Refentše Quotes in Welcome to Our Hillbrow
You would recall the child, possibly seven years old or so, who got hit by a car. Her mid-air screams still ring in your memory. When she hit the concrete pavements of Hillbrow, her screams died with her. A young man just behind you shouted:
Kill the bastard!
But the driver was already gone. The traffic cops, arriving a few minutes later, found that the seasons of arrest had already passed. Most people, after the momentary stunned silence of witnessing the sour fruits of soccer victory, resumed their singing. Shosholoza […] drowned the choking sobs of the deceased child’s mother.
Welcome to our Hillbrow! you heard one man say to his female companion, who was a seeming newcomer to this place of bustling activity.
Like most Hillbrowans, Cousin took his soccer seriously. You and he had had many disagreements on the subject of support for foreign teams—especially those from elsewhere in Africa. You often accused him of being a hypocrite, because his vocal support for black non-South African teams, whenever they played against European clubs, contrasted so glaringly with his prejudice towards black foreigners the rest of the time. Cousin would always take the opportunity during these arguments to complain about the crime and grime in Hillbrow, for which he held such foreigners responsible; not just for the physical decay of the place but the moral decay.
If you were still alive now, Refentše, child of Tiragalong and Hillbrow, you might finally have written the books you had hoped to write; completed your collection of poems called Love Songs, Blues and Interludes, that you wished to dedicate to our Hillbrow. Your one published short story about life in Hillbrow might have paved a smooth way to more such stories. You often used to think about the scarcity of written Hillbrow fictions in English and Sepedi. You asked around, and those who could read the other nine of the eleven official South African languages answered you by saying that even in those languages, written fictions were very scarce.
As you look back now at your life on Earth, you find it grimly amusing that suicide could be so seductive. You are fascinated by the stories of your home boys and girls, talking about your suicide as if no thought had gone into it.
You gave her a hug, an embrace. The spiritual support had to be backed up by a physical one. You knew well enough that physical touch could work wonders. You yourself always felt better when a friend gave you a hug, a pat on the shoulder—something like that—when you were sad, hurt or even when you had achieved. So you did what you liked friend and close, caring relatives to do for you.
Bohlale returned your sympathy with a hug, an embrace of her own.
The boy in your trousers decided to express his sympathies too. You felt your heart begin to beat quite fast.
Your mother had never been to Hillbrow, nor any part of Johannesburg. But your mother was not interested in such details. She hated the Hillbrow women with unmatchable venom—a human venom so fatal it would have put the black mamba’s to shame.
Refilwe rewrote large chunks of the story that Tiragalong had constructed about you, which was that you committed suicide because your mother had bewitched you. In an attempt to drive your heart from the Johannesburg woman, Tiragalong had said, your mother had used medicines that were too strong. They destroyed your brain.
Refilwe […] rewrote the version of your suicide. In this version of things, you had been bewitched indeed—but not by your mother; by a loose-thighed Hillbrowan called Lerato.
That day, when Lerato brought you food—she was an outstanding cook—you told her you were not hungry. She knew immediately that things were not right. She was used to you swallowing once or twice more, even when you were already full, just to satisfy her […]. When you again refused her food and—the second indication—showed no sign of enjoying the games you often played together, she began to drift into depression. More so because when she asked what was wrong, you said:
Nothing could not be a satisfactory answer when love was crumbling before her eyes.
As it happened, you were spared the need for decision. Because the very next day Bohlale, on her way to visit Sammy at the hospital, was knocked over by a speeding car that jumped the red robot. It was driven by fleeing hijackers fleeing a pursuing convoy of Johannesburg Murder and Robber Squad cars[…]. Bohlale was run over because, although she had made way for the speeding cars, the hijackers had lost control of their newly appropriated vehicle. They ran into her right where she stood on the pavement. After her death, any confession seemed a needless complication.
The diseased woman of your story did not resolve to tumble down from the twentieth floor of her building, to escape her misery. She chose a different route to dealing with her life. Her first resolution was to stop going home, to Tiragalong, where the wagging tongues did their best to hasten her death. But then she discovered, like you did, Refentše, that a conscious decision to desert home is a difficult one to sustain. Because home always travels with you, with your consciousness as its vehicle. So her second resolution was to pour all her grief and alienation into the world of storytelling. You had her write a novel about Hillbrow, xenophobia and AIDS and the prejudices of rural lives.
