MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
As the global economy continues to struggle, many families find themselves thinking carefully about what they really need and what they can live without and how they can live on a tight budget. By pretty much any standard, $300 a month is a tight budget. But many families in South Africa have no choice, especially black families, who still, on average, earn less than white families - which is one reason why a middle-class white family made headlines for their decision to live on 3,000 rand, or about $300, this past August and as well, left their home in the suburbs of Pretoria to move to a predominantly black township.
They wrote about their experiences in the blog A Month in Mamelodi. And Julian and Ena Hewitt are with us now to tell us more about it. Welcome, thanks so much for joining us.
ENA HEWITT: No problem, thanks for having us.
JULIAN HEWITT: Thanks, Michel.
MARTIN: So let's set some of the background here - what gave you both this idea, and I assume it was a joint decision?
ENA HEWITT: It was a joint decision. South Africa's one of the most unequal societies in the world, with huge divides between rich and poor, but furthermore, it's also spatially separated. So it's very easy, as a middle-class or upper-middle-class family, to live quite isolated from the poverty and the hardship that surrounds you in South Africa. And we really wanted to pull ourselves out of our comfort zone and to see how we would feel if we had to live off the average black income for a month.
MARTIN: So, Julian, was it like a eureka moment? I know that you'd read - two Indian-American students went back to India doing a similar thing - and I know you heard about their experiences. Was it just kind of a light-bulb moment where you said this is something I need to do?
JULIAN HEWITT: You know, I think these things are almost more part of journey in life rather than a eureka moment, and it particularly wasn't that for us. We also had this feeling of wanting to get out of the kind of confines of the environment we're in right now. So we actually spoke to our helper, Leah Nkambule, and said to her, love to pop around for tea on a Saturday morning, is that all right with you? And she said of course. So we got the kiddies together, we baked some cookies, and we went to go visit her. And it was really quite a - almost a shock to us to see that she lived in a shack, that she didn't have access to electricity. So that really changed our contexts. So when we read the story of these two Indians that had embarked on this project, it really resonated with us and there were so many similarities in South Africa. And I suppose our background and our journey to that stage really turned it from a question of being, well, why should we go and live in this kind of a context for a month, into why shouldn't we go?
MARTIN: How did you decide where to go? You mentioned that you had visited your housekeeper, you know, for tea one Saturday. Did you just go back to her neighborhood or - how did you decide where you wanted to go?
ENA HEWITT: Well, we spoke quite extensively to people around us. We approached her initially because she was kind of the most direct person. And then eventually, she came back to us and she said no, she's found this place two houses down from where she stays and she thinks, you know, that would be good because then they can keep an eye on us. And the reason we chose Mamelodi is that it's just 10 kilometers, or six - seven miles away from where we live normally. So although it's so close, it might as well be a different world.
MARTIN: So what did you do all day? What did you do for the month? Were you on vacation? Did you go to work? What did you do?
ENA HEWITT: We did go to work and that was part of why this really wasn't a holiday or a camping trip. It was definitely trying to live as much of a normal life in a very different setting.
MARTIN: Best experience, worst experience?
ENA HEWITT: Best experience, the community, definitely. The way they embraced us and the kindness everyone showed towards us. And worst experience is really just the toughness of life. I really missed my shower. The bathing in a bucket didn't do it for me.
MARTIN: Julian, what about you? Best experience, worst experience?
JULIAN HEWITT: Probably worst experience came two days before we went to Mamelodi. I'd just spoken to a community radio station, and we got some very, very negative tweets in response to what we wanted to do in Mamelodi.
MARTIN: From whom? What kinds of people, and what did they say?
JULIAN HEWITT: Look, in this case, specifically from young black South Africans, and, you know, there were about five or six people that were really being very negative and very critical, saying that we were glamorizing poverty. So things like - sure, you know, we hope your lamp falls down and you burn in your shack. And it was quite tough actually. Added to that, some of our white family and friends also had reservations around the fact that, you know, we're probably not being very responsible about taking our kids into an environment like this where there's supposedly a lot of social ills.
MARTIN: How do you respond to that? I mean, on the one hand, let's talk about the young people who just felt - well, you know, the term that's been used is poverty porn. That basically, you're kind of poverty touring. And some people find that insulting, almost as if people are kind of animals in a zoo. They feel like it's objectifying people. How did you respond to that criticism?
