Welcome to Our Hillbrow

by

Phaswane Mpe

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Welcome to Our Hillbrow: Chapter 5 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Two years after Refentše’s suicide, Refilwe leaves South Africa to study at Oxford Brookes in England. She was accepted into an MA program in Publishing and Media Studies—impressing the people of Tiragalong—though she had to delay her studies two years to look after her dying mother. In those two years, Refilwe stayed at the publishing house where she got her first job. Though she’d been promoted to Commissioning Editor, she was frustrated with the company. They kept insisting that “good books” were only ones that could be sold to schools. Refilwe thought that the language of publishing was completely isolated from the language “of everyday life” and that they only wanted to print things that made people feel “safe.”
That Refilwe takes Refentše’s advice to study abroad shows that she was able to benefit from their mutual love, even if she did not get the relationship that she wanted out of it. This, in turn, demonstrates a certain maturity. Her frustration with the publishing house showcases the way that South African publishers value books only based on whether they’re “safe,” which is code for whether or not they’re in English. This calls back to Refentše’s short story, and the issues that he saw in the South African publishing landscape. Refilwe now has the same opinion of the publishing world in South Africa, which suggests that she is becoming more aligned with the way Refentše saw the world instead of the way people from their home village did.
Themes
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Apartheid and Colonialism  Theme Icon
Refilwe wanted to publish stories that confronted the hard realities of life, with a philosophical edge. This is why she appreciated Refentše’s short story so much. She still read it often, because she liked that it challenged her viewpoint of the world, ultimately making her reexamine her own prejudices and think differently about things.
That Refilwe specifically connects to Refentše’s story because it challenges her beliefs shows how much she’s grown in the two years since Refentše died. This shows an initiative on her part to seek out ideas that contradict the ones she previously held. This also shows the power of storytelling—and in this case, writing in particular—since she is able to alter her worldview by reading a story.
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In fact, since Refentše’s death, Refilwe has changed her opinions about migrants and about people from Johannesburg. She understands that there are good and bad people everywhere—and that most people have both good and bad inside of them at all times. She no longer feels better or worse than anyone from Johannesburg or from another country. 
Again, Refilwe’s growth shows that she has reflected on the beliefs she held in the past and moved on from them.
Themes
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When Refilwe is finally able to leave for school, she flies thousands of miles to the “Seat of Learning” (as the Oxford Brookes brochure says). She lands in Heathrow International Airport—there, she meets up with the one person she knows in England, a young woman named Jackie. Jackie comes from a wealthy family that could afford to send her to South Africa for an unpaid internship years ago. At that time, Jackie came to South Africa and taught at Tiragalong High School. Refilwe met Jackie when she was on a weekend trip back home visiting family and saying hello to old teachers.
It is noteworthy that Jackie came to Tiragalong to do an internship, as it suggests that her family had enough money to send her to another continent to do unpaid work. This, in turn, shows the huge gap in wealth between a colonizing country and the people they once subjected.
Themes
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Since they met, Jackie would visit Johannesburg a few times a year, staying at Refilwe’s flat in Hillbrow. Jackie began studying at Oxford Brookes a couple of years earlier, and she and Refilwe stayed in touch through phone calls and emails. They’d talk about books and news in the publishing world, and they’d also talk about their love lives. However, Refilwe did most of the listening when it came to this last subject, because she was still not over the heartbreak of losing Refentše.
The girls are able to connect to each other through telling stories about their lives, which proves that storytelling is a critical part of our communication with other people. Refilwe’s heartbreak over losing Refentše shows how much she still cares for him, even after he died.
Themes
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Storytelling Theme Icon
At the Heathrow airport, Jackie takes Refilwe out for a traditional English breakfast. Refilwe is already familiar with this type of food because it’s everywhere in South Africa, and she enjoys its familiarity. She does not, however, enjoy the warm English beer that they serve, which reminds her of cow urine (which she actually tasted as a child, because people in Tiragalong said it would help her learn how to whistle). Luckily—or, because of “global imperatives”—there is also a South African beer at the restaurant in the airport, and Refilwe sips on that.
