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Seeing how the other side lives: Family is richer for being poorer

September 2, 2013

The Hewitt family believes there is only one sure-fire way to know how the other half lives – move house.

The family traded their four-bedroom house in Wapadrand, Pretoria, for a shack in the Phomolong informal settlement, in Mamelodi.

Julian Hewitt said the month-long move “definitely shifted our way of thinking”.

“It is impossible to look at life the same way again.”

He and his wife, Ena, both 34, embarked on the journey with their daughters Julia, 4, and Jessica, 2.

Julian is the fellowship director at the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation; Ena is an estate agent.

The couple reached their decision after learning about the living conditions of their domestic worker, 50-year-old Leah Ngambule.

Ngambule’s niece, Ntombi, said the Hewitt family had brought hope to the community.

“The world now knows of the struggles of the people of Phomolong – we were forgotten before.

“We hope more of our stories will be told,” said Ntombi, 27, who lives with her aunt, mother and cousin.

Her aunt supports them with her piecework wages.

“Sometimes there is no money and we go to bed without food. The increasing price of paraffin makes it difficult to use the Primus stove,” she said.

According to Statistics SA, the median income in 2011 was R3000 a month.

The Hewitts challenged themselves to live on R100 a day – nearly half of which was spent on transport.

Hewitt said he and his wife each lost 5kg during their time in Phomolong, when a big part of their diet was lentils, beans and pilchards.

Hewitt would wake up at 3.40am and walk 4km to the nearest railway station. The train took him to Hatfield, Pretoria, from where he travelled to Sandton on the Gautrain .

“In that situation it was easier for us to understand just how expensive it is for people living in townships to make it on time to their jobs in the city,” he said.

The rent for the 3m x 2.5m corrugated iron shack was R170 a month. The Hewitts shared a bucket toilet with 20 other people and a tap with more than 20 families.

Though many of their new neighbours supported the translocation, Hewitt said some people doubted their motive.

“This was our journey but we were accused of doing it for publicity and making the lives of poor South Africans a show.”

To celebrate their last few days, the Hewitts invited their families and friends from back home to share a drink and a meal with about 150 settlement people.

Hewitt said he was proud at how easily his daughters adapted to life in Mamelodi.

“They are more independent now and I hope this experience will help us raise empathetic, compassionate children who see beyond colour and culture.”

The Hewitts returned to their Wapadrand home on Friday.

“We now appreciate things like washing machines, dishwashers and even electricity,” said Hewitt.


JULIAN Hewitt relates some of his highs:

– The warm welcome the community gave us.

– Sitting around a communal fire at night with people from different cultures: Ndebele, Xitonga, Xhosa, Pedi, Sotho, Afrikaans and English.

– Experiencing the beat and rhythm of weekend township life with loud kwaito beats competing with Sunday gospel music.

– Children blissfully unaware of class and colour barriers: making friends, learning to cartwheel and chasing each other around with joy and abandon.

Some of his lows:

– Experiencing bone-aching cold on the first night. Worrying about the children freezing.

– Water condensing on the shack roof while you sleep and drip-drip-dripping cold drops on sleeping bodies.

– Rats. Hundreds of them.

– Alcohol. Too much of it. Post pay-day celebration turned inebriation. Luckily not in any way aggressive.

Ena Hewitt lists her highs:

– Our weekend street party. The wonderful meeting of two worlds. A true feeling of embracing our rainbow nation.

– Buying sugar cane from one of the shacks here and munching it happily with Julian and the children. A treat after a month with no snacks or sweets.

– The turn of season. It is no longer so cold at night or in the early mornings.

And her lows:

– A fight in the township. We woke up to a huge racket near our shack with screaming, shouting and revving of a car.

– It seemed the clothes washing was never-ending.

– Getting tired of eating oats for breakfast every day .

– Feeling overwhelmed by the needs of the community.

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