Julian and Ena Hewitt made international headlines when they decided to pack up their family of four and move into a shack in Mamelodi (a township in South Africa) for a month. Their shack had no electricity and they kept a strict budget of 100 ZAR a day (roughly 10 USD).
The family was criticized publicly for presumably putting their children in danger, and their intentions were questioned (and ultimately decided on their behalf) by strangers who had never spoken with the Hewitts prior to making their negative assumptions.
I wanted to give them another outlet to further their message, without it being skewed by the media’s underlying agenda. They graciously accepted my request, and I hope this is yet another lesson about how we should not assume the worst intentions of people prior to getting to know them.
Q.Who in your family brought up the idea of moving to Mamelodi? What was the initial reaction from the other members of the family?
I read about two guys in India who had had a similar month long experience and suggested doing the same thing. Julian and I are very much on the same wave length when it comes to these kinds of things, so he immediately agreed and we started making plans. Some of our broader family members took a bit more convincing. They were concerned about our safety and that of the children.
We were very careful and spoke extensively to Leah (our helper who lives in the same area in Mamelodi) before we moved in to see what they perceived the risks to be and how we could mitigate them. We also feel a lot of people’s sense of risk is based on what they read in the media as opposed to the actual reality. People in the township were incredibly friendly towards us and helped us look after the children. We feel it is irresponsible not exposing your children to inequities of the world.
Q. You have mentioned before that this month-long experience by no means makes your family “poverty experts” or “township experts”, but you did experience immediate drastic change in living conditions. What were the hardest for you to deal with? And what long-term issues did you feel like your family was not able to experience?
The township lifestyle is very inefficient in that everything takes a long time. Living without electricity, running water and appliances is tough. I had to learn to wash our clothes by hand, we had to bath in a bucket and we had to cook all our food on a paraffin stove (where a simple pasta dish takes 2hrs instead of 20 minutes like it does at home). In addition we were living on a very tight budget (roughly $300 for the month for the family).
However, in all of this we always knew that we were returning home at the end of the month, we had safety nets to fall back on in case something went badly wrong. We did not have to deal with incidental but real expenses. Our children still went to their good school and received a quality education. We did not personally have to deal with being unemployed. We did not have any health issues.
Q. You had mentioned your initial goal was not to raise awareness in the media, but to personalize this way of life for you and your family. Were you pleased this was picked up by the media? (Even if unintentionally.)
In addition to wanting an authentic experience, we wanted to generate a conversation. I do believe that has happened and the media has broadened our reach way beyond what a personal blog could have done, so in that sense, yes, we are pleased it was picked up by the media.
Q.Now that it is over, critics are claiming you will go back to your cushy lives as if nothing happened. How would you respond to them?
Not at all. Yes, it was only a month but it is part of a journey we were on before this and wish to continue on after this. Both Julian and I have worked in townships in the past (I ran a course at a large prison in Johannesburg for the female inmates and Julian has worked extensively with township schools, AIDS organizations etc). Julian has spent most of his career working on social upliftment and has founded a number of non-profit organizations. We will continue with this; we’ll continue exposing our children to the inequalities in life and we are definitely not just dusting off our hands and going back to life as usual.
Q. You have stated very boldly that your family has no intention of making money off of the sudden international attention, which of course was what many critics claimed was the entire point of your family living in Mamelodi. So, for the record, please elaborate on this and put the critics to rest.
People have really crazy perspectives on the media. We turned down a lot of media requests while we were in Mamelodi as we felt they would detract completely from the authenticity of our experience. There were a few people who did want to make a reality show out of it and we told them ‘no way’. Other people think you get paid for talking to the media…. Again, no. We have not made ANY money from this and don’t plan to (at least not for ourselves!) Even the fame side of things is nonsense. We prefer to live lives as ordinary citizens and get very frustrated when the media focuses purely on us rather than the issues and challenges faced by the people who live like this all the time. We have at no stage contacted media ourselves. We started a blog to capture some of our experiences and share these with family and friends. What happened after this has been huge, viral, word-of-mouth interest that has generated all the attention.
Q. Now that it is in the media and people are hearing this story, what do you hope people learn and take away from your story?
In South Africa, as well as many other countries in the world, the gap between rich and poor is huge but at the end of the day we are all people with similar dreams, hopes and desires. One of the most profound things we learnt from this month was that sometimes you have to come with nothing before you can give anything. Unless you really understand the needs and issues of a community, handing out charity can sometimes just be like applying a bandage on a festering wound without addressing the underlying issues. What we’d really like people to do is to try and build bridges (rather than just giving hand outs) and to try and focus on real, not perceived, issues.
Q. For someone reading this right now that feels compelled to address the issue of poverty, what do you recommend as a good first step? For people who would like to donate to this issue, where would you direct them?
For us, the most sustainable way of addressing poverty is through education. Black South Africans with a degree behind their name have a 91% chance of finding employment. Probably one of the most influential schools servicing the Mamelodi community is a low income, private school called Cornerstone College. We have approached the School Principal and Founder, Sally Hurlin, and she has agreed to create a fund supporting learners from Mamelodi getting a good quality education. The contact details for Cornerstone College are: www.corncol.co.za and inquiries can be directed to Sally Hurlin at email@example.com.