You, Familiar with the Streets of Hillbrow

A consequence of Mpe’s use of the second point of view to address Refentse is the reader’s involvement with the text. As one reads, Mpe’s use of the pronoun “you” makes one feel like one is Refentse, and all the events seem authentic, as if one had seen them with one’s own eyes. Moreover, Mpe uses many details to describe such a small town as Hillbrow, and therefore, by the end of the novel, one feels like they know everything about it.

What the reader knows:
– the importance of soccer to the citizens
– the detailed dangers of the streets, especially during big events
– what it means to be infected with AIDS
– discrimination (Makwerekwere)
– drug dealing and drunk citizens; prostitutes; beggars
– water scarcity
– perception of certain women
– what relationships are more or less like i.e. “Love. Betrayal. Seduction. Suicide.”
– English/Sepedi literature
– cellphone service providers: MTN and Vodacom
– emigration rate
– customs, beliefs, traditions i.e. “witches bewitch the deceased”; bone throwers
– rumors; different versions of stories
and more..

What one also comes to know are the streets of Hillbrow, in absolute detail. One knows how to get from the heart of Hillbrow, to the Refenste’s cousin’s house, and from the house to the University of the Witwatersrand.

Here is google map picture of the streets of Hillbrow that I’ve located.
The location marked in red is where Vickers is, opposite the De Gama Court. Through the map and using the directions in the book, you can see what exact route Refentse took everyday to the university from the house.


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  1. I think one of the reasons why Mpe is describing Hillbrow with such detail is to built a common basis of understanding of the area with all readers. This common knowledge of the Hillbrow, somehow represents the common knowledge there exists about the world and therefore we can see Refentse’s movement as representative of moving around the world, like AIDS.

  2. I love this, Christy. It hadn’t occurred to me to simply call up a Google map. What do you take the literal map to offer in terms of our understanding of the novel?

  3. Mpe’s use of second person kind of reminded me of a choose-your-own-adventure story, except…without the choosing. In addition to making the events seem more authentic, there is also an un-realness about them all because Refentse is already dead when the novel begins. “If you were still alive…”, we are told, which makes us wonder, How long have I been dead? How did I die? Who’s talking to me? How does this voice know so many things about me? It’s as if I just died and god is preparing me to be reincarnated or something, letting me look back at the mistakes in my life and try to do better next time. I think that can make the moral stance of the novel stronger and more resonant.

  4. I love your understanding of the second person narrative. It gave me the same impression and I found the book a lot easier to read by placing myself into Refente’s position. And the map, that is genious, too. I honestly did not plan to look it up and I am now very happy that I checked Refente’s daily route to the university. It makes the story now seem even more real.

  5. In my opinion, I believe that our ability to locate the detailed streets of Hillbrow on a map shows how real the directions provided by the narrator are. This authenticity then, in a way, forces us to believe that all the rest of the content in the novel is as real as the streets are, further depicting the gravity of the issues that take place, for instance, and allowing the readers to empathize even more with the city as a whole. As a result, one cannot doubt the fact that Welcome to Our Hillbrow is a true story. Thus, Mpe’s use of a literal map is a way of gaining the reader’s trust.

    Moreover, the literal map as seen in the picture I’ve posted shows a view from above the city. This could be a way of providing another point of view in the story, Refentse’s, who is now in heaven and looking down on the city:

    “As you, Refentse, watched the tragedy of this life story unfolding, as you sat in the lounge of Heaven and pondered the complex paradox of life, death and everything in between, you seemed to see, simultaneously, the vibrating panorama of Hillbrow and all its multitudinous life stories, conducting themselves in the milk, honey and bile regions of your own expanding brain.” (Mpe 79)

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