Welcome to Our Hillbrow

by

Phaswane Mpe

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Refilwe Character Analysis

Refilwe is the second protagonist of Welcome to Our Hillbrow. She, like her first love Refentše, comes from the rural village Tiragalong. Like Refentše, she also studies literature (Sepedi and English) at university, and she moves to Johannesburg—Hillbrow specifically—to work as an editor at a publishing house after earning her BA. Refilwe is a smart and caring character, but she carries some of the prejudices that many people from Tiragalong hold—particularly against “Makwerekwere” (a slur for people who immigrate to South Africa from other African countries). After Refentše commits suicide, Refilwe blames Lerato and smears her name in Tiragalong. Later in the story, though, Refilwe chooses to continue her studies at Oxford Brookes University in England and getting outside of South Africa helps her overcome her previous prejudices. She also attributes her change in attitude to Refentše’s short story, which emphasizes the dangers of prejudice. While abroad, Refilwe falls in love with a Nigerian man, which further puts an end to her biases about immigrants from other African countries. Yet while Refilwe is in England, she is tested for AIDS and discovers that she contracted HIV at a young age. Refilwe comes back to Tiragalong to die and eventually succumbs to the disease, joining Refentše and the book’s other deceased characters in heaven.

Refilwe Quotes in Welcome to Our Hillbrow

The Welcome to Our Hillbrow quotes below are all either spoken by Refilwe or refer to Refilwe. 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 2  Quotes

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:

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:
Chapter 4 Quotes

She had not given up on the idea that one day you would be tired of these Johannesburg women, that your thoughts would then turn back to your home girl. She knew, like all Tiragalong, that there was always a return to the ruins; only to the womb was there no return.

Related Characters: Refilwe
Page Number: 82
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:

Jackie thought that it would be a good idea to go straight to the administration block and get all the formalities of enrolment over and done with. Papers were produced and signed. No, Refilwe did not have to register with the Oxford police, as many Africans, including South Africans during the Apartheid days, had to do. South Africans, black and white, were very fine people these days, thanks to the release of Rolihlahla Mandela from Robben Island in 1990 and his push for the 1994 democratic elections.

Related Characters: Refilwe, Jackie
Page Number: 100
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

She wanted to be laid to rest in our Tiragalong, even if it meant exiting this world amidst the ignorant talk of people who turned diseases into crimes. She knew, as Lerato had known, that it was difficult for a woman to face her friends, colleagues and the whole community, and say her name, when they all judged her to be just a loose pair of thighs with voracious appetite […]. Now it was her turn to be accused.

Related Characters: Refilwe, Lerato
Page Number: 116
Explanation and Analysis:

But she also knew in her heart that she was finished already. When she and her Nigerian were told that they had AIDS, they were also given to know that they had both been HIV-positive for a long time. Refilwe, in particular, must have been infected for a decade or so. Except that she had not known that. So when the disease struck, it seemed that it came suddenly, with no warning.

Related Characters: Refilwe, The Nigerian Man
Page Number: 117
Explanation and Analysis:

