Archive for Preparation phase

Guest post by my parents, Laurette and Barry Moolman

An insight by Laurette Moolman, Ena’s mom:

Ena asked me to write about our feelings regarding their Mamelodi-for-a-month. It is a good thing that she only asked me now, because initially we were filled with trepidation. Sadly one first thinks about all the possible dangers that could befall them and especially the two little girls. As time went by we got used to the idea and we also know that Ena and Julian are doing this for the right reasons and not for sensation, as much as the media would probably like to turn it into a Reality Show with constant twitters and tweets and Facebook “OMG!”  or “awesome!” comments.

Ena said we should not be too surprised at their decision since they grew up with Barry and me as parents and at times we too did some quite unusual things. I suppose so yes, but then one tends to forget your own adventures and rather pooh-pooh them as having been nothing. In India we were invited to the village of our driver, on the edge of the Tar desert in Rajasthan. We were the first western people ever to have visited this village and the village itself was like something caught inside a time loop. No electricity, no telephones. Every family had a cow, a buffalo and a camel which they used for working the fields and for food. No refrigerators so the cow and buffalo are milked early every morning and butter for ghee and joghurt made. The women grind the grains for their delicious bread and they cook on small coal fires. And so we went there, the first time also not knowing what to expect but we were overwhelmed with the friendliness of everyone in the village – after they overcame their initial curiosity which was quite unnerving to us. To be stared at as though you came from outer space was quite daunting!

However, we went back several times and it became for us one of our very special places in India. The fact that we had to wash from a bucket of warm water brought to us, heated on a fire, didn’t bother us at all. One weekend we went to the neighbouring village for the wedding of our driver in the middle of summer with temperatures reaching 50 degrees! It was even more basic since they had to find sleeping accommodation for many wedding guests. We got alotted a roof with two string cots and the next morning when we woke up, we saw many wedding guests on the roofs around us. For a toilet we had to go into the courtyard and push a buffalo calf out of the way to get to the VERY basic hole with bucket of water. We had a small bucket of water on the roof too, for basic washing.

We enjoyed these weekends without a thought to the mod cons back home, but it was always only for a weekend. And of course we were always someone’s guests and didn’t have to fend for ourselves. Our intrepid childred are going to live under such different circumstances for a month and we salute them and will be with them in the spirit from here in Iran for the first half of August and then fortunately from closer by for the second half of the month. And hopefully be at the end of a cumbersome taxi ride on their part  for a visit. We have also heard rumours of a street party in Mamelodi towards the end of their time there where we will hopefully be able to meet the people with whom they will share their month.


And a very personal piece by my dad:

With the advantage of hindsight, I realize why you and your family chose this new journey of discovery, respect and empathy.

You grew up in a colour blind world where pigmentation never entered your vocabulary and where empathy for others became part of your life.

From your childhood in rural Umtata where you ran around with a tiny beaded skirt to that long flight to New Zealand where you, four years old, holding a tiny suitcase in one hand and your baby sister with the other boarded the plane to Wellington.

Two years later, back in Pretoria where you did us proud at St Mary’s DSG, one of the very few multi-racial schools at that time.

Then in Germany where you learnt a new language and experienced something more of the diversity and unity of cultures.

Later on in India, where you, blissfully happy at Girls’ High, had to uproot yourself join me, expecting shopping malls but discovering slums and smelly local markets.

During your outreach time at school you worked In those slum areas.

I shall never forget the time, after you finished school in Delhi and did a gap year in Harrods in London when you flew back to New Delhi and surprised me at the crack of dawn on my birthday. You took the journey on a dodgy airline full of bidi smoking workers on their way to Bangladesh via Delhi.

I was so proud of you when you became a trader at JP Morgan after graduating and I understood and respected your complete change of direction to do your MBA in China.

Then after starting a family, where you donned a scarf and visited us three times in Tehran, twice with a tiny baby and the third time with both our grandchildren.

This next part of your life journey fits the pattern.

Hence the advantage of hindsight

I am proud of you and deeply respect you.