The anecdote in this section about Tiragalong emphasizes the way that people from the village have their own ideas about everything—sometimes this is harmless, like the idea that cow urine makes you whistle, but sometimes it’s harmful, as evidenced by the undue amount of power bone throwers have in certain communities (so much power, it seems, that they’re able to profit off of preconceived prejudices).
Themes
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After breakfast, Refilwe and Jackie take the tube straight to the Oxford campus (the “Seat of Learning”). They go to admissions first, so that Refilwe can get all of her paperwork out of the way. Refilwe does not have to register with the Oxford police, as many Africans do. South Africans used to have to, before the end of Apartheid. Refilwe thinks about Rolihlahla Mandela’s 1990 release from prison and the 1994 democratic elections, which “miraculously” happened without large scale violence. Refilwe remembers how many of the news outlets prepared themselves for riots and political violence, thinking things were sure to get ugly, but the violence never came. She thinks about how all of the events that happened in those years have now culminated in her not needing to register with the police in Oxford.
The fact that Refilwe does not have to register with the Oxford police shows that there are tiers within Africa according to Britain—with South Africa above other countries. This proves that Britain maintains racist and prejudiced attitudes towards people in other areas of the continent. It is also clear that the only reason South Africans no longer need to register is because of the change of government in 1994—this suggests that, during Apartheid, Black South Africans would have had to register. Refilwe is interested and unnerved by the fact that so many large-scale political things happened to change her standing in the world, even though she did not change, which shows the absurdity of racist policies. It is also telling that most media outlets around the world thought that there would be violence when a Black South African president took over, proving that there are racist attitudes across the globe.
Themes
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Prejudice and Ignorance  Theme Icon
Refilwe, her eyes newly opened, has mixed feelings about her privileged status as a South African in England. She is relieved that things are easier for her, but she notices and is unsettled by the fact that other Africans (Nigerians and Algerians, for example) are treated badly, particularly at Heathrow Airport. She thinks that Nigerians and Algerians are treated “like pariahs” in “our white civilization.”
Again, Refilwe (much changed from the younger girl who was prejudiced against other immigrant Africans) is bothered by how terribly African travelers are being treated at Heathrow. This signifies a colossal shift in her attitude and outlook on the world. It also emphasizes the white colonial prejudice at play in England. Furthermore, it's noteworthy that Refilwe thinks of Britain as “our white civilization.” There’s some heavy irony at work here, since Refilwe is Black and likely doesn’t actually think of civilization as “white,” but she understands how much power white people—and, historically, white colonizers—exercise over the rest of the world.
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Refilwe knows that this treatment is based off the assumption that people from other African countries are drug dealers or smugglers, even though the vast majority of African people searched by Heathrow security are completely innocent. Refilwe notices that custom officials never have to apologize or even put someone’s things back in their bags after a search. Africans, with the exception of South Africans these days, are often also forced to go through extensive medical checks at the airport. As long as a South African tells customs officers that they’ve recently seen a doctor and don’t have HIV, they’re able to go through quickly. Heathrow airport reminds Refilwe of back home because of people’s prejudices. The British even have an equivalent of Makwerekwere: “Africans.”
Again, Refilwe picks up on all of the racism around her, signifying a huge change in attitude from the beginning of the book. Additionally, it is particularly significant that she notices a similarity between what people back home thought of immigrants—“Makwerekwere”—and the way that British people see “Africans.” This startling similarity proves that the British have exported their racism and prejudice to South Africa through colonialism and Apartheid.
Themes
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In fact, Refilwe sees a lot of parallels between the prejudices of British people and the prejudices people held back home, particularly around where someone is from. For one thing, people in England seem fixated on the distinction between “Africans” and “South Africans.” Refilwe also notices that when people say “South Africa,” they mean Cape Town (where the first white colonizers landed), Durban, or Johannesburg—they see these as white (wealthy) cities. These “Oxfordians” consider Black townships in South Africa to be completely separate from the whiter, wealthier areas.
Refilwe notices that people in England want to pretend that South Africa is different or better than the rest of Africa—this is because many white British people recognize the descendants of white colonizers who still live in South Africa as similar to them.
Themes
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Refilwe likes to tell people in Oxford about Hillbrow, specifically noting that there are poor white people—even white sex workers—alongside poor Black people. She does this to intentionally shock people into realizing that there is, in fact, crime and poverty, even in their precious Johannesburg. She thinks “that is your Johannesburg for you…!” She thinks about how all of these places—Hillbrow, Cape Town, Oxford—have bits and pieces of each other within them.