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

Refilwe Character Timeline in Welcome to Our Hillbrow

The timeline below shows where the character Refilwe appears in Welcome to Our Hillbrow. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 2 
Regret and Redemption Theme Icon
Storytelling Theme Icon
...is talking about it. One person who really “embellishes” the story of his suicide is Refilwe, an ex-girlfriend of his from Tiragalong. They split up when Refentše discovered that Refilwe had... (full context)
Regret and Redemption Theme Icon
Apartheid and Colonialism  Theme Icon
Refilwe talked Refentše into writing the reference—even though they had broken up—by reminding him that they’d... (full context)
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Refilwe got the job, and Refentše was very happy for her. He suggested they meet for... (full context)
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Back when Refilwe first cheated on Refentše, he had been upset enough to leave her. He did forgive... (full context)
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Refentše thought of this night when Refilwe invited him to have dinner with her, since he knew “how weak he could be.”... (full context)
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Refilwe still loved Refentše. She also hadn’t known about his inner struggles and thought he was... (full context)
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Prejudice and Ignorance  Theme Icon
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When Refilwe told the people of Tiragalong that Refentše had simply been “naïve” and had fallen for... (full context)
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Refilwe even suggested that Lerato’s father was Nigerian, meaning that Lerato was the daughter of a... (full context)
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The village enjoyed gossiping with the newfound information Refilwe had given them. There was one person, though, who knew just how false all of... (full context)
Chapter 4
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Refilwe did not know anything about Piet, Liz, and Lerato’s story. All Refilwe knew was that... (full context)
Regret and Redemption Theme Icon
Prejudice and Ignorance  Theme Icon
Refilwe loved Refentše, and she is devastated by his suicide. She always imagined—or hoped—that he would... (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 the night by... (full context)
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As Refilwe let her food simmer, hoping to remind Refentše about how nice it was when they... (full context)
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Refentše and Refilwe talked about many different things that night. She mentioned that she was thinking of pursuing... (full context)
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After dinner, Refilwe commented on how beautiful the music was. Then, she started to lightly cry, and Refentše... (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... (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 realized that he could not betray her. As... (full context)
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Refilwe argued that Refentše just admitted to loving her, and it would make more sense for... (full context)
Chapter 5
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Apartheid and Colonialism  Theme Icon
Two years after Refentše’s suicide, Refilwe leaves South Africa to study at Oxford Brookes in England. She was accepted into an... (full context)
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Storytelling Theme Icon
Refilwe wanted to publish stories that confronted the hard realities of life, with a philosophical edge.... (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 that there... (full context)
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When Refilwe is finally able to leave for school, she flies thousands of miles to the “Seat... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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At the Heathrow airport, Jackie takes Refilwe out for a traditional English breakfast. Refilwe is already familiar with this type of food... (full context)
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After breakfast, Refilwe and Jackie take the tube straight to the Oxford campus (the “Seat of Learning”). They... (full context)
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Refilwe, her eyes newly opened, has mixed feelings about her privileged status as a South African... (full context)
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Apartheid and Colonialism  Theme Icon
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Refilwe knows that this treatment is based off the assumption that people from other African countries... (full context)
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In fact, Refilwe sees a lot of parallels between the prejudices of British people and the prejudices people... (full context)
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Refilwe likes to tell people in Oxford about Hillbrow, specifically noting that there are poor white... (full context)
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At Oxford, Refilwe’s room is part of a dorm-style setup with four other people that share a bathroom,... (full context)
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Apartheid and Colonialism  Theme Icon
Refilwe’s roommates are from India, Ireland, Spain, and Greece. Refilwe thinks it is “a United Nation... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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...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.... (full context)
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Refilwe tells Jackie and her J9 friends that Jude the Obscure reminds her of a bar... (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... (full context)
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Prejudice and Ignorance  Theme Icon
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,... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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Refilwe braved Jude the Obscure despite the tragic memories it brought up. She tried to move... (full context)
Chapter 6
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Refilwe comes back to South Africa when she finishes her program. However, she is succumbing to... (full context)
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Refilwe thinks about Lerato, and how Lerato knew a thing or two about being judged by... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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Refilwe remembers the moment that she and her lover, the Nigerian man, were told they had... (full context)
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Despite the facts of her situation, Refilwe knows what the people of Tiragalong are going to say—that she went abroad, became infected... (full context)
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Refilwe wrote to her family to tell them about her illness, but the reality of her... (full context)
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After being greeted by her family, Refilwe starts to question her decision to come back to Tiragalong to die. She thinks that... (full context)
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When Refilwe gets back to Tiragalong, she knows that people are saying “welcome” to her face but ... (full context)
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Through the “village grapevines,” Refilwe’s deterioration spreads. Tiragalong uses Refilwe’s illness as a way to deepen their prejudices about Oxford,... (full context)
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But Refilwe anticipated that all this would happen. She does not care, since she mostly thinks about... (full context)
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Before she dies, Refilwe’s loved ones make her “Chicken Tiragalong.” She happily learns that someone is buying Sweeny’s and... (full context)