Storytelling is central to Welcome to Our Hillbrow, as the two protagonists, Refilwe and Refentše, are professionally invested in stories (the former works in publishing, the latter is a writer). But, really, all of the characters in the book use stories in their lives. The South African village that Refilwe and Refentše come from, Tiragalong, is home to people who feed off rumors, making ordinary people into either heroes or villains. In response to the way his community often uses storytelling to ruin reputations, Refentše writes a short story that speaks to the faults of prejudice in Tiragalong and South Africa more broadly. Even characters like the village bone thrower—the mystic person who travels between towns to tell people why certain things happen—relies on tall tales to make money.
More than just highlighting the prevalence of storytelling in human life, though, the novel illustrates the many ways in which storytelling can bring about real-life consequences that are both good and bad. The rumors that the villagers tell, for example, cause Lerato to be judged so harshly that she decides to commit suicide. Similarly, the bone thrower’s erroneous stories often cause innocent people to be charged as witches and subsequently murdered. And yet, on the flip side, Refentše’s short story sets forth a meaningful exploration of society and its prejudices, ultimately causing Refilwe—a previously xenophobic character—to change her outlook on the world. To that end, the novel even suggests that if Refentše had written a longer book, he might have been able to further work through his feelings and, as a result, might not have chosen to end his life so soon. Thus, Welcome to Our Hillbrow demonstrates that stories are remarkably powerful: when used to cruel ends, they can be incredibly destructive, but when used with good intentions, they can have profoundly positive outcomes.
Storytelling 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.
More specifically, certain newspaper articles attributed the source of the virus that caused AIDS to a species called the Green Monkey, which people in some parts of West Africa were said to eat as meat, thereby contracting the disease. Migrants (who were Tiragalong’s authoritative grapevine on all important issues) deduced from such media reports that AIDS’s travel route into Johannesburg was through Makwerekwere; and Hillbrow was the sanctuary in which Makwerekwere were based.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It did not occur to Molori and his uncle to doubt the bone thrower’s insights. His accurate knowledge of their family affairs was too impressive; where else could such knowledge have come from, they reasoned, other than from his reading of the bones? The uncle reminded Molori about the Tiragalong saying: witches have no distinct kin colour through which other people can recognize and identify them. Piet and his mother might put on the act of being good people. But who was to say that that was not the art of witches?
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.
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…