JULIAN HEWITT: You know, the main point is just to understand that we did this for our own reasons, and we really felt that, you know, if there's anyone in this world that would like to change, we want to start with ourselves. So it was always a very personal journey. And what really kind of happened, I suppose, is the more our experience went on, the more people could read about it through blogs and things, you know, people could really see - I'd like to think - that we're doing it for the right reasons. I mean, obviously, there are some people that, you know, would call what we're doing slum tourism and things like that. And, you know, to an extent, my question would be, well, what's the alternative?
Is the alternative that we stay in our white middle-class comfort zone and pretend that the challenges in our country don't exist? I mean, I understand where that's coming from, but what really counts at the end of the day was the community that we were in, and we never ever had any antagonism or people that didn't understand why we were there and what we were doing, and really appreciated what we were trying to do for the month. You know, it's important to listen to other people's perspectives and opinions, but at the end of the day, who really counts in this kind of equation - and it was the community that we were in direct contact with.
MARTIN: That's interesting. You know, you made an interesting point, though, that I want to pick on, which is you said that nobody in Mamelodi, where you were staying, questioned your being there - to your knowledge anyway. Nobody was mean to you about it there. What do you make of that, that the people who were there weren't mad at you for coming, but other people who didn't live there were? Any thoughts about what that was about?
ENA HEWITT: No, I think one of the things that, for me, made this more authentic rather than slum tourism and such was the fact that we really tried our utmost to live like the people for that month. As far as we could, you know, realizing that there's always escape for us and everything, but we lived on a budget that was similar to their budget. We cooked and cleaned in the same way they did. Now if we'd come in there with a massive budget, sat there every day eating meat while everyone else is, you know, trying to get by on their meager salaries, that would have been a lot more demeaning. But they saw us struggling like they're struggling and they appreciated that.
MARTIN: Did anybody ask you why you were there? Did anybody say, what are you doing here?
ENA HEWITT: Lots of people asked that.
JULIAN HEWITT: All the time.
MARTIN: And what did you say?
ENA HEWITT: We want to see how hard life is for you guys. We want to, you know - we want to come experience the way you live for a month. And they were always fine with that. They thought it was great.
MARTIN: I'm not sure - how does that feel? I mean, I'm trying that on for size. How if somebody came to my house and said I want to see how terrible your life is, I'm not sure how I would feel about that.
JULIAN HEWITT: Well, we just said, you know, like, life is really tough here and we wanted to just get an experience of how difficult it is. You have to catch taxis every day and how unreliable they are and how expensive they are. We wanted to see how tough life was to actually live without electricity and to use, you know, a latrine toilet and to cook on a paraffin stove. So we didn't - you know, obviously, we weren't that blunt about it.
MARTIN: Well, what would you like people to draw from your experience? Recognizing that people, as you pointed out, are going to react very differently depending on what they see themselves and kind of where they are in the story. What would you hope most people would draw from your experience?
JULIAN HEWITT: I mean, I suppose there's different angles, but really that if you look at South African society today, it's still very fractured in many ways. You know, and we can't sit back and wait for government to come and wave a magic wand. It's everyone's problem. And we've got such a great opportunity to do this and create conversation where conversations weren't created before. So it's to really encourage South Africans - you know, white South Africans to start those conversations. It's to encourage black South Africans that have come out of the context to go back and be role models. That this really is, you know, a very complex situation and we need to be active in how we can be.
MARTIN: What's on the agenda for next summer?
ENA HEWITT: All part of the journey, I don't know.
JULIAN HEWITT: The last thing we did that our friends also had reservations about was we moved to China for about three years and people said we were crazy at the time. And when you take a decision that people almost have reservations against, but at the end of the time or the experience, you really feel that it meant what you wanted out of it.
ENA HEWITT: And you grow as a person and grow as a family.
MARTIN: Julian and Ena Hewitt blogged about spending a month in the township of Mamelodi. They joined us from their home in Pretoria, South Africa. Julian, Ena, thank you so much for speaking with us.
JULIAN HEWITT: Thanks very much, Michel.
ENA HEWITT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.