Welcome to Our Hillbrow

by

Phaswane Mpe

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Refentše Character Analysis

Refentše is one of two main characters in Welcome to Our Hillbrow. The narrator addresses Refentše directly, even though Refentše is dead at the beginning of the story. Refentše was born in a small, rural village called Tiragalong. However, when he is accepted to the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, he moves to the city where he lives with his cousin in the poorer neighborhood of Hillbrow. The love of Refentše’s life is a fellow student named Lerato. Refentše’s best friend is Sammy. Refentše is also closely connected to the story’s second protagonist, Refilwe, with whom he had a relationship when he was younger in Tiragalong. Refentše knows that Refilwe loves him and wants him to leave Lerato for her, and although Refentše rejects her romantic advances, he never stops caring for her. After Lerato cheats on Refentše with Sammy, Refentše spirals into a depression and commits suicide by jumping off of his 20-story balcony. Refentše is a thoughtful and observant character, who suffers depressive episodes even before the one that kills him. He loves literature and is an excellent student, earning a BA with honors and a scholarship for an MA. He reads and writes in Sepedi and English. After his second degree, he works as a lecturer in South African literature at the university—the first person from Tiragalong to do so. Unlike many other characters, Refentše is not prejudiced toward “Makwerekwere” (a slur for immigrants from other African countries), but he doesn’t hold grudges against characters who are. Refentše publishes one short story before he dies, and the story is about how prejudice destroys South African society.

Refentše Quotes in Welcome to Our Hillbrow

The Welcome to Our Hillbrow quotes below are all either spoken by Refentše or refer to Refentše . For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Regret and Redemption Theme Icon
).
Chapter 1 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Refentše
Page Number: 2
Explanation and Analysis:

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.

Related Characters: Refentše , Cousin
Page Number: 17
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 2  Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Refentše
Page Number: 29
Explanation and Analysis:

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.

Related Characters: Refentše
Page Number: 30
Explanation and Analysis:

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.

Related Characters: Refentše , Bohlale, Sammy, Lerato
Page Number: 37
Explanation and Analysis:

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.

Related Characters: Refentše , Refentše’s Mother, Lerato
Page Number: 39
Explanation and Analysis:

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.

Page Number: 43
Explanation and Analysis:

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.

Nothing could not be a satisfactory answer when love was crumbling before her eyes.

Related Characters: Refentše , Lerato , Sammy, Bohlale
Page Number: 49
Explanation and Analysis:

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.

Related Characters: Refentše , Bohlale, Sammy
Related Symbols: Hit-and-Runs
Page Number: 53
Explanation and Analysis:

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.

Page Number: 55
Explanation and Analysis:

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.

Page Number: 56
Explanation and Analysis:

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.

Related Characters: Refentše , Lerato , Sammy
Page Number: 61
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 3 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Refentše , Lerato , Sammy
Page Number: 67
Explanation and Analysis:

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.

Page Number: 69
Explanation and Analysis:

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…

Related Characters: Refentše , Piet
Page Number: 79
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 5 Quotes

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.

Page Number: 94
Explanation and Analysis:

[…] 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.

Page Number: 96
Explanation and Analysis:

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.

Related Characters: Refilwe, Refentše , The Nigerian Man
Page Number: 112
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 6 Quotes

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…

Related Characters: Refilwe, Refentše
Page Number: 124
Explanation and Analysis:
Get the entire Welcome to Our Hillbrow LitChart as a printable PDF.
Welcome to Our Hillbrow PDF