It is noteworthy that Refilwe likes to shock people in Britain with the reality that there are poor white people in South Africa. She does this to mess with their heads and make them realize that they can’t just separate the world into two categories and assume that white people are rich and Black people are not. This shows that Refilwe has changed completely from the young girl who once hated Lerato for possibly having a Nigerian father. It’s also important that she recognizes how many of the places she has been have both good and bad in them, and that it is impossible to make easy generalizations the way that prejudice calls for.
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At Oxford, Refilwe’s room is part of a dorm-style setup with four other people that share a bathroom, lounge area, and kitchen. When she sees her room, she is worried about how tiny the windows are. For a few days after she first arrives, Refilwe is claustrophobic and cannot sleep in her bed—it feels like someone has put a plastic bag over her head and mouth. She does like the time before going to bed, though, when the people in her dorm all talk together in the lounge area.
The fact that Refilwe can’t sleep because she feels claustrophobic at her new school speaks to the idea that it is impossible to make judgements about a place or a person without getting to know them. One might assume that a fancy academic institution would have good accommodations, but they make Refilwe claustrophobic, working against preconceived notions that all wealthy institutions are places of comfort and wellbeing.
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Refilwe’s roommates are from India, Ireland, Spain, and Greece. Refilwe thinks it is “a United Nation of sorts.” The students all get along easily, especially because an easy conversation-starter is to bring up bizarre British behavior. This ranges from the more innocent (that British people can be a little cold) to the more serious (accusations of racism in academia). The group even prepares a special dinner together, which they call “Chicken J9” (referring to the number of their dorm room). The meal includes cooking techniques from each country represented in the dorm.
Refilwe’s easy bond with the people in her dorm shows again how different she is from earlier in the story—she used to have difficulty accepting people who might have had a parent from a different African country. It’s also telling, though, that this British institution has lumped all non-British people together in a room; this shows how, in England, there is the idea of an insider and an outsider. It is easy to see, then, how that mentality migrated to the corners of Tiragalong after decades of British rule.
Themes
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Jackie eventually introduces everyone to a bar that becomes Refilwe’s favorite—it is called Jude the Obscure. The bar is just down the street from the university. “One might have said” that it is very important to have “knowledge” and “relaxation” so close together, since these two needs are basically two sides of the same coin.
In this moment, the novel connects Refilwe’s present with her past by recalling Refentše’s idea that it’s important to have both “knowledge” and “relaxation.” This type of repetition makes the story feel almost like a song (where there are repeated bridges and choruses), which furthers the idea that the novel pulls from traditions of oral storytelling.
Themes
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The Oxford students like Jude the Obscure a lot, not because they care so much about the Thomas Hardy reference but because the bar puts on lots of events, like poetry readings, fiction readings, and live music. It also stays open late. Refilwe knows that there is “as much knowledge and relaxation to be found in pubs as there was in books.” The students love to go, hang out, mingle with people outside of the university, and talk about books. There are also lots of literary references all over the bar, and Refilwe likes to talk to the smart Irishman who owns the place. He even buys Zakes Mda’s Ways of Dying after she recommends it.
Refilwe understands the bar as a place for connection and socialization, just like Refentše did. This shows that she is willing to connect with other people in the same unprejudiced way that Refentše did early in the book. It is also noteworthy that Refilwe recommends a book to the bar owner, who then buys it, since this furthers the idea of connections being made through books and stories.
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Ways of Dying is about a character called Toloki—an “ordinary person” who wants to professionalize the act of mourning. When she recommends this book to the Irishman in Oxford, Refilwe has no way of knowing that soon her family will have reason to mourn her. If she knew she was carrying the “notorious disease” that would soon make her the subject of gossip across Tiragalong and Hillbrow, she might not have been able to recommend such a story.
It is hard to do conventional foreshadowing in this novel, because so much of the plot is given at different times across different timelines, but this does hint at exactly how Refilwe will die—she will contract AIDS, the “notorious disease.”
