I have spent the better part of this week in Cape Town going on various Township tours. As was expected, my research has not been unfolding as expected. My contacts at the university have been (shockingly) busy with their own lives, and without their intersessions it is not possible for me to simply wander into the Township and ask people if they want me to research them (I’m being deliberately glib here – I can’t tell if that comes across to people who don’t know me – but that is obviously so wrong on so many levels).
So in the absence of local facilitators, I am trying to meet people by engaging in the tours and chatting with people over the course of our time together, and then asking them if they would be interested in hearing more about my work. Given my deep ambivalence and discomfort in participating in the tours, this has resulted in some pretty awkward moments.
Take this awkward moment, for instance:
Despite my active participation in the tours, I am trying to quash my impulses to recreate some of the more disruptive of tourists’ behaviours, such as sticking my camera in people’s faces and focusing my lens on the more egregious examples of people’s poverty. The lady who was conducting the above tour kept insisting that I take my camera out, finally resulting in this mess – my quasi-vegetarian self posing for photos with the local braai man, admiring his meat. The camera flashed repeatedly on this busy corner on a Friday evening, and a lady standing nearby kept remarking that I was afraid – nope, just profoundly uncomfortable. I’m already likely the whitest person for miles around – why call more attention to myself with a brightly flashing light?
Another moment of deep discomfort arose when our shiny white tour van stopped on a bridge to look at the poorest part of the Township – rows and rows of shacks erected in a literal swamp.
As we sat there with the 4-ways on, the guide came over and opened the van door, insisting that we take photos. In retrospect I really could have said no thank you, but in the moment I hurriedly did as I was told and put the camera back away. I wish I could express the contemptuous look I was given by one of the passersby on the sidewalk.
I can tell that my reluctance to take photos and perform my tourist’s role is upsetting the balance, and I’m trying to compensate for this by buying things that people are wanting to sell to the tourists and taking photos that feel less confrontational. I’m not sure if this is the right answer or not.
As I reflect on these experiences, and attempt to wrap my head around expressing some of this muddle at the Tourism Paradoxes conference next week, I find myself returning to the notion of shame in the tourism encounter. If you’re interested in a super fascinating (and not too academic-y) read about emotion and the postcolonial potentiality of shame in tourism (there, now I’ve made it sound academic-y, I can’t help myself. But trust me – it’s great!) take a look at Hazel Tucker’s article Recognizing Emotion and Postcolonial Potentialities: Discomfort and Shame in a Tourism Encounter in Turkey. And I share this article in part because it theorizes about the potential positive power of recognizing the emotion and embodiment of shame. I want to be clear that this posting is not about beating myself up, but rather about exploring one’s emotions honestly and trying to learn from them.
I feel shame in having participated in the tours, in taking photos of how strangely the Other lives – for instance, did you know that many people in the Townships (and likely elsewhere in South Africa) consider sheep heads a delicacy?
There is shame in spending so much money on the tours – more than double the one guide’s monthly rent in her nice apartment in one of the new residence buildings – a one-bedroom that is home to 9 people. Even though I know that the tours are creating income for people in the community, the chasm between my way of life and Theirs – while not my fault, and not something I can feel guilty for – still feels inhumanely wide.
There is also shame in knowing that I share these stories and these photos, in part, because I hope that it makes me look cool and edgy, to explore a space that is so foreign to my everyday and that few people will ever have an opportunity to see.
I’m chasing another notion about shame as well. I haven’t quite put my finger on it yet, and maybe other people might have some insights about this. I think that there may be shame involved in this type of tourism – maybe only on my part because I’ve overthought it, but maybe for others as well – because I, as the tourist, would feel ashamed if I lived there and people were coming through to take photos of my poverty. It is as though I am imposing my shame on the community’s residents, or what I imagine my shame (and therefore their shame) ought to be. Because this is the whole argument against this form of tourism, n’est pas? That people living in the communities are being treated like animals in a zoo, and that ‘we’ would not like to have people taking photos of ‘our’ homes and passing commentary on how we live. But is this a fair statement to make, is it reflective of how people in the Townships feel? Not having done any real data collection yet, I can say that many of the people I have met have expressed pride in their homes, and are happy that people want to learn about their communities. Then again, perhaps this is just something that is told to the tourists, and is not reflective of their real feelings on the subject. I did have one South African friend warn me that people here have drunk the proverbial Kool-Aid when it comes to promoting tourism as a pathway out of poverty. Anyway, I’ll keep chasing this notion of shame and see where it leads me. Any feedback or thoughts on the subject would be most welcome 🙂
And now, for no reason apart from possible interest, here is a short (bumpy) video of what it looks like to ride in the front seat of a taxi-bus through part of a Township (keeping in mind that the Townships are home to millions of people and this only represents a very small fraction of the community).
