crime rate was the fault of these immigrants (and Cousin blamed them for Hillbrow’s “moral decay,” as well as its “physical decay”). Refentše noticed this attitude in many other South Africans (white and Black) who lived in Hillbrow.
Here, Refentše points out the hypocrisy of Cousin’s way of thinking. This emphasizes the way that Cousin’s prejudice is illogical, but Cousin doesn’t seem to care or to want to think past his biases. That this feeling towards “Makwerekwere” is held by many people in South Africa again shows the lasting impact of colonization and legalized Apartheid, and how the government has ultimately turned people against the most vulnerable instead of blaming those in charge.
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Refentše himself didn’t hold these xenophobic feelings towards Africans from other countries. Refentše believed that the “moral decay” of Hillbrow was just the same as it was in Tiragalong (where there were thought to be no immigrants, only South Africans). Refentše used to tell Cousin to do the math—that Hillbrow only seemed more crime-ridden because it had a higher density of people, but that just as many bad things happened in Tiragalong if you considered the town’s much smaller population.
Again, Refentše’s willingness to think beyond the unexamined prejudices that many other people hold shows that he is a curious and intelligent character. It also shows that so many biases are not based in fact, but in ignorance, and that they could be overcome if someone considered the actual realities of life in South Africa.
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Refentše also liked to remind Cousin that, if he thought about it, the Makwerekwere were just like the two of them—“sojourners.” Many of the people who lived in Hillbrow (including Cousin and Refentše) migrated from more rural villages in search of education or better job prospects. This was hardly different than the immigrants that came from other African countries (some of them war-torn) in search of a better life in Johannesburg. Refentše liked to bring up to Cousin that the brutal oppression of Black South Africans under Apartheid caused many South Africans to flee to neighboring countries.
Again, Refentše looks at the root cause of Cousin’s prejudice and points out that it is illogical and based in ignorance. The story again emphasizes Cousin’s hypocrisy, since both he and Refentše migrated from one place to another in the hope of a better life, just like the way immigrants from other countries came to South Africa.
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Refentše never pushed too hard, though, because he knew that Cousin already had all of these facts. Cousin was a police officer and even worked for the state during Apartheid, despite being Black and a South African native. Cousin also blamed immigrants for the AIDS epidemic, saying that “they” (Makwerekwere) had brought the disease into South Africa. Cousin believed that people should “remain in their own countries and try to sort out the problems of these respective countries” instead of moving elsewhere.
Cousin proves that he is not interested in thinking through his own prejudice, since he has all of the information and chooses instead to ignore it. In fact, Cousin is an example of a Black South African who worked with the colonizing government, even as they installed racist laws during the Apartheid era. This proves that wealth and power are extremely seductive, as they can even make someone support laws that repress them and people like them if it means gaining just a little bit of power. Cousin continues to demonstrate a colonizer’s mindset when he blames AIDS on people immigrating from other countries in Africa, since this is not based in fact and is only a way to scapegoat a vulnerable party.
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Refentše knew that Cousin—and other police officers—acted on their prejudices. They might drive an immigrant around in their car, telling them that they’d kick them out of the city unless they paid a bribe. The officers might accept sexual bribes from immigrant women who wanted to stay in the city and continue sending money to their family in another country (especially since the exchange rate worked in their favor if they were paid in South Africa). Refentše also knew that many immigrants usually tried to get work “in the kitchens” (the term for white suburbs) since police didn’t come as often to areas that they didn’t consider high crime zones. This meant that the immigrants were bothered less in these jobs.
Cousin’s behavior as a police officer shows the real consequences of prejudices, and how people’s lives are made worse because of them. It is also noteworthy that immigrants think they will be safer in white neighborhoods—not because they are necessarily safer places to live, but because the police will not bother them as much. This shows firstly that police officers treat wealthy and poor neighborhoods differently. It also shows that police officers themselves are often a form of danger—sometimes even more so than crime itself.
