In August, 2013 Julia and Ena Hewitt, white South Africans, moved with their two daughters Julia (4) and Jessica (2) into Mamelodi, a black township. They spent one month living in a 100-square-foot shack without electricity, using the communal water tap and a pit toilet. The family was featured in a recent New York Times piece Trading Privilege for Privation and their story has stirred up both criticism and praise.
In their words, taken from the blog Mamelodi for a month, the reason for this experience was:
“For our family to have a direct experience into a daily South African existence so that we can create a boarder [sic] conversation of the role that empathy in [sic] places in underpinning a healthy democracy.”
One writer, a South African businessman, called it Survivor Mamelodi, some Twitter commenters expressed hope that their shack would burn down. On the other side, an article in the Guardian: White South Africans’ move to black township draws praise and accusations, concluded with the long-term inhabitants of Mamelodi expressing that they were glad the Hewitts had spent the month in their community.
It is true that the Hewitts still don’t really, deeply know what it is like to live in a black township as a permanent resident. If a medical emergency had arisen, they could have left. They knew a hot shower and swimming pool were waiting at the end of a few weeks. They don’t share the history or the current reality of being black in South Africa. But they know better than I do what it is like to live in a black township. They know better now than they used to.
It is also true that a white family has drawn more media attention to issues faced primarily by black families than those families themselves. This is unfortunate and in a better world, one we all need to be part of ushering in, voices of all color and economic background will have equal power, force, and opportunity. But this isn’t a reason to fault the Hewitt family.
It is also true that had the month affected zero change in the Hewitts’ habits and choices afterwards, the time might have been interesting but lacking in real value. However, already they are making changes.
One of the most shocking things they discovered was the cost of transport, which ate up 47% of their budget for the month. This led to the decision to change the way and amount they paid their house helper, to base her pay on her work and add a separate amount for transport.
As Ena says in one of the final blog posts, “Now we know.”
Now they know the overwhelming cost of food and transportation. Now they know they could not have afforded school fees. Now they know the hard labor of hand washing clothes, hauling and boiling water, working without electricity. Now they know what it is to be hungry (for a time) and to not have access to sweets or a well-balanced diet. Now their children know that crossing boundaries is possible, and good. Now they know the community and relational strengths of Mamelodi. Now they know that the poor are not simplistically ‘happy,’ but that they laugh and smile and face grief and pain, that they are human.
The New York Times article says, “Asked why his family decided to move to a shack rather than following the more traditional route of building a school or a playground in a township, Mr. Hewitt replied: “It’s very simple. We’re doing it for ourselves. We’re doing it to change ourselves.”
I would add that building a school or a playground also risk perpetuating the race and economic divide. Such top-down projects promote a savior-complex in the builder and do little to break down barriers or contribute to healthy future interactions. The very question is evidence of a lack of understanding the complex nature of poverty, inequality, and race.
It is so easy to criticize from an armchair or via a computer screen. So easy to spout off suggestions for what they could have done differently or how they could fight for justice more effectively. So easy to point out weaknesses and flaws in what they did. But I have to wonder, how many of those critics are putting their money, their lives, their children where their words are? If you think you could do it better, then do it.
It is important to hear what the people in Mamelodi had to say about the Hewitts, to let them speak for themselves. More important even, than to hear what voices on social media have to say. From a blog post, Profoundness in a Shebeen:
“Seeing you here makes me believe that God is alive,” said the first gentleman. The second then starting [sic] quoting Mandela’s closing Rivonia Trial speech. “This is the ideal for which Mandela was prepared to die for.”
And another, from the Guardian article:
“I was very glad they came to see how we are suffering here and how much we spend on taxis and paraffin. The community is very happy and we wish they could stay forever.”
Until the world comes up with the perfect solution to poverty and racial tension and brokenness, I’m going to support anyone who takes a risky move toward love and community and understanding. I don’t know the best way to help the poor in Djibouti. We have worked in educational development for eleven years, have done micro-finance loans, worked to create jobs. All those efforts have served people. But I have learned that working to serve the poor is not enough. I need to face down my prejudices, my fears, my complacency, my complicity. And the best way to do that is to enter relationships, to allow them to help me, teach me, show me.
Working toward a more just and equitable world is not a one-way street and the Hewitts experienced that with their neighbors. The poor were no longer anonymous, their day-to-day realities no longer incomprehensible. They were now people with names and families and histories and talents.
We live in a broken world run by broken systems and filled with broken people. People like the Hewitts move toward brokenness both to be part of the healing process and to experience that healing themselves as they confront their own prejudices, greed, ignorance of suffering, and the ways in which they contribute to inequality.
There are two sides to this story, and probably more. Let’s choose the side of risky love, like the Hewitts. Let’s move toward need with our arms and minds and hearts open, which really just means let’s move toward one another.
From the post: The Value of Being: “We were not trying to do give, or do, or uplift. We were only there to be, and we could relate as fellow humans. I think God exists in the space between people who are open to one another. Too often the door is closed from our side. Perhaps by always focusing on social upliftment, we are maintaining our aloofness. In seeing how people relate to one another in the township, and how warmly we were received when we had nothing to offer, I realized that true poverty is relational rather than economic. Before we come with anything, we have to first come with nothing.”
Mamelodi living art gallery image credit Ewint23 via Wikipedia