Archive for Ena

Economics and Expenses

Our month in Mamelodi would not have been the same had we not set a strict budget for ourselves, a budget representative of what many in the same context live by. In line with this reasoning we decided to try and live off R100 per day or roughly R3000 for the month (based on the median black individual income of R2167pm as per the 2010 stats SA data[1] and extrapolated to an estimated household median income). Due to family and friend commitments, our month was not quite the full month as we moved in on the 4th and left on the 30th of August so to be fair we revised our actual budget to R2700 for the month. Our expenses came in as follows:

Costs breakdown








So based on our R100 daily target we actually spent R94.48 per day.

Or visually as:

Costs breakdown2








This picture shows us a glaring problem. 47% of our disposable income was spent on transport. And transport costs have gone up enormously over the past few years.

At the end of last year taxi fares were R12 for a trip; they are now R14 and will go up to R16 in the next few weeks. This 33% increase where transport constitutes 47% of your budget translates into a roughly 16% annual inflation number if everything else stays unchanged (which it hasn’t): way above the 2012 CPI of 5.75% and significantly above the raise most people give their workers on an annual basis.

In light of the extremely heavy weight of transport in our budget mix, we have decided to strip out transport costs from Leah’s wage from now on to more effectively align her efforts to her pay rather than her being disadvantaged by transport costs.

We struggled to get by on the median income and yet the definition of a median income is that half the people in that context earn less. You will also notice that our expenditure list excludes items such as furniture and fixture costs, school fees, school uniforms, cell phone minutes, travel to and from funerals, sending money home to family, supporting a large extended family etc. These are all real costs faced by the workers in a community.

Had we needed to cover any of these expenses, it would have pushed us over budget. Small wonder then that micro lending is a thriving township business (often not at all sustainable resulting in debt traps) and that stokvels (group saving schemes that are actually quite a good idea if all the members diligently contribute) are often used to cover some of these incidental costs.

In 1994 South Africans were all granted democratic freedom and equality but now, 19 years later economic freedom is still a distant wish/goal for many. Although Julian and I disagree with Julius Malema’s policies he points out many real problems faced by the people in this country that have yet to be adequately resolved. Economic freedom is something that is still a pressing problem in this country that should concern all of us. If not, it will increasingly become the playground of populist leaders.


Highs and lows of the last week

The month is almost over. In a way it’s gone fast but in another sense it feels like we’ve been here for a very long time.

Here are some of the highs and lows of the last week.

1). Our weekend street party. The wonderful meeting of two worlds. A true feeling of embracing our rainbow nation. Sharing this experience with some of our friends and family from home and about 150 community members

2). I’m in Mamelodi alone tonight. Julian is away for a work trip and the children are having their first sleepover at their grandparents house. Before coming here, I would have been terribly afraid of spending a night on my own but I am really not in the least bit scared. As usual I am in bed early but I know I am surrounded by a loving and caring community. It is wonderful when fear is replaced by understanding and a small sense of belonging.

3). Buying sugar cane from one of the shacks here (several people have sugar cane growing in their back yards) and munching it happily with Julian and the children. A treat after a month with no snacks or sweets.

4). Anticipation of that hot shower I only have to wait a few more days for. It’s going to be bittersweet leaving but I am really starting to look forward to home. Counting down sleeps.

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

6). Our health. We’ve managed to make it through the month with only a bout of flu right at the beginning. Otherwise been strong and healthy.

7). The children have really formed some wonderful friendships with the local children and have both grown in confidence and independence this month. They love going to the spaza shop in our street on their own to go ‘shopping’ for us.

And the lows.

1). Late one night over the weekend we ‘experienced’/ overheard one of our first township fights. We were in bed already but woke up to a huge racket near our shack with screaming, shouting and revving of a car. One guy wanted to hit another with a brick, everyone was shouting and it was fueled by alcohol. I’m not a fan of fights and even though we were locked safely inside our shack and it had nothing to do with us I did not like it one bit.