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Refentše knew, though, that crime still happened in white suburbs. Refentše was nearly stabbed in Hyde Park Village—a place with a “lily-white reputation for safety and serenity”—because he bumped into some robbers stripping a car for its radio. Refentše and some friends were even robbed at gunpoint right by the university. During the robbery, which terrified Refentše, he and his friends could hear people in the streets happily singing a celebration song because South Africa had won the Rugby World Cup.
Again, it is noteworthy that Refentše talks about crime that happens in “lily-white” neighborhoods, because it emphasizes that neighborhoods are often segregated by race and that whiter neighborhoods have a safer “reputation,” even if that reputation is not based in fact. The scene where Refentše is robbed in this wealthier neighborhood harkens back to the novel’s opening scene, where—in Hillbrow—a young girl is killed, and her mother’s cries are drowned out by cries of celebration. This emphasizes that these moments full of a mixture of joy and tragedy happen in many places, not just Hillbrow, despite one suburb’s reputation for safety and the other’s for danger.
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Refentše knew of other “chilling” crimes that took place in the kitchens. He’d heard of white families being raped, robbed, and murdered. Sometimes this happened because a family didn’t let their housekeepers go home to bury a dead relative. But sometimes it was simply because the white family was the “embodiment” of racial segregation. Refentše knew that these crimes were not committed by immigrants (who didn’t want to attract any police attention) and thinks of these crimes as a counterpoint to the argument that immigrants brought crime to South Africa.
Again, Refentše points out the hypocrisy of thinking that crime only happens in poorer neighborhoods. He also points out that it’s unlikely any of the crimes in wealthy neighborhoods are perpetrated by immigrants, even though immigrants are so often blamed. This discrepancy speaks again to the ignorance behind people’s prejudice. The crimes that he talks about—white families being murdered because they are the “embodiment” of segregation—underscore how decades of unjust racial discrimination have created a climate of anxiety, rage, and distrust in South Africa. Refentše acknowledges, then, that the immigrants are being scapegoated for crimes that happen as a result of colonialism and apartheid.
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These are all thoughts and conversations that Refentše would be having if he were still alive. After arguing with Cousin at the bar, his mind would have drifted to Lerato, and Refentše would have thought that the food she made him was probably almost cold. He would have arrived at their flat to the welcoming smell of good food, and Lerato would have been waiting for him.
Again, it is meaningful that the story first shows the love between Lerato and Refentše, rather than lead with the problems that they later face in their relationship. This shows that there is clear devotion between the two and suggests that, when they hurt each other later in the story, it makes sense that they should forgive each other because they are both well-meaning people.
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Lerato was one of the friends who was with Refentše during the robbery near the university. After that terrifying incident, Refentše told Lerato that he loved her, since their brush with death made him want to confess his feelings. She replied by calling him a “coward!” and saying that he could have told her before that day—but then she kissed him meaningfully. They had been friends for a while through the university, but this kissed proved that they were much more than friends.
Lerato lightly teasing Refentše after he confesses his feeling shows her love for him. The fact that they were friends before they started dating demonstrates that they have a long history and again shows that the difficulties they will face later on are worth overcoming.
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If Refentše had still been alive, he would have been rushing home with a full heart. He would not think that Lerato could ever do anything to hurt him. Yet, before he died, Refentše rushed home in a similar fashion and found Lerato, the “Bone of his Heart,” in the arms of Sammy, their mutual friend. This led to a spiraling depression for Refentše and, eventually, suicide.
This is the first mention of Lerato’s affair with Sammy. The reader doesn’t yet know the whole story, but it is easy to feel sorry for Refentše since it appears that he has been betrayed by his love. By only showing part of the situation, the novel allows the reader to form an opinion (and possibly judge Lerato harshly for her behavior). When the reality of the story is later unveiled, it is likely that readers will change their minds about Lerato. This is a way for the novel to emphasize its larger point about rumors and storytelling, and about forming prejudices and biases against someone without having all of the information.
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