Refilwe comes back to South Africa when she finishes her program. However, she is succumbing to AIDS. When the Nigerian man, her lover, found out about his diagnosis, he went back to Lagos. He would have been happy to come with Refilwe to Tiragalong, but he did not want to be a burden to anyone there. Refilwe almost went with him to Nigeria, but she wants to die at home. She’s passionate about being buried in Tiragalong, even if it means subjecting herself to the horrible things that people will say to and about her.
Refilwe has truly changed over the course of the story. She would have invited her Nigerian lover back to Tiragalong if he hadn’t gone back to Lagos—this act alone would have been unthinkable earlier in the story, which demonstrates how free she is of her earlier prejudice. Her desire to be buried where she was born, though, does prove how difficult it is to fully break away from her home, and this intangible pull is probably why so many people never leave (and therefore change their minds) in the first place.
Refilwe thinks about Lerato, and how Lerato knew a thing or two about being judged by her community. Refilwe thinks that it is her turn now. But Refilwe takes comfort in knowing that although there are ignorant and prejudiced people in the world, there are also kind, welcoming people, like her lover, her J9 friends, and many others that she has come across in her time on earth.
Again, Refilwe expressing concern over the way Lerato was treated suggests that she feels guilt and regret, but also that she understands her mistakes and deserves forgiveness. She now has to face the same prejudices she made Lerato face, which is part of her character’s redemptive arc. It is meaningful that she can see that the world is full of all kinds of people, when previously she’d only separated people into “us” or “them” categories.
In this time—while she is waiting to die—Refilwe thinks often about Refentše, and particularly about his suicide. She feels like she understands now that suicide is not just a decision between “stupidity and intelligence,” but that there are far more factors involved. She knows that she will die soon, though she decides it will not be through suicide. The “Dark Chamber” is seductive, but she does not want to go just yet, and she’ll hang on as long as she can.
This recalls an earlier moment in the novel, when the people of Tiragalong misunderstood Refentše’s suicide and wrote it off as him not thinking carefully enough. Since Refilwe was aligned with the thought coming out of Tiragalong at that point, she, too, must have felt this way. So it is meaningful that she now understands the nuance of Refentše’s decision—this is part of her growth, maturity, and reflection.
Refilwe remembers the moment that she and her lover, the Nigerian man, were told they had AIDS. Apparently, they’d both been HIV-positive for a long time. Refilwe, especially, may have had this diagnosis for over decade—she just hadn’t known. But for Refilwe, it was as though the disease struck quickly, and a combination of cold English weather and homesickness made her health deteriorate almost immediately and very fast. In fact, when Refilwe got off of the airplane at Johannesburg International Airport, her family was terrified at how thin she’d become.
The possibility that Refilwe was HIV-positive for over a decade proves that she must have contracted the disease in Tiragalong, confirming that AIDS isn’t—and never has been—exclusively a city or an immigrant problem, even though no one from the village wanted to believe it. It is noteworthy, too, that she feels like the disease came as soon as she received her diagnosis, since it suggests that there is a mental component to illness as well as a physical one.
Despite the facts of her situation, Refilwe knows what the people of Tiragalong are going to say—that she went abroad, became infected by a Makwerekwere, and even that she is now one of them, by association. She knows that she’ll become a cautionary tale for the people in the village.
Again, Refilwe has completely broken with the groupthink of Tiragalong—still, she knows exactly what they will say. She knows that they’ll blame her Nigerian lover, even though the illness did not come from him. This shows that she chooses to think for herself even though she could easily slip back into the culture of Tiragalong when upon her return if she just lied about how she felt. It is brave and redemptive that she chooses to return and to maintain her own point of view, since it demonstrates just how much she has grown in the last two years.