2). This week it seemed like the clothes washing was never ending. The children constantly dirtied their clothes then put on a new set and I spent hours hand washing. My hand washing skills are still not quite up to scratch and a few times I’d hang something up and when it dried would realize it was still dirty.

3). Getting tired of eating oats for breakfast everyday and too many beans, lentils and pilchards

4). The socio economic burden this month has placed on our hearts. Now we know. Feeling overwhelmed by the needs of the community.

5). Jessica throwing a temper tantrum in a taxi: ‘I don’t want to go to Mamelodi’ (luckily some kind lady had a sweet she gave Jess who ate it and promptly fell asleep thereafter avoiding a full blown melt down)

6). Passing some of the nyaope guys in the street twirling a beautiful diamond studded wedding band on their fingers. Feeling for the person it was stolen from (I’ve been a victim of an armed robbery in the past and it scars you) Angry at the drug/crime link and the fact that the police aren’t doing more about it.

The Challenge of Charity

One thing that has started to plague us and I think plagues many others too is the question of how can we help or even if we should be helping in the first place?

This morning Leah came up to us and said please do not give anything to people who come and ask. We haven’t been (as we have no spare cash this month) but the reasoning went as follows: if we help someone, more and more people will follow causing a real problem for Leah and our other neighbors when the stream of needy becomes too big (as there are hundreds or thousands who need help) and eventually when the real needy are replaced by criminals. There is also a feeling of ‘handouts’ leading to complacency and laziness rather than addressing the underlying problems. Yet there is clearly a large need (especially where children and the destitute are considered) but how should this be addressed?

We’ve had several people contact us via our blog stating their willingness to help with a few offering to match our monthly spending in terms of a donation to a charity of our choice. We’ll now outline some of our own thoughts on what we can do with this money but what we’d love is to hear from some readers (many of whom have grown up or are still living in the context we are in but have infinitely more experience than we do about what forms of charity work and what don’t).

Some thoughts are (and again please feel free to comment and educate us):

  • The Neutral Approach: Give to one or two known charities in the area who we know are doing a good job.
  • The Targeted Approach: Give a whole lot of books to some of the crèches in the area. This will hopefully be to the benefit of the local children even though these are private institutions
  • The Long Term Approach: Support a child or children’s education (but how do you choose who to support? There are so many children and Leah doesn’t have young children.
  • The Networked Approach: Link up people like Elena (see WWYD with organizations that can help
  • The Localised Approach: Support to assist Leah in adding another room to her shack or upgrading the two long drops near our shack (
  • The Individualised Approach: Support one or two individuals who have shown ability but need a helping hand to assist in their economic empowerment
  • The Non Dependency Approach: Not provide any support as this might perpetuate the disempowering charity relationship that seems to already exist in such a marginalized community and further stereotype the haves from the have nots.


The floor is all yours!

Highs and lows of the last week

It’s been a busy couple of weeks. We thought that a weekly ‘highs and lows’ post would be good just to give some insight into some of our daily challenges and joys so here goes:

The highs this week have been
1). Afternoon strolls. Meeting people, hearing their stories and discovering some really beautiful gardens outside some of the shacks here in ext 6

2). The municipal park. The kids love playing there and it has served well as a school holiday outing change from home.

3). The positive response we have received from a lot of members of the public on our blog. It’s been very encouraging and much needed when things are tough

4). My parents arriving back in South Africa after 4 years abroad. Being able to show them where we are staying and spending an evening with them (I also had my first bath and shower this month while with them which was AMAZING)

5). Being taught the techniques behind successful hand washing of clothes by my friendly neighbours who clearly thought my clothes didn’t look clean enough after my attempts at hand washing

6). Getting used to sleeping on the thin mattresses on the floor and the cold and actually having a few really good nights of sleep

7). Julia befriending the lovely ladies at the spaza shop near us and spending many hours there getting her hair braided or just chilling with the girls.