Refentše Character Timeline in Welcome to Our Hillbrow

The timeline below shows where the character Refentše appears in Welcome to Our Hillbrow. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 1
Storytelling Theme Icon
The narrator addresses Refentše, “child of Tiragalong,” telling him that if he were still alive, he would have been... (full context)
Prejudice and Ignorance  Theme Icon
Refentše came to live in Hillbrow through “converging routes.” He was born in Tiragalong but left... (full context)
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Refentše stayed with his cousin in Hillbrow after getting accepted to the University of the Witwatersrand.... (full context)
Apartheid and Colonialism  Theme Icon
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Refentše thought that Vickers Place was surprisingly quiet—quieter than he expected because of the stories about... (full context)
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Refentše thought that Cousin’s place was more “harmless” and “pleasurable” (“to the extent that anything in... (full context)
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The next morning, Refentše washed himself in Cousin’s apartment, which was a “treat” because he was only able to... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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Refentše and Cousin continued walking, and they soon arrived in front of a large building called... (full context)
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As Refentše walked up the university’s steps, he thought that the building was “dull” and that its... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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Refentše’s family in Tiragalong did not have much money and, because of this, he could never... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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The narrator again addresses Refentše, reminding him that, if he had still been alive, he would not have been sorry... (full context)
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Despite the fact that Refentše would have been working at his university office and would not have been able to... (full context)
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Refentše would have been able to picture Cousin’s look of disappointment after South Africa lost. Cousin,... (full context)
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Refentše himself didn’t hold these xenophobic feelings towards Africans from other countries. Refentše believed that the... (full context)
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Refentše also liked to remind Cousin that, if he thought about it, the Makwerekwere were just... (full context)
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Refentše never pushed too hard, though, because he knew that Cousin already had all of these... (full context)
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Refentše knew that Cousin—and other police officers—acted on their prejudices. They might drive an immigrant around... (full context)
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Refentše knew, though, that crime still happened in white suburbs. Refentše was nearly stabbed in Hyde... (full context)
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Refentše knew of other “chilling” crimes that took place in the kitchens. He’d heard of white... (full context)
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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,... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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If Refentše had still been alive, he would have been rushing home with a full heart. He... (full context)
Chapter 2 
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If Refentše, “child of Tiragalong and Hillbrow,” were still alive, he might have written the books he... (full context)
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Refentše knew that there were not many stories written about Hillbrow, particularly not in languages that... (full context)
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Refentše, from the afterlife, is “grimly amused” at how quickly news of his suicide travels through... (full context)
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Refilwe talked Refentše into writing the reference—even though they had broken up—by reminding him that they’d been in... (full context)
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Refilwe got the job, and Refentše was very happy for her. He suggested they meet for a beer to celebrate at... (full context)
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Back when Refilwe first cheated on Refentše, he had been upset enough to leave her. He did forgive her—in that he didn’t... (full context)
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On that night, Bohlale called Refentše and asked him to come over. She was distraught because Sammy had brought home a... (full context)
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Refentše sat next to Bohlale, wondering what could have made his friend Sammy go to that... (full context)
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Refentše thought of this night when Refilwe invited him to have dinner with her, since he... (full context)
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The narrator reminds Refentše of his weakened relationship with is mother and suggests that this was also a factor... (full context)
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Because of her convictions about Hillbrowans, Refentše couldn’t turn to his mother for comfort when he found out about Lerato and Sammy’s... (full context)
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Refilwe still loved Refentše. She also hadn’t known about his inner struggles and thought he was happy enough. Refentše... (full context)
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The people of Tiragalong came up with their own reason for Refentše’s death—they blamed his mother. They said she gave him medicines to break the love potion... (full context)
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When Refilwe told the people of Tiragalong that Refentše had simply been “naïve” and had fallen for a woman from Johannesburg, she changed people’s... (full context)
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...order to further smear Lerato’s name in Tiragalong. By the time Refilwe’s story was done, Refentše’s suicide was just “hard evidence” of the “dangerous power” of immigrant women for the people... (full context)
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...child to study at the University of Witwatersrand, and he was a role model for Refentše (and a bit of a hero in the village). Tshepo was struck by lightning and... (full context)