Your dad

Our Seismic Shift in Two Pictures

Here is a great visual of the seismic change we can expect from July to August. The aerial photo below shows our home on the east side of Pretoria. Notice the big houses, plenty of space and lots of trees

Bateleur Aerial Photo








Now 10km north as the crow flies, a whole new world opens up  The aerial photo below is of the vast informal settlement that that we will call home for the month of August. Our shack is located somewhere in the middle of the picture. Notice in complete contrast the absence of trees and high density living  connected by dirt roads. It is easy to see why we have no electricity or council sewage services to look forward to.

Mamelodi Aerial Photo

From Hillbrow with Love

“Why only a month?” was Nigel Branken’s first question. It was probably meant to throw us off guard and it had the desired effect. His question was quite a contrast to our often fielded enquiry of why a month in the first place.

We were in the middle of Hillbrow, sitting on their couch and swopping stories in their cheerily named apartment block called Blouberg. Not surprisingly, the apartment name failed to conjure up emotive images of Table Mountain that it might have been supposed to.

Looking across at the Branken's neighbouring building

Looking across at the Branken’s neighbouring apartment

Hillbrow is an inner city suburb so rough that high rise residents have a penchant for throwing things like engine blocks and pool tables onto unsuspecting passers as part of New Year Festivities.  Watching a big rubbish bag being tossed to the ground from 10 stories up, hitting the ground with a resounding thump only emphasised the point. As did the rest of the litter drifting in lazy gravitational pursuit.

It gave me that feeling of being on holiday. Not in the ‘sun drenched beach’ sense of the word, but rather that this was a parallel universe to my daily life.

Nigel and Trish were probably never quite your stereotypical middle class family. But two years ago, their decision to move from the leafy streets of Midrand to the Bronx of South Africa must have been quite a curveball to family and friends alike.

To Nigel and Trish, this is what makes them come alive in the world. It can’t be easy to have made the lifestyle adjustments they have needed to make. It also can’t be easy to be held up at gunpoint on a disconcertingly regular basis as part of an unofficial cell phone exchange programme.

But their story has been captivating enough to inspire Carte Blanche interviews and impact on many people around them in small, big and meaningful ways. ( The question of ‘What makes you come alive in the world’ is often a double-edged sword laced with incredible vulnerability and incredible passion.

Which brings me to what George Washington Carver would have said about the Brankens: “When you do the common things in life in an uncommon way, you will command the attention of the world.”

At least, there are some crazier people than us out there…

Framing our Month in Mamelodi

If it was up to my mum, our kids would stay at her home for the month of August. If it was up to another well-connected friend, he would be posting a full time security guard outside our shack. To some people it is a risqué endeavour that throws our family into harm’s way.

To others, there is great social capital to be made from this opportunity – white people challenging the status quo. People have commented about how we are giving our kids an incredibly unique experience. My favourite feedback comes through a Facebook comment from someone we have never met before. She said we should be prepared to be overwhelmed by all the love that the community will soon be enveloping us with.

If we are truly reflective though, Mamelodi for a Month is really just an empty canvas and onto which my mum, a good friend and a stranger are projecting personal values – be they fears, apprehensions or outpourings of love.

Ena and I are Christian and this is what frames our month in Mamelodi. It is a journey about embracing Christian values far removed from the comfort of our daily middle class comforts. You might call us neo-monastics for want of a fancy descriptive. God does not reside in a church. He is here and now. While it is easy to be a Christian on Sunday morning from 9h00 to 10h30, it’s by living Christian values on a Monday Morning when life happens that really counts.

But we are not missionaries. The people we will live alongside for a month have far greater faith than us in living a daily life of vulnerability. They have far greater entrepreneurial ability than us to live on the poverty line to get by. They have far greater stamina to survive illness without the comfort of a medical aid or in waiting for a bus at 4h30 in the middle of winter that might or might not come. In this regard, we have come to learn from people who have less but often much more.