She did not know that writing in an African language in South Africa could be such a curse. She had not anticipated that the publishers’ reviewers would brand her novel vulgar. Calling shit and genitalia by their correct names in Sepedi was apparently regarded as vulgar by these reviewers, who had for a long time been reviewing works of fiction for educational publishers, and who were determined to ensure that such works did not offend the systems they served. These systems were very inconsistent with their attitudes to education. They considered it fine, for instance, to call genitalia by their correct names in English and Afrikaans biology books—[…] yet in all other languages, they criminalized such linguistic honesty.
For every new personal experience adds to our knowledge of life and living, death and dying. Every act of listening, seeing, smelling, feeling, tasting is a reconfiguring of the story of our lives.
Yet, when Lerato and Sammy provided you with the chance to add to your storehouse of experience, you could not rise to it. It was at that point that you began to brood, a tinge too gloomily, about love and friendship and the whole purpose of living.
You wished, Refentše, that you could return to Johannesburg to let Lerato know that she was never alone in these acts of well-intentioned generosity that we call betrayal, that you too had tasted their bitter-sweet fruits. But you were powerless. You could not return to Alexandra, where Lerato was staying at her mother’s house, when she swallowed the tablets. You could not, because you were not in control of life in this Heaven. Just as you were not in control of life on Earth.
She told you what it meant to exist with the fear that one’s misdemeanor, one’s open-thighedness—as people would construe her behavior—would be uncovered; the anxiety at the prospect of facing an incredulous mother, whose heart would sink into the abyss of dismay on discovering, suddenly, that her much trusted daughter was, in effect, a murderess; of existing with her life clouded by constant brooding over what fellow University students would have to say about her sexual looseness, that had driven their beloved lecturer into the Dark Chamber of suicide.
Your skull threatened to collapse at any moment, causing you the worst headache known to humanity. Your head spun at untold speed and you became intensely dizzy in these hot, whirling webs of sensory input, your memory picking out choice words here, scenes there…the infinite fragments combining and recombing in the containing frame of your head. Until the roaring pressure of your skull finally exploded:
Welcome to our Hillbrow…Welcome to our Alexandra…Welcome to our Tiragalong in Johannesburg…
She was excited by the challenge of the new position and looked forward to earning a better salary. But she soon discovered the frustrations that went with her new and prestigious position. Although she knew what good books looked like, the company kept on reminding her that good books were only those that could get a school prescription. What frustrated her so much was the extent to which publishing was in many ways out of touch with the language and events of everyday life.
[…] his story that looked at AIDS and Makwerekwere and the many-sidedness of life and love in our Hillbrow and Tiragalong and everywhere. His scarecrow heroine was a big influence on Refilwe’s thinking. She had read the story many times, and each time it made her weep anew. Partly because of the memories it brought up of Refentše. And partly because it made her see herself and her own prejudices in a different light.
Refentše knew only too well that Refilwe as going to bear the brunt of their wrath when she went back to Tiragalong. These gods and devils of our Tiragalong would say:
So, you thought the ones in Johannesburg were not bad enough! You had to import a worse example for yourself!
They would say this, because the stranger-with-Refentše’s-face that Refilwe met in our Jude the Obscure was a Nigerian in search of green pastures in our Oxford. He and Refilwe did find some green pastures in each other’s embraces that following Wednesday evening. They had Refentše’s blessing. His only wish was that he owned life, so that he could force those on Earth to give the lovers their blessings too.
Heaven is the world of our continuing existence, located in the memory and consciousness of those who live with us and after us. It is the archive that those we left behind keep visiting and revisiting; digging this out, suppressing or burying that. Continually reconfiguring the stories of our lives, as if they alone hold the real and true version. Just as you, Refilwe, tried to reconfigure the story of Refentše; just as Tiragalong now is going to do the same with you. Heaven can also be Hell, depending on the nature of our continuing existence in the memories and consciousness of the living.
Like Refentše, the first real Bone of your Heart, you too have had your fair taste of the sweet and bitter juices of life, that ooze through the bones of our Tiragalong and Alexandra, Hillbrow and Oxford.
Refilwe, Child of our World and other Worlds…
Welcome to our Heaven…