It was a little bit hard to love you today. I’m having a hard time getting in touch with one tour guide that I feel like would be a brilliant person to speak with about the research I would like to do around Township tourism. I think it is a busy time of year for her, but I am hoping that she isn’t politely trying to shake me because she wants to have nothing to do with me. I was really looking forward to meeting with another guide in Cape Town, but after a series of failed communications on both our parts (and nearly 4 hours of travel on mine) we failed to meet up. And the train was creepy. My roommate has taken to trying to shake my resolve to move to a guesthouse in the Township by telling me on a daily basis how ‘they’ are constantly shooting and/or raping one another. I think it’s also partly due to the fact that I’m engaged in non-violent warfare with both Audible and Hotwire over my ongoing inability to log into my accounts. *sigh*
Then, I heard a really, really horrible rendition of Sexy Sax Man being played in a square, and it instantly made me think of my three brothers and wish that they were there with me to witness it. For those of you uninitiated….
You’re welcome/I’m terribly sorry.
Then, I remembered that the man at my coffee shop (yes, it’s mine now) made this drink for me this morning:
And the other guys who work there gave me a hug when they came in and gave me some more Xhosa lessons. And my awesome brother B-Rad wants more pictures, so here ya go…
Don’t be a sad puppy…
…it’s so beautiful here!
And everyone loves photos of food 😉
Especially when this is what it sounds like while you’re eating.
And this…while not totally fixed, is NOT a thing anymore.
So on that note, I had some pizza, drank a beer, went for a very sweaty run and decided that I needed to, once again, delve into The Greatest Gift of All Time (dun dun duuuunnnnnn!). For those of you just catching up, my sister Kimberly gave me The Greatest Gift when she made me a stack of letters to help me contend with all that I might be faced with in this journey. So today it is…
(and I am post-run sweaty. I swear I’m not always that shiny)
And a big thank you to my brothers and my sisters for keeping in touch, and for all of you who have given me such great feedback so far on the blog, and for my dear friend in California who sent me an audio letter (can you imagine?!? What a guy!), and my Aunt Jo for sharing my blog with her millions of adoring readers (!!), and all the people I miss all over!
Bahaha!! Oh Kimberly, you are a wonder. Thanks for ending my day on such a great note xox
I have a LOT to say about this past weekend I spent touristing in Cape Town. I have some reflections I’d like to work through about the poverty that I encountered there as well as the heartbreaking history that has been so beautifully presented and honoured. For the time being, however, I’d like to simply share what an awesome range of fun you can get up to as a tourist in Cape Town.
I started off with a fantastic lunch of tapas, a glass of lovely red wine, and a coffee for $7.25. I’m trying really hard not to be the kind of person who takes pictures of their food (even though I want to so badly!) but I did feel compelled to take a photo of their very groovy bathroom:
Next came my visit to the District Six museum. Despite having consistently heard about how wonderful this exhibit is, I was wholly unprepared for how beautiful and tragic and noble the space is. I’m not going to spend too long on it here, as I want to give it its own post, so I’ll just say that District Six was an area of Cape Town that community leaders declared to be a ‘Whites Only’ zone in the 1960s and proceeded to evict and bulldoze the homes and businesses of some 60,000 mostly coloured residents. This went on until the 1980s and the international community was so outraged that nearly the entire site remains undeveloped to this day. The museum space practically seethes with the trauma of having your community torn apart and scattered to the winds.
In this photo you can see the map of District 6 on the floor, all of the street signs that were saved following the destruction, photos of former residents, and a banner signed by some of the survivors.
I was really struck by the family photos – a lot of them reminded me of the snap shots of my mom and my aunt when they were kids.
The museum is housed in a former church in District Six that became a meeting place for anti-apartheid activists.
I was in the museum for a long time. I will go back. But more about that later.
Because you seemingly can’t do anything as a tourist in this part of South Africa (at least I can’t) that isn’t vaguely schizophrenic, I went to an old colonial mansion next.
Not much to say about this one. It was mansiony. There was some art inside. Moving on.