Mamelodi for a Month is a canvas for us to challenge what is most important in our lives. It is a blank canvas to transform our context. And it is a space to engage you in a conversation around these two fundamentals.Blank Canvas Outdoor

Transportation and housing costs

So last week I posted some pics of the shack we are going to be staying in. Some of you want to know what our rental is going to be: well here goes. A room in a shack on the non electricity side of Mamelodi (the side we are going to be staying), goes for the grand total of R100 (about $12) per month. If we wanted a room in the side with electricity, it would cost us R250 per month. Compare this to taxi fares and you start getting the picture that in township living transport and food are by far the biggest expense items. To get to where we live (10kms away, direct taxi route, route taken by our maid and lots of other workers in the area) from Mamelodi costs R14 one way. Double that, multiplied by 5 days a week and 4 weeks a month and you get R560 per month on taxi fares. So taxi fares, for my maid for example, are 5-6 times what she pays for rent. I asked her if there isn’t a bus that comes this way and works out cheaper – yes she said, but the bus route is so convoluted and winds its way around various suburbs so much that what takes 15 minutes by taxi takes 2 1/2 half hours by bus (meaning she would have to leave at 5am to get to work 10kms away by 7:30am). That is insane and a major failing on government’s behalf. The route is a major one, direct and extremely well serviced by taxis.

The other cheaper alternative would of course be riding a bike but this is really placing your life at risk. The road has no shoulder, the dirt on the side is impassible for all but the really daring and to top it all, taxis do not like people cycling (as it takes their business away) so they have no regard for cyclists and the taxi cartels take an active part in discouraging government from building cycle routes (at least this is what happened in Johannesburg between Diepsloot and Fourways and most likely is the case here too). Anyway enough ranting. Soon we will be adding to the taxis business by frequenting these routes ourselves. We will give the bus a try once too but I cannot imagine it being too much fun in the heart of winter!

Showing our parents our home for August

My parents in law are visiting for a week or two and as can be expected they are a little apprehensive about our Mamelodi move. We decided to take them on an impromptu visit to go show them the shack we are going to be staying in. Initially they were a little skeptical (and probably still are) but at least now they have met the neighbors too. Here are some pics of our new neighborhood.

Our shack Friendly new neigbours Somewhat sceptical parents/grandparents IMG_2678 A door to a new world IMG_2683


While lying in the bath this evening Julian and I were discussing some of the challenges August is going to bring. The first week of August the girls still have school so I will have to get them there. Julian also needs to go to Joburg at least once a week. These are some of the things we can think of that are going to be really tough:

  • getting from Hans Strijdom (where the taxis go) to the kids school 3km away with a two year old and a four year old (and back in the afternoons when Jessica actually just wants to sleep)
  • what are we going to sleep on? The room has a rat eaten single mattress. Julian and I could squeeze onto that but then where do the girls sleep ( also Julia likes getting into our bed in the middle of the night and that is not going to happen if we’re on a single bed)
  • how is Julian going to get to work? Probably taxi or metrorail to Hatfield and then Gautrain
  • following from previous point, does Julian keep a laptop in the shack and then use cloud services to access work when in office or risk the huge security risk of walking through township with laptop
  • Julian has a work trip to Cape Town during the month: how is he going to get to the airport especially if it is a ‘red eye’ flight (which is his norm)

As you can see lots of crazy, scary and exciting prospects on the horizon.

Off to sleep now in my lovely king size memory foam bed: trying to appreciate the luxuries for now……

A weekend of chats

We spoke to several friends this weekend about our desire to move to Mamelodi in August. Julian and I had previously heard about a family currently staying in Hillbrow and while chatting to friends over the weekend it turns out that they actually know this family and we are now going to meet Nigel and Trish at the end of June to ask them all important questions about personal safety, our children’s safety, what challenges they have faced, what they recommend for us etc. Check out their blog at

Our inspiration

These guys provided us with the inspiration for the experiment:


FACEBOOK POSTING:15 February 2012

Late last year, two young men decided to live a month of their lives on the income of an average poor Indian. One of them, Tushar, the son of a police officer in Haryana, studied at the University of Pennsylvania and worked for three years as an investment banker in the US and Singapore. The other, Matt, migrated as a teenager to the States with his parents, and studied in MIT. Both decided at different points to return to India, joined the UID Project in Bengaluru, came to share a flat, and became close friends.

The idea suddenly struck them one day. Both had returned to India in the vague hope that they could be of use to their country. But they knew the people of this land so little. Tushar suggested one evening — “Let us try to understand an ‘average Indian’, by living on an ‘average income’.” His friend Matt was immediately captured by the idea. They began a journey which would change them forever.

