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Pretoria - Taking a bath in a bucket has to be one of the most difficult aspects of “Ekasi” living for suburban mom Ena Hewitt.
Those baths - filled with a mixture of one kettle of hot water and another of cold water - were what Ena, her husband Julian and their two small girls Julia and Jessica endured through their month-long stay in the Phomolong informal settlement shack of their domestic helper Leah Nkambule.
Speaking from the comfort of their Wapadrand home in Pretoria East on Sunday, the couple related the experiences and lessons learnt during their stay in the Mamelodi settlement.
“We came back with so much that pinpointing one lesson would not be easy,” Ena said.
There were inconveniences, and some ways of the lifestyle of those living in the settlement were difficult to get used to. “I did not like the bucket-bath,” she said.
“Not being able to bath properly, to wash your hair and feel really clean was difficult.”
The toddlers, aged two and four, spent a lot of time outside playing with other children - and they always came back dirty, and in need of a good scrub.
Julian said among his harsher experiences were the Metrorail trains, which he caught to work in the morning.
He walked for more than 30 minutes to catch the 4.45 every morning, before linking up with the Gautrain to get to Sandton.
The train had only once been reasonably on time for him to catch his connecting train, he said.
But it was his last train experience that made him realise the depths of the inconvenience of public transport.
“There was a problem with the (rail) line, so I had to walk for more than an hour to get to the next station to catch the train,” Julian said.
He had learnt a lot from the train experience.
Julian said he experienced the congestion of the carriages, and people hanging on from outside, in their desperation to get to work on time.
“It was constantly like a wave of people coming in,” he said.
The couple had set themselves the challenge of spending 31 days in Nkambule’s shack after paying her a visit.
They had realised that although they lived no more than 15km from their domestic worker, they had no idea of the conditions she lived under.
“We did this for ourselves, we have been aware of the mental boundaries and wanted to get over them,” Julian explained.
The couple had also hoped to get a conversation going - one that would get people talking about the divides that existed between the social classes.
They had gone into the township with a budget limited to R100 a day, a laptop to blog on, and their cellphones.
“We only ate meat twice during our stay, and I only once bought a litre of milk, so our diet was without meat and dairy products, and we only drank water,” Ena said.
They slept on the floor, and during their first week there they all caught flu.
The Hewitt parents also lost 5kg each, within the first two weeks of their stay.
Their diet included pasta, split peas, soya mince and beans with bread.
“Lucky Star pilchards became a favourite with the girls,” said Ena.
She learnt to cook on the primus stove, one pot at a time, which meant starting to cook supper just after 2pm on some days, to make sure the meal was ready by 5pm.
“Cooking on a primus stove takes a really long time, but we also had a solar cooker that we would sometimes use.”
“Our understanding of poverty had been largely academic and not real, and not about crossing those divides,” said Ena.
There were many little things that they had taken out of their experience, and many more would pop up as they continued with their daily lives.
“After the bath experience I came back home and told our helpers that they could go into the bathroom and take a shower or lie in the bath for as long as they wanted to.
“This was because I realised that was one benefit they might live their whole lives without,” she added.