And some of the lows

1). The all permeating smell of paraffin. Our shack smells of it. Our clothes smell of it and I’m sure the hacking cough I have is partly as a result if it

2). Bucket baths. Washing hair and bodies in a bucket with one kettle hot water and some cold water does not do it for me. I miss my shower

3). Hearing the very sad story of a lady a few shacks down from us who was arrested for selling dagga (marijuana) earlier this week leaving behind a 4year old who now lives in the shack alone with only the Nyaope guys as company at night. (Update: the department of social services has taken the girl so she’s not alone. Good news. )

4). Feeling completely overwhelmed by the media interest our month has generated. Torn between talking to people to generate much needed conversation in this country and telling the media to go away and leave us in peace

5). Leaving my parents to return to Mamelodi when we would have loved to spend more time with them.

6). Julian’s 4am wakeup to catch the metro-rail only to have to wait 45 mins in the cold for a delayed train

Through the eyes of a child

I’ve been asked by some readers to give a little more insight into how the children are handling this huge shift in their daily lifestyle and routine. In a nutshell: remarkably! Give a child love and attention and they will be happy anywhere. There have however been some difficult moments.

During the first week in Mamelodi, the children still had to go to school which meant we had to get up really early to get them there on time. The mornings are very cold and waking a sleeping child to get them to catch a bus at 5am is not really fun. The early morning wake-ups also resulted in tired grumpy children in the afternoon where all the attention from neighbourhood kids sometimes got a bit much resulting in every mom’s nightmare: the temper tantrum/meltdown.

The children are now on school holidays and in a way it has been easier (no transport issues) but it too has some challenges. All the other kids are still at school so mornings can be a little long and boring. We have however discovered a municipal park about 20 minutes’ walk away that we go to most mornings. The kids love the park and we can easily spend an hour or two there with a little picnic. We’ve become really creative in terms of toys and activities. One fun ‘game’ is building letters, houses, train tracks etc with matchsticks. Julian has also become the master paper airplane maker and some afternoons when he’s around he’ll have to make up to 20 planes for all the children who play in our backyard. Every afternoon there are tons of friends for the kids to run around with, play hide and seek with, roll around in the dust with etc.

The children love helping with the daily activities such as washing the clothes, cooking and cleaning the shack. What I do find though is on a day where I don’t have to work and am home all day long with the children I am exhausted by the end of the day as I have to constantly be involved and playing with them: there is no TV as a distraction.

Food has been another area that has amazed me. The very first day we arrived in Mamelodi the children pulled up their noses at the vegetable soup I’d made for supper and said they weren’t hungry but since then they have never complained, asked for sweets or other food etc. Our diet is completely different to what we eat at home: lots of beans, lentils, pilchards etc. Yet they eat it all, say it tastes good and never complain.

We all sleep in one bed here (a habit I am sure is going to be difficult to break once we are back at home) but the kids love it. It’s warm and they feel loved and get lots of cuddles at night when it’s cold .

So all in all I can’t really say the children are easier or more difficult than they are at home: they are young, enjoy being around their parents and playing with friends. Have the odd melt down, but overall are having a great time but will also enjoy being home again after the month is over.IMG_3082

Mamelodi undercurrents

On the whole we feel extremely cared for and safe here in Mamelodi: we are cautious and careful and try and avoid risky situations and the community has been taking excellent care of us.

There is however a horrible undercurrent that not only potentially threatens our safety but also that of all our kind, gentle hard working neighbours: a vicious drug called Nyaope. Nyaope is a blend of heroin, marijuana, rat poison, anti retroviral drugs and bleach. It is the hard drug of choice among Mamelodi youth. Young men hanging around on street corners with bloodshot eyes after their latest fix or awaiting the next are unfortunately a common sight. These are the people Leah is afraid of for our sake and for her own sake. When these youths want their next fix they don’t care if a passerby is black, white, rich or poor: anyone is a target for a fix will set them back as little as R30 and most people have a phone on them that can be stolen and sold to cover the amount.

Mamelodi police say 75% of crimes in the area are substance abuse related. A sad state of affairs for honest, hard working residents.