To begin with, what was the average income of an Indian? They calculated that India’s Mean National Income was Rs. 4,500 a month, or Rs. 150 a day. Globally people spend about a third of their incomes on rent. Excluding rent, they decided to spend Rs. 100 each a day. They realised that this did not make them poor, only average. Seventy-five per cent Indians live on less than this average.

The young men moved into the tiny apartment of their domestic help, much to her bemusement. What changed for them was that they spent a large part of their day planning and organising their food. Eating out was out of the question; even dhabas were too expensive. Milk and yoghurt were expensive and therefore used sparingly, meat was out of bounds, as were processed food like bread. No ghee or butter, only a little refined oil. Both are passionate cooks with healthy appetites. They found soy nuggets a wonder food — affordable and high on proteins, and worked on many recipes. Parle G biscuits again were cheap: 25 paise for 27 calories! They innovated a dessert of fried banana on biscuits. It was their treat each day.

Restricted life
Living on Rs.100 made the circle of their life much smaller. They found that they could not afford to travel by bus more than five km in a day. If they needed to go further, they could only walk. They could afford electricity only five or six hours a day, therefore sparingly used lights and fans. They needed also to charge their mobiles and computers. One Lifebuoy soap cut into two. They passed by shops, gazing at things they could not buy. They could not afford the movies, and hoped they would not fall ill.

However, the bigger challenge remained. Could they live on Rs. 32, the official poverty line, which had become controversial after India’s Planning Commission informed the Supreme Court that this was the poverty line for cities (for villages it was even lower, at Rs. 26 per person per day)?

Harrowing experience
For this, they decided to go to Matt’s ancestral village Karucachal in Kerala, and live on Rs. 26. They ate parboiled rice, a tuber and banana and drank black tea: a balanced diet was impossible on the Rs. 18 a day which their briefly adopted ‘poverty’ permitted. They found themselves thinking of food the whole day. They walked long distances, and saved money even on soap to wash their clothes. They could not afford communication, by mobile and internet. It would have been a disaster if they fell ill. For the two 26-year-olds, the experience of ‘official poverty’ was harrowing.

Yet, when their experiment ended with Deepavali, they wrote to their friends: “Wish we could tell you that we are happy to have our ‘normal’ lives back. Wish we could say that our sumptuous celebratory feast two nights ago was as satisfying as we had been hoping for throughout our experiment. It probably was one of the best meals we’ve ever had, packed with massive amounts of love from our hosts. However, each bite was a sad reminder of the harsh reality that there are 400 million people in our country for whom such a meal will remain a dream for quite some time. That we can move on to our comfortable life, but they remain in the battlefield of survival — a life of tough choices and tall constraints. A life where freedom means little and hunger is plenty…

Plenty of questions
It disturbs us to spend money on most of the things that we now consider excesses. Do we really need that hair product or that branded cologne? Is dining out at expensive restaurants necessary for a happy weekend? At a larger level, do we deserve all the riches we have around us? Is it just plain luck that we were born into circumstances that allowed us to build a life of comfort? What makes the other half any less deserving of many of these material possessions, (which many of us consider essential) or, more importantly, tools for self-development (education) or self-preservation (healthcare)?

We don’t know the answers to these questions. But we do know the feeling of guilt that is with us now. Guilt that is compounded by the love and generosity we got from people who live on the other side, despite their tough lives. We may have treated them as strangers all our lives, but they surely didn’t treat us as that way…”

So what did these two friends learn from their brief encounter with poverty? That hunger can make you angry. That a food law which guarantees adequate nutrition to all is essential. That poverty does not allow you to realise even modest dreams. And above all — in Matt’s words — that empathy is essential for democracy.


The mission…..

What are we doing

• Challenging ourselves as a well-off white middle family to survive on the average black household income of R3000 per month

Why are we doing this?

• For our family to have a direct experience into a daily South African existence so that we can create a boarder conversation of the role that empathy in places in underpinning a healthy democracy

How  are we doing this?

• Living in a 9m2 one room shack with outside communal tap and ablutions with no electricity for cooking and lighting

When are we doing this?

•August 2013


Where are we doing this?