Refilwe wrote to her family to tell them about her illness, but the reality of her situation doesn’t hit them until they see her in person. Her brothers, for example, are devastated, because as soon as they see her, they know it is far too late to give her the African Potato (a medicinal plant that people said worked even better than the Virodene medication to treat AIDS). Seeing Refilwe’s deteriorated physical state shocks her family. Still, they can’t help but comment on it, and Refilwe hears one of her brothers whisper about her “bony shoulders” and “sticks of legs” as they walk to the car.
It's fascinating that even at such a difficult time, the rumor mill cannot stop working in Tiragalong and gossip is still being passed back and forth, even by Refilwe’s family members. This again shows the way ignorance and prejudice can fester in a tight-knit community. It is also noteworthy that people in Tiragalong have their own medicine for combatting the illness, even if they are under the impression that no one from their village could contract it, since it shows a wariness of modern medicine.
After being greeted by her family, Refilwe starts to question her decision to come back to Tiragalong to die. She thinks that such visible grief is “fatal,” meaning she’ll probably die quicker because she’s surrounded by such “gloomy” faces. The narrator addresses Refilwe, saying “welcome back to our Hillbrow…”
The narrator seems to commiserate with Refilwe: “welcome back to our Hillbrow…” sounds almost like “of course this is happening here…” This emphasizes the way this refrain takes on multiple meanings throughout the novel.
When Refilwe gets back to Tiragalong, she knows that people are saying “welcome” to her face but gossiping behind her back about her appearance and the fact that she is sick. Some obnoxious men from the village, who Refilwe once rejected, even ask her to her face why she turned them down if she was just going to contract AIDS abroad. She knows that she is going to become the face of AIDS for the village—“AIDS incarnated.”
Here, Refilwe is the victim of the ugly prejudice that she’d herself believed earlier in the story. The men in particular have a certain sexist edge to their prejudice, since they judge Refilwe in ways that they might not apply to men. This mirrors the sad and unjust way that Lerato was treated after Refentše died.
Through the “village grapevines,” Refilwe’s deterioration spreads. Tiragalong uses Refilwe’s illness as a way to deepen their prejudices about Oxford, Johannesburg, and Makwerekwere. The narrator reminds Refilwe that, in Tiragalong, people will say terrible things even as you are dying, especially if you go against the status quo. This gossip—“linguistic chisels”—seems to speed up Refilwe’s impending death.
Again, Refilwe’s condition is only mocked by the people in her home village, which shows how deep their prejudices go. The rumors are incredibly painful for her to hear—the words are like “chisels,” which again shows the power that words can have over a person.
But Refilwe anticipated that all this would happen. She does not care, since she mostly thinks about her two loves: Refentše, and the man who looked like Refentše. It is as though Tiragalong and Nigeria are “blended without distinction” by these two men. She knows that she will be in heaven soon. She wonders what Refentše will think of her when he meets her there. She thinks about how much she has changed since he knew her on earth, because she shed so much ignorance and prejudice. She knows now that she, just like Refentše, is a Hillbrowan, but she’s also “an Alexandran. A Johannesburger. An Oxfordian.” She’s even a Makwerekwere herself, since she slept with someone from Nigeria. She knows for a fact that there is both good and evil in every village, city, and country.
Refilwe has moved past her guilt, regret, and prejudice, and she understands the world very differently than at the start of the book.
Before she dies, Refilwe’s loved ones make her “Chicken Tiragalong.” She happily learns that someone is buying Sweeny’s and will reopen it, even keeping the name. She understands that life will go on without her. She knows she will meet Refentše, Lerato, and all the others in the afterlife. The narrator explains what heaven is: it is an archive, and it is a memory. It is a way to refigure and revisit someone’s time on Earth. It can be hell, too, depending on the way people remember you. The narrator addresses Refilwe, welcoming her to “our Heaven.”
Refilwe has completed her redemptive arc, dying just after she learned so much about life. But the narrator welcomes her into heaven, using the novel’s common refrain, which suggests that she will be able to live a good life in heaven because of the improvements she made on earth. She accepts that things on earth will go on without her, which is further proof of her maturity, since she has learned that nobody can control things on earth.