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South African family stays in shantytown to start conversation about poverty, class differences

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 1 2015 6:23 a.m. MDT

Julian and Ena Hewitt, a white South African couple, and their daughters Julia and Jessica left their house, livestock and swimming pool in a gated community to move to a shack with no electricity, a communal water tap and a pit toilet. They kept a blog about their experiences in the hopes of starting conversations about poverty and social classes. (http://mamelodiforamonth.co.za) Julian and Ena Hewitt, a white South African couple, and their daughters Julia and Jessica left their house, livestock and swimming pool in a gated community to move to a shack with no electricity, a communal water tap and a pit toilet. They kept a blog about their experiences in the hopes of starting conversations about poverty and social classes. (http://mamelodiforamonth.co.za)

If Julian and Ena Hewitt’s goal was to start a conversation about poverty and class differences, then they have definitely succeeded.

The Hewitts, a middle-class South African family who live in a gated community, recently relocated to spend 31 days in a primitive shack next door to their domestic worker.

“Julian and Ena Hewitt, both 34, and their daughters Julia, four, and Jessica, two, left their four-bedroom house, livestock and swimming pool in a gated community to move just seven miles down the road into a (100-square-foot) shack with no electricity, a communal water tap and a pit toilet,” David Smith reported for The Guardian on Sept. 3. “They stayed there a month, living on 3,000 rand ($305), the average income of a black family ….

“They enjoyed extra family time, catching up on sleep and sitting around a fire each evening talking to their neighbors. Family and close friends had warned that they were being ‘reckless and irresponsible’ by exposing their daughters to a township but the community proved caring and protective.”

On Sept. 2, The Telegraph’s Aislinn Laing wrote, “The couple also made new friends and watched their daughters, removed from the temptations of television and expensive toys, grow in confidence and independence as they played with local children in the streets.

On Twitter, Mrs. Hewitt said they had been through a ‘surreal but profound experience.’ Their aim, Mr. Hewitt said in a final blog post, was to ‘start a conversation.’ ”

It may have taken two weeks for the news of the Hewitt family’s adventure to catch on stateside, but on Monday the New York Times ran a front-page feature about the Hewitts with the headline, “Trading Privilege for Privation, Family Hits a Nation’s Nerve.”

“Some people, especially residents of Mamelodi, the township that includes the squatter camp, have applauded the Hewitts for putting aside the comforts of their own life to see how the other half — or in this case, much more than half — live,” Lydia Polgreen reported for the Times. “… But their experiment also poked at some of South Africa’s sorest spots.

“Were they white slum tourists who had come to gawk at black poverty? Was this simply a publicity stunt, aimed at getting a book or movie deal — or worse still, a reality television show? And even if their motives were noble, did they inadvertently confirm what many here suspect: black poverty gets little notice until a white person experiences and highlights it?”

Email: jaskar@desnews.com

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