Dinner was next, at the very cool rooftop patio of The Grand Daddy on Long Street. Also, a very funky little spot. There were about seven Airstream trailers up on this roof. How on earth did they get up there?
After dinner, I retired to my lovely Hout Bay room and this view
On to day two, which sees me venturing to Table Mountain to ride the cable car to the top. Apparently it’s a must do. Were you at Table Mountain this past Saturday? If not you missed out, because I think everyone else on the planet was there. I took one look at the lineup and skedaddled right back down the mountain. Another time.
Instead I went to the Company Gardens, a very beautiful garden in the center of town that used to be the vegetable garden for the colonial settlement. It has trees like this:
Then I went to the Bo Kaap, the Malay settlement that also has a wonderful history and culture that I’m looking forward to learning more about.
Can we talk about this car?
Seriously, I kind of want to stalk the owner and force him or her to be friends with me.
Next up: Greenmarket square. This is where lots of the arts and crafts vendors gather and there are always lots of kids’ groups singing and dancing for the tourists. This is what it sounded like on Saturday:
The dancers take a break to listen to the singing
What could possibly be next you ask? Why it’s the Carnival of course! The Cape Town Carnival just began a few years ago and it is a big hit drawing huge crowds of people.
I think this girl was the queen of the waste collectors
The firefighters waiting their turn. Why don’t they have shirts on?
Turns out that the Carnival is mostly a parade, did you know this? Having been thoroughly traumatized by the Timmins, Ontario Santa Claus parades of my youth (I’ll give you a minute to process that one), I am not so much a fan of parades. Home to bed!
Sunday started off with the Hout Bay Market, which is a very chic little market in an old fish processing warehouse on the waterfront. I thought I was in Portland.
The rest of the day I wandered around the city mostly, but I did manage to finally find some African food!! Okay, I’ve already broken my promise about photos of food – but African food!! I never thought I’d be so happy to see ugali (only here it’s mealie pap, and I think they might even put salt in it because it is delicious!).
And I ended the day by going to listen to the vespers at the very imposing and glorious St. George’s Cathedral at the top of Company Garden.
My kind of church
Finally, I checked myself into this very cool, old (I’m guessing former fleabag) hotel just off Long Street. It had a distinctly Overlooky vibe to it, and I will definitely be back there 🙂
Okay, sorry I know that was a lot of content – I just wanted to share all the fun adventures that one person can get up to in a weekend in Cape Town! Don’t worry, I’ll be back to my overly introspective critiquy self soon enough 😉
As I was preparing myself for this trip in the fall of 2015, I was saddened and horrified to encounter a number of news stories about violent protests erupting on university campuses throughout South Africa (don’t tell my mom). Some of the issues include rising tuition fees, the use of Africaans as a mandatory teaching language, and allegations of racism. All of these factors have resulted in inequitable access to higher education for Black South Africans.
Edwin tells me that a number of campuses remain closed. When I asked about the violence, the senseless destruction of university facilities, and was there not an avenue to have conversations about these things, he suggested that perhaps people were (justifiably?) frustrated after decades of seemingly fruitless conversations.
Yesterday as I tried to leave the library, I noticed that a large metal door had been partially lowered over the main entrance and that a man was shouting outside demanding admittance. The security guard escorted myself and some other students out through a back door.(sorry about the crappy photo quality – I only had my phone on me)
Does your university library have a giant metal gate that can close over the entrance? I don’t think mine even has security guards.
A number of young black African men and women were gathered in the courtyard below, while many white onlookers peered down from the overpasses. When I asked one student what was going on he irritably muttered something about ‘black workers.’
I went and sat on the steps for a while (after the speaker invited her white family to join them below) and tried to figure out what was going on. I was very moved by the passion of the speakers in demanding justice for the 150 workers who had been fired following protests the previous fall (there have been no displays of violence on this campus) and for pay and opportunity equity for all university workers. I found the signs that the participants were holding (including “70% of land in the hands of 13% of the population” and “No justice for Black students at White universities”) to be particularly evocative. I later found out that the university workers had joined in solidarity in with the students protesting colonial statues on campus. There were apparently some clashes earlier between the students and the private security forces the university had hired for this planned protest.
I was also particularly moved by the singing of the people gathered. Ever since Edwin told me about his audio mapping project (Getting down to work), I have become interested in capturing the sounds around me (and have added an audio file of the Camps Bay waterfront to the Touring the Township post). Luckily I have started carrