The Ultimate Choice
When reading the short novel, “Welcome to Our Hillbrow” I began to notice the use of the word, suicide, a lot to describe a means of escape by the main characters that are dealing with HIV/AIDS. The word suicide comes up over 26 times in this 124 page book. Suicide is a cross-cultural phenomenon, and societies react and view this differently, the word having a different stigma depending on the society. In the novel, “Things Fall Apart”, Okownkwo kills himself at the end as almost a way of giving up, but his suicide is viewed as an abomination. Phaswane Mpe, the author of “Welcome to Our Hillbrow” attempts to describe the attraction many people have, and how they see sucide as one of their only options. When Refilwe is returning home, she reflects on Refentse’s death, claiming, “She understood now that there were many ways of dying, that the choice between suicide and life was not merely a choice between stupidity and intelligence, that sometimes, when people threw their own life away, it was because they were intelligent and courageous enough to see and admit that they did not own this life” (117). I think that this point is really important not only in particular to those dealing with terminal illnesses, like AIDS, but those dealing with depression or the idea of committing suicide all over the world. Many people view suicide as a selfish act in which the victim is giving up and does not put a fight. Mpe argues that even the brightest and most intelligent people have no more control over their own life.
Although the characters in Mpe’s novel and the film, “Yesterday” are in somewhat similar situations – living in South Africa and being diagnosed with HIV – their experiences and reactions are very different. Mpe’s argument about intelligence is challenged within the film “Yesterday” because Yesterday, who could neither read nor write and never receive an education, fought to live out her life to the best of her ability and to finally see her own daughter, Beauty, attend school. Refilwe, in the novel, ends up deciding that she, herself, is not yet ready for death, even though she will be constantly talked about behind her back. She acknowledges that everyday she is living is a struggle, as she knew “every moment now was long enough” (120). Refilwe, takes her life into her own hands, making decisions for herself.
This idea reminded me of an article I read a couple days ago about a 29 year old terminally ill brain cancer patient who chose to end her life. I think it is important for the people who learn about this woman to know what Mpe explains, that it is not an easy choice, that it wasn’t out of stupidity, but out of gaining control of their life which they no longer control.