This AIDS, according to popular understanding, was caused by foreign germs that travelled down from the central and western parts of Africa. 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.
There were others who went even further, saying that AIDS was caused by the bizarre sexual behavior of the Hillbrowans.
How could any man have sex with another man? they demanded to know.
Those who claim to be informed – although none could admit to having seen or practised it personally – said such sex was done anally. They also explained how it was done – dog style – to the disgust of most of the people of Tiragalong, who insisted that filth and sex should be two separate things.
Surely, this large group argued, it was the shit that the greedy and careless penises sucked out of the equally eager anuses, that could only lead to such dreadful illnesses? (3-4)
In Welcome to Our Hillbrow, people speculate about the origin of AIDS. As seen in the passage above, people of Tiragalong believe that AIDS came from different regions of Africa or from aberrant sexual behavior, anything differing from the norm. Mostly, AIDS was linked to bad behavior, as seen when the migrants discuss the story of the a young man who died of AIDS and ask, “after all, was he not often seen roaming the whorehouses and dinghy pubs of Hillbrow?” (3). But this bad behavior is automatically linked with one’s national or cultural identity. Refilwe, for example, reasons against Refentse’s relationship with Lerato and says, “We know what Jo’burg women can do to a man … !” (90). Simply because of her identity as a Johannesburg citizen, Lerato is judged as a loose and dangerous woman, even though her father Piet came from Tiragalong. Refentse’s mother also highly disapproved of Lerato’s relationship with Refentse, simply because of prejudices against Lerato’s identity, as a girl of the city.
Refilwe who makes the same accusations, finds herself at the other side of the coin. When she goes to Oxford, she has to deal the xenophobia of the English. “She learnt there, at our Heathrow, that there was another word for foreigners that was not very different from Makwerekwere or Mapolantane. Except that it was a much more widely used term: Africans” (102). For Refilwe who sees the distinction between different tribes and cultures in Africa, the discriminatory term of “Africans” is absurd. And yet, here the analogy works to show Refilwe how her own discrimination has been unfair. In addition, just like how the Tiragalong and villagers have their ideas about the inhabitants of Johannesburg, Refilwe’s classmates have their own set views about the city of Johannesburg. “For [other people], the cities were all white, while Soweto was black. Black in human skin color, but also black in morals” (103). As she nears her death, she realizes she is “a Hillbrowan … An Alexandran. A Johannesburger. An Oxfordian” (122). Through her difficulties and her different experience in Oxford, coming into conversation with people from Greece, India, Nigeria, and others, Refilwe engages in cosmopolitanism, and thus, upon her arrival back, realizes that she is no longer just a girl from Tiragalong.
For Refilwe, she realizes at the end (or perhaps the narrator just tells us) that “no one in particular can be blamed for the spread of AIDS” (123). She (or the narrator with his judgey voice) tells us that really, Tiragalong is not much better than the other cities, with its witch trials and family betrayals. The deaths of Refentse, his mother, Lerato, Bohlale, Piet, in addition to all the members of the society who were not lucky enough to be mentioned by name in the book, are proof to this. As cheesy as it would be to tell us the moral of the story at the end of the novel, the narrator sort-of does do that, but to an extent, it can be justified as he has been doing that the entire novel, sending Refentse on a guilt-trip for his suicide and making him realize the consequences of his actions. And at the end, Refilwe realizes how her xenophobia kept her from realizing the own faults of Tiragalong, and her existence can now only serve as a warning. When she dies, she enters with Refentse into heaven, “the world of [their] continuing existence, located in the memory and consciousness of those who live with [them] and after [them]” (124).