Welcome to Our Hellbrow

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).

3 Comments

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  1. We have been reading a lot about AIDS lately and focusing this much on a single disease made me consider the specific nature and the cultural connatation of AIDS. Would things been different if the illness in question was not aids but some other sexually transited disease? I ask these questions because I believe the cultural aspect and the understanding of the disease plays a huge role on how characters of this novel are recieved by others.
    I was researching about the era and I stumbled upon a research that has been conducted on 1997. It reports that over 30% of the the sample participants (rougly 300 out 1000) believe that AIDS has been created in a laboratory as a weapon, and a further 30% belives that AIDS is a form of genocide against black people.
    This leads me to the question of rumors and superstitions which is also explored in the novel. Maybe just like myth about witchcraft, urban legends about AIDS created this understanding. What would be the case If the disease in question had identical symptoms and effects minus the cultural stigma?
    Here is the research in question conducted by Journal of Health Educaiton: http://health-equity.pitt.edu/899/1/AIDS_as_Genocide_2.pdf

  2. Reading Welcome to Our Hillbrow, I was both fascinated and confused by Mpe’s language, specifically word choice, and the connection between two central themes in the novel: AIDS and xenophobia. Perhaps I’m reading too much into this, but reading your post again makes me feel like there is quite a clever little dynamic between both of these themes that is brought about by the author’s word choice. In the first line of the passage you have included in the post, the narrator says, “This AIDS, according to popular understanding, was caused by foreign germs that travelled down from the central and western parts of Africa” (3). The idea of “foreign germs” traveling makes me think of Refilwe traveling to Oxford, carrying AIDS with her.
    Xenophobia can be tied to some of the social dimensions of disease. For instance, just as we have seen in The Plague, people suffering from disease often suffered in silence, because of the public’s fear or hatred of the foreign and unfamiliar. Similarly in Welcome to our Hillbrow, the strong negative connotation of AIDS created fear and hatred towards the disease and those who contracted it, consequently causing victims to hide their predicament and pain brought about by disease. This “xenophobic” response to the disease casts these victims from their society, making them feel like strangers amongst the people of their community, perhaps similar to Refilwe’s experience in Oxford, in some respects.

  3. Looking back at your creative title, I started wondering about the role of Heaven and Hell in the novel.
    Apparently, Hillbrow, a hectic community, isn’t the best place and can be justifiably called “Hellbrow”. However, is this the focus of the novel? It is peculiar that it ends with the description of Heaven. Unlike, Kushner’s San Francisco-like Heaven, Mpe’s Heaven is the world “located in the memory and consciousness” (Mpe 124). This statement ties to the importance of the role of memory in the novel. Without memory there would be no xenophobia because it wouldn’t have a space to live in and dwell, like it did in the minds of the characters of the Welcome to our Hillbrow. So what is Mpe’s definition of Hell then? Is it Hillbrow? According to him, Heaven can also be Hell, depending on the nature of the existence in the memory and consciousness of the living. Does this mean that impure thoughts, memories dwelling in human beings form Hell? Does this mean that xenophobia contributes to this “Hell”?

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