Photo essay of our weekend stroll






The value of being (rudi von staden)

Yesterday a good friend of ours, Rudi von Staden, came to visit. Here follows an extremely profound extract from an email he wrote following the visit:

What was amazing to me is that it felt so ordinary to just be there, and perhaps that is what made it spiritual. 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.”

Wednesday Night Church

Last night Leah asked us if we wanted to join her for church. The children were already in bed as we had decided to catch the bus to school this morning, so Julian stayed with the kids and I joined Leah. Leah gave me one look and said: you can’t go dressed like that: where is your skirt and you need a ‘kopdoek’ (scarf covering my head and hair). I made a quick plan with a headpiece, borrowed a skirt from Leah and off we set, walking through the dark township alleys to get to church.

The area in Mamelodi where we are staying has no street lights but there are a couple of massive flood lights on high poles like one has at cricket or major sporting stadiums that light up the area when they are on. In typical inefficient local government style, I often see these lights on during the day (when they have no effect) and off at night. Last night the lights were off and that combined with the lack of electricity in the community results in dark alley ways lit only by the night light and the many many communal fires along the way. The ‘better off’  have little wood fires that several people huddle around but others stand around fires burning anything they can lay their hands on: plastic, old couch cushions, boxes etc.

There is quite a vibe as you walk along the streets, people returning home from work, others buying and selling snacks, lots of spaza shops cashing in on ‘rush hour’ trade, and people talking, walking and going about their business: a far cry from the deserted streets in the predominantly white Pretoria upper class suburbs.

The church was housed in a shack which looked exactly like all the surrounding shacks from the outside but was painted a beautiful pastel blue inside, had four rows of blue benches inside, three candles lit and a calendar from the ‘head office’ church and smelled of freshly burned incense. About 12 people (11 ladies and one man) came along to the service which was all in Sotho with a small part translated into Afrikaans for my benefit. It was a lovely and surreal way to spend a Wednesday evening.

The Highs and Lows of our First Few Days

There was much excitement in the Hewitt household on Sunday morning when we bundled the children into our car and set off for Mamelodi to go drop off all our ‘stuff’ for the month (mattresses, clothes, paraffin lantern, buckets etc). Upon arrival we could immediately sense the jovial atmosphere that had infiltrated the township on this post pay day weekend. We were pleasantly surprised to see the effort Leah and our landlord had made with our shack: some rat sized holes between the floor and the walls had been cemented up and the shack had been given a quick lick of paint and the floors a polish. We unpacked, headed back to our other home, left the car behind and caught a taxi back to Mamelodi.

Here are some of the highs of the first 48 hours in our new home for the month:

  • The warm welcome the community gave us and the steady stream of people who came to say hi
  • Sitting around a communal fire at night with a melting pot of cultures represented: the 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 and coal fires announcing the imminent arrival of supper and another cold winters night
  • The entire Putco bus singing gospel songs together on the way to work at 6:30 this morning
  • Children blissfully unaware of class and colour barriers: making friends, learning to cartwheel, chasing each other around with joy and abandon
  • The good Samaritan lady who saw me standing on the side of the road yesterday waiting for a taxi after fetching the children from school and offered me a lift, initially just down the road but upon hearing our story to our shack doorstep (her first time in Mamelodi)
  • Having conversations with people we would never have conversed with before like Sipho from Mica
  • Appreciating just how good a spaghetti meal with a basic tomato, leek, celery and onion sauce tasted after a day of oats for breakfast and a single potato for lunch


And some of the lows:

  • Experiencing a bone aching cold on the first night. Being way under-dressed for the bitter cold in bed and 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. Luckily none in our shack but scurrying outside as soon as the sun sets
  • Alcohol. Too much of it. Post pay day celebration turned inebriation. Luckily not in any way aggressive
  • Adjusting to living in such small space with children.
  • Frayed nerves in over tired children. Not knowing how to discipline effectively when tiredness turns to rudeness and fighting and there is no space for timeout, no TV or books for quiet time

IMG_3072 IMG_3082 IMG_3085IMG_1699  IMG_1711