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...knew just how false all of these stories were: Lerato herself. She was heartbroken after Refentše’s death. Lerato, too, found suicide “seductive” in the aftermath of Refentše’s death. (full context)
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The narrator tells Refentše that, from heaven, he gets to have a bit of hindsight and reflection. Refentše sits... (full context)
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If Refentše had tried to talk to Lerato after she had sex with Sammy, he would have... (full context)
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The day that Sammy and Lerato had their affair, Refentše was depressed. He hadn’t eaten the food that Lerato prepared him, which disappointed her. She... (full context)
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The difference between Refentše and Bohlale’s affair and Sammy and Lerato’s was that Sammy never found out Bohlale cheated... (full context)
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Sammy asking for Bohlale should have saved Sammy and Bohlale’s relationship. When Refentše came home from the hospital, he told Bohlale that Sammy had asked for her, and... (full context)
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Late that night, Bohlale called Refentše in tears, telling him that they had to confess and apologize to Sammy. Refentše was... (full context)
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To find an outlet for this grief and guilt, Refentše started to write the short story about Hillbrow. This is the story that ended up... (full context)
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Some people who read Refentše’s story felt for the protagonist, which surprised him (they were the “exceptions”). These people seemed... (full context)
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The protagonist of Refentše’s story does not die by suicide. She thinks she will not go back to Tiragalong... (full context)
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Refentše works into his story, though, that it’s a “big mistake” for this woman to write... (full context)
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The story that the woman in Refentše’s story writes is “buried,” and she is devastated. She begins to physically deteriorate, losing lots... (full context)
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Had Refentše actually written the full-length novel, he probably would have had time to do even more... (full context)
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Refentše knew he would never be able to write a story that held all of his... (full context)
Chapter 3
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As Refentše watches from his “heavenly vantage point,” he sees Lerato swallow the tablets that kill her.... (full context)
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Refentše also regrets that he was not alive to protect Lerato from a phone call from... (full context)
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Refentše, from heaven, wishes he could have told Lerato that he’d also been unfaithful to their... (full context)
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When Lerato does arrive in heaven, she and Refentše spend a long time talking about their days as students at the university. Refentše admits... (full context)
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Lerato then tells Refentše about living with the weight of a “vote of no confidence” from a loved one,... (full context)
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Refentše then takes Lerato to go meet his mother. Refentše’s mother slowly eyes Lerato from head... (full context)
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After the introduction, Refentše and Lerato go to watch a “movie” together, just as they used to do on... (full context)
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As Refentše watches the story of Piet’s life and death from Heaven, he thinks about the complexities... (full context)
Chapter 4
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Refilwe loved Refentše, and she is devastated by his suicide. She always imagined—or hoped—that he would give up... (full context)
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That night, Refentše arrived at Refilwe’s right on schedule. Refilwe was an excellent host, and she started off... (full context)
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As Refilwe let her food simmer, hoping to remind Refentše about how nice it was when they were together, she took out old photographs. Refentše... (full context)
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Refentše and Refilwe talked about many different things that night. She mentioned that she was thinking... (full context)
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...Refilwe commented on how beautiful the music was. Then, she started to lightly cry, and Refentše embraced her. She told him that she loved him, saying she wished she could go... (full context)
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The conversation with Refilwe reminded Refentše of the very first time he fell in love. The woman he fell for was... (full context)
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The more Refentše thought about his past while having dinner Refilwe’s, the more he thought about Lerato. He... (full context)
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Refilwe argued that Refentše just admitted to loving her, and it would make more sense for him to be... (full context)
Chapter 5
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Two years after Refentše’s suicide, Refilwe leaves South Africa to study at Oxford Brookes in England. She was accepted... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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In fact, since Refentše’s death, Refilwe has changed her opinions about migrants and about people from Johannesburg. She understands... (full context)
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...came to this last subject, because she was still not over the heartbreak of losing Refentše. (full context)
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...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.... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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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.... (full context)
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Refentše, watching from Heaven, knows that Refilwe will bear the brunt of hideous words from people... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
Chapter 6
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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... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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...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... (full context)