“Once you just get to know people, you feel safe”
My wife and I, who are Christians, started questioning our faith a few years ago. We considered the fact that more than half of South Africans were living in poverty, and we were living in a huge home in the suburbs, very isolated from our neighbours, and consuming so much. And our lifestyle was probably not helping fix the questions of poverty and inequality in this country, on the contrary. So we first decided to start a journey of simplification, and cut back in every way we could. Then, we decided to move to the inner-city. In South Africa and worldwide, urban areas have become nodes of poverty, with inner-city slums growing and growing. We felt we needed to live in one to really understand it.The Branken family.When we first arrived in Hillbrow, despite having planned the move for a long time, we of course made plenty of mistakes. For example, the first thing we did was put a security door in front of our apartment door. Later, I have realised that it sent the wrong message, and that it wasn’t really necessary. Sure, out in the street, you have to worry about strangers who might attack you, but in our building, we know everyone, they’re our neighbours, our friends. Inside our block of flats – which is guarded [like many buildings in South Africa] – it is completely safe.In the streets, though I initially had a bad experience getting held up at gunpoint during my first weeks here, I have found that you can feel safe if you just get to know people. My family and I have learned where different groups of people hang out: the street vendors, the homeless, the prostitutes, the street vendors, and the drug addicts – there’s a huge heroin problem here. We went to talk people in these different groups, and became friends with some of them. Over time, I made some very close friends within the homeless community, particularly among a group of visually impaired Zimbabwean immigrants.A Hillbrow resident using crack cocaine. Drug use is widespread in the neigbhourhood.I’ve seen them go through some tough times. Several of my Zimbabwean friends have lost their babies in the past year, because of lack of prenatal care and poor health care. One of them called me one day, after having phoned an ambulance because her baby was having trouble breathing. She had already been turned away by a clinic earlier. When I got there, the baby was already dead. The ambulance arrived four hours later, which is pretty typical in this neighbourhood.“I think moving here is the best thing we possibly could have done for our kids”We try to help our neighbours out where we can. After we got to know homeless people in the neighbourhood, many of whom told me they were hungry, our family took to making lots of sandwiches one night per week, often with the help of neighbours. We take the sandwiches out to them on the streets and eat with them. We also bring soup we cook in a huge pot in our kitchen.Nigel and Trish Branken in their kitchen.We’ve also held sleep-outs, where we go spend the night in the streets, and have nagged the authorities to fix certain things in the neighbourhood, like adding streetlights and cleaning up garbage in a lot across the way.A view from the window of the Braken family's apartment. The building next door is what is known as a "hijacked" building in South Africa.A lot of kids in the neighbourhood have been kicked out of school, so my wife, who has home-schooled our kids since before the move, has taken on new students – so many that we ended up renting another apartment on the ground floor of the building, and turning that into a learning centre.The learning centre.“Some of our friends from the suburbs still won’t come to visit, not even during the day”I think moving here is the best thing we possibly could have done for our kids. They love it. They have so many friends. In the suburbs, they had to make appointments to play with their friends. Here, they can just head upstairs or downstairs. And they’re learning about compassion in a way they never could have from just lectures or books.Many of our friends from the suburbs have visited us, and now understand why we moved here. However, some still won’t come, not even during the day. That’s why I’m trying to live my life in Hillbrow publicly, to try to bridge the gap between the people that live in the suburbs and those who live here.