Rebuilding Foundations

An exploration of international development work in Africa

Poverty

Madulammoho Housing Association (MHA) provides two types of housing: communal and self-contained.

Most of the Hillbrow (inner city) projects are communal.  MHA inherited the buildings from the City in the early 2000s.  Before becoming social housing projects, these buildings were university dorms in the 1970s and 80s.  Just think of the first year Rez rooms at UBC or SFU.  Each person/family gets their own room and each floor has communal bathrooms and a kitchen.

Typical Floor Plan

In contrast, MHA’s new projects in Soweto (neighbouring township outside the inner city) are all self-contained.

Two weeks ago, I visited most of the projects for the first time with the new Maintenance Inspector and Client Services Manager.  In each one, they knocked on doors and asked the tenant if I could look in their room.  I felt rude for disturbing someone’s peace in their own home. 

In the first room we entered, a young mother stood with her child in the corner while the three of us stood in the middle of her home and discussed ventilation and paint.  She kept her head down the whole time, staring at her feet.  I thanked her when we left, but she didn’t look up.

In other rooms, the tenants were happy to let us in so they could tell us their complaints.  Or they wanted to show off their space.

And many of the rooms are worth showing off!  It’s amazing how much creativity people have when furnishing a room that’s less than 4m by 4m (13 ft by 13 ft).

It’s also amazing how nice their belongings are.

The Inspector was also surprised when he first started.  Now he laughs about it: “They’re supposed to be poor and look at all their stuff!”

He teases the tenants about it: “That’s a nice television you have.  I don’t even have one that big.”  But the tone of his voice implies that he doesn’t think they deserve it.

On one hand, yes it’s funny that many of Joburg’s low-income residents have nicer furniture than I’ve ever had.  Or that they have big TVs with 200+ channels and expensive stereos and multiple speakers when I’ve never even owned a TV.  But on the other hand, who am I to judge how someone spends their money?

Most of us carry stereotypes of the “poor.”  I think of hardworking people who have been hindered by structural circumstances like abusive relationships, inadequate education, lack of jobs, etc.  I recognize, unfortunately, that absolving poor people of any personal responsibility does not effectively address poverty issues.  Other individuals, however, swing too far in the other direction; they think of poor people as lazy drug users who deserve their poverty.

But we all need to expand beyond our stereotypes.  Why am I surprised by the wealth MHA’s tenants have acquired?  They may have “low incomes,” but they have jobs and a home.  They have savings and are trying to move up the socioeconomic ladder, just like me.

You don’t have to live in a shack or be dressed in rags to be poor.

No matter how expensive their stuff is, it does not change the fact that these families are living in dorm rooms.

Who am I to judge what someone deserves so that they fit in my idea of poverty?

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