I am absolutely fascinated by Southern Africa in general, and I have this weird love/hate relationship with South Africa. It is a stunning country with friendly people and fabulous wildlife, but a terrible history. Still nowadays, 25 years after the end of Apartheid, you can still feel and see that even though it is officially in the past, it exists everywhere. It has changed and it keep on evolving, but it is there. Normally tourists do not really spend time in Johannesburg, and if they do, they never ever stay in the centre. However, I did, and it was exactly what I wanted. It was exciting to finally read a book from South Africa for this reading challenge.
When looking for a book from SA I was really thinking about what I wanted to read. I have read a tremendous amount of books set in SA and written by SA authors, but I did not want to read about Apartheid times or white people starting this and that, saving animals and communities, that is, the books I constantly read. I got the feeling I need something contemporary, something about ordinary people living their ordinary lives. No slaves and masters, no one looking for diamonds and mineral, no one watching rhinos in Kruger. After browsing for a surprisingly short time, I found Welcome to Our Hillbrow by Phaswane Mpe.
This book is short, actually too short; since I wanted to read more, get to know the characters better. It is set in Hillbrow, in downtown Johannesburg, with a rich history with for example gays taking over in mid-20th century. Nowadays it is mainly inhabited by poor black migrants from SA and neighbouring countries. It is famous for unemployment, crime, prostitution and other not-wanted activities. It is actually close by to the famous Witwatersrand University. Hillbrow has the tallest tower in Africa, which I had a pleasure to visit. My guide took my purse and told me she needs to keep it when we walk through the mall, because I will most definitely be mugged… In addition, Constitution Hill, with the Constitutional Court and the prison where for example Mandela and Gandhi stayed at, is just off Hillbrow.
The book deals with many of the issues I have already mentioned. The post-apartheid times were hard, and everything was changing but still in many ways stayed the same. Poverty is always present, and so is xenophobia and AIDS. The books is narrated from a second person to the main protagonist, who has committed suicide, which is not uncommon in Hillbrow. AIDS has a strong focus in the book, and sadly, the author died of AIDS at the age of 34. People in the book in general die young. Not uncommon in Hillbrow. I have been told the big difference between blacks and whites is that even though they might share a religion, but at the same time blacks also practice animism. The spiritual part as well as witchcraft is strongly present in the book, and Mpe was about to become a traditional healer.
I find the book to be beautifully poetic in some ways, gritty and brutally honest in other ways. It is worth a read. I feel like I got so much more out of it now that I have been there, I have seen the place and its people. It would be hard for me to imagine it all, because it is very different from the world I live in. Living in Hillbrow is temporarily, because you can get murdered at any time. Still, the biggest threat to people are themselves and their own people. “Welcome to our heaven…”. I think this is an important book to understand SA better. It is a good description of what life is like for many in Johannesburg and South Africa. “Welcome to the world of our Humanity…”