Slum Living: Could You Do It?

Above portrays the Hewitt Family. The two images below are both of slums: the left  is of present day Africa, the right is of early 20th century NYC.

Above portrays the Hewitt Family. The two images below are both of slums: the left is of present day Africa, the right is of early 20th century NYC.

 “Slums contribute to low life expectancy, the lack of adequate sanitation, potable water and electricity, in addition to substandard housing and overcrowding, they aggravate the spread of disease and avoidable death”[4].
-International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies

Would you allow your children to be so dehydrated that they would have to take to sipping liquid from a stream filled with feces and filth in front of your one-room tin shack? – If your answer is no, then you should probably read on.

Living in an African slum typically is not the way a middle class family of four spends their summer. Yet, for the month of August, the Hewitt’s, a middle class white family from South Africa moved six miles down the road, trading in their gated community for a 9m2 one-room shack with no running water or electricity [3].

South Africa has a deep-rooted history of racial segregation that still lingers ubiquitously today, sustaining the vast divide separating the entitled white and the impoverished black. The Hewitt family, with two children under the age of 5 in tow, took on this experiment to foster a movement in healthy democracy. Though they have received severe backlash from some of the public, the Hewitt’s got what they wanted; facilitating a human rights dialogue that is spreading too rapidly to be ignored.

Knowledge is power and experience brings understanding, I fully support the Hewitt family in their endeavor to comprehend how the impoverished live. According to the U.S. census the average life expectancy at birth for a white South African is more than 20 years longer than a black South African [1]. This divide is indistinguishable to that among the rich and poor in the early 20th century in New York City where slum life expectancies were extremely lower then that of the average American. New York was also a place where the affluent along with the government turned a blind eye towards “lower class” citizens dwelling in slums.

“The slum is the measure of civilization”
-Jacob Riis

The Hewitts are the 21st century version of Jacob Riis, the famous muckraking reformer of the early 20th century who exposed squalid slum conditions in New York City. Riis was able to stir the pot of reform by exposing horrendous conditions of the slums to the middle and upper class citizens, who had until then obstinately refused to acknowledge their existence. Riis’s persistence aided in the transformation of living conditions and the empowerment of the city’s most impoverished. New York would never have become the world-class city it is today if the community had not embraced the importance of social capital, understanding that people are the most important aspect of a community, and when they are healthy they are productive and give back much more than they cost.

Any monumental event that has ever changed the course of history was started by breaking out of a comfort zone in order to understand what wasn’t working. Something can be done. The citizens of South Africa must start by stepping outside of their bubble to come together and close the societal gap. Policies made regarding water availability and sanitation are essential. Innovative housing structures, such as the Ishack, should be funded and put into place. Even you, wherever you are in the world, can have a positive impact by simply starting a conversation about it.


[1] Kinsella, Kevin. “Aging Trends: South Africa.” United States Census Bureau.
[2] Polgreen, Lydia. “Trading Privilege for Privation, Family Hits a Nerve in South Africa.”
[3] Hewitt, Julian, and Ena Hewitt. “Mamelodi For a Month.” Mamelodi For a Month.
[4] Rabat, Kaci. “Towards African Cities without Slums.”
[5] “South Africa’s Census: Racial Divide Continuing.” BBC News.