Themes
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Refilwe tells Jackie and her J9 friends that Jude the Obscure reminds her of a bar back in South Africa called Sweeny’s. It’s a university pub for the students of Witwatersrand, and it’s where she and her friends went to celebrate “small victories” or to “drown the sorrows” of the week. Thinking of Sweeny’s reminds Refilwe of Refentše, since it was the bar that they met at after he wrote her a reference. She can’t tell her friends in Oxford just how many “happy and unhappy” memories Jude the Obscure brings up for her, since it makes her think of Refentše, his suicide, and his rejection.
When Refilwe thinks back on her time at Sweeny’s, she is filled with both good and bad memories, which indicates that life is full of both joy and tragedy. This furthers the idea that no life can be perfect, just like no person can be perfect. This duality is also shown in the way she used to “celebrate victories” and “drown sorrows” in the same place.
Themes
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One night at Jude the Obscure, Refilwe sees a man that looks almost exactly like Refentše (just with slightly darker skin). This shocks her to her core, and she can’t take her eyes off of him even as she pretends to talk and laugh with her friends. When she gets home that night, she cannot sleep, since she feels like the love of her life has been “miraculously transported” back to her. And this time, there’s no Lerato to compete with. That night, Refilwe dreams that she and Refentše are kissing, embracing, and touching each other passionately. She wakes up drenched in sweat. She sighs deeply and thinks about her past—the good and the bad—in Tiragalong and in Hillbrow.
Refilwe understands that life is made up of good and bad, and that it will always be a mixture of each. It is noteworthy that she is drawn to a man who looks like Refentše, because this demonstrates that even though she has changed as a person, she has not let go of the love she felt for Refentše.
Themes
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The next week, at Jude the Obscure, Refilwe sees the same man (“the stranger-whose-face-was-Refentše’s”). Refilwe is completely drawn to him. She approaches him, daring to start up a conversation. Refentše, watching from heaven, wishes he could help Refilwe, since he knows what the people of Tiragalong will say after they learn about this affair. The man is Nigerian. But Refentše is “neither God nor gods.” In fact, he thinks that God and gods are not at all like they learned about in school, and that good and evil can be found on Earth in the hearts of ordinary people—from Hillbrow to Oxford to Tiragalong.
That Refentše watches Refilwe from heaven shows how much he still cares for her; it also suggests that their connection never broke even though he died. His acceptance that he cannot change things on earth—even if he’d like to—shows that he, too, is maturing even in heaven, since he has let go of his desire for control over life. It is also very significant that Refilwe falls for a man who is Nigerian, because this further suggests that her earlier prejudices are no longer with her.
Themes
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Refentše, watching from Heaven, knows that Refilwe will bear the brunt of hideous words from people of Tiragalong: “So, you thought the ones in Johannesburg were not bad enough! You had to import a worse example for yourself!” He knows that, even as Refilwe and the Nigerian man enjoy themselves and find happiness in each other’s arms, their story will not end well. When Lerato, in Heaven, asks her love, Refentše, why he looks so worried, he says that he is watching a sad movie about a man and woman who have fallen victim to AIDS. They both have the disease. When they go back home to their respective countries, they will face cruelty and judgement from the people of their villages.
The words that Refentše knows people in Tiragalong will say are cruel, and this exemplifies the prejudice that exists across the village. “The ones” that the people of Tiragalong refer to are immigrants from other countries—so this references the idea that Refilwe slept with a Nigerian man, making her subject to ridicule.
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Refilwe braved Jude the Obscure despite the tragic memories it brought up. She tried to move past these memories because she wanted to be happy and feel alive. She loved the bar, just like she loved Tiragalong and just like she loved Hillbrow. If Refentše were still alive, he would probably write a lovely poem for Refilwe. But it would ultimately become her eulogy. Refilwe, about to die, has learned so much about life and about the hardships and prejudices in the world—from Oxford to Heathrow to Lagos to Tiragalong. Addressing Refilwe, the narrator says, “Welcome to the World of our Humanity…”
It is tragic that Refilwe will not live long after she has changed into a more tolerant person, although this does speak to the way that nothing can prepare you for the unexpected things in life. The narrator, addressing Refilwe directly and saying, “welcome to the world of our humanity,” underscores a theme that is present throughout the novel—that all places share something in common: they are imperfect, just like the people who inhabit them.
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