Welcome to Our Hillbrow is set in South Africa—in a section of Johannesburg called Hillbrow—shortly after the end of apartheid. The book follows Refentše and Refilwe—young, intelligent people born in the rural village of Tiragalong, north of Johannesburg. Throughout the novel, characters make cruel decisions that hurt one another, creating a tragic chain of events. After Refentše cheats on the love of his life, Lerato, with his friend’s girlfriend and never comes clean about it, Lerato cheats on him with their mutual friend Sammy. Refentše is so devastated by the betrayal that he commits suicide. Refilwe, meanwhile, was in love with Refentše and resents that he chose Lerato over her. So after his suicide, she spreads mean-spirited rumors about Lerato that are rooted in prejudice against immigrants from other African countries (she wrongly believes that Lerato’s father is Nigerian). The rumors compound Lerato’s grief over Refentše, and she, too, commits suicide.
Although both Refentše and Refilwe make terrible mistakes that they deeply regret, they’re able to channel this regret into self-reflection and grow out of their harmful attitudes and behavior. As a result, both characters are the book’s heroes, even though they are imperfect. From the vantage point of heaven, Refentše can see that if he had confided in Lerato early on, she would not have cheated on him, which was the inciting reason for Refentše’s suicide. Being able to analyze the mistakes he made in his life makes his and Lerato’s relationship much stronger in the afterlife. In the same vein, Refilwe completely overcomes her prejudices toward the end of the novel, partly by reading challenging literature and partly by studying abroad in England, where she meets a Nigerian man and falls in love with him. Refentše and Refilwe’s redemption arcs show that people can be a complex mix of good and bad, and that even people who make grave mistakes can change for the better and lead meaningful lives (or, in Refentše’s case, afterlives) if they’re truly remorseful. But given that Refilwe eventually dies of AIDS, the book seems to suggest that life itself can be unforgiving (or, at the very least, impartial), even toward those who make amends and better themselves—such people can still experience senseless tragedy. Refilwe is welcomed into heaven at the novel’s end, though, implying that anyone who genuinely regrets their past mistakes will nevertheless be redeemed on some level.
Regret and Redemption ThemeTracker
Regret and Redemption Quotes in Welcome to Our Hillbrow
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.
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.
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 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.
[…] 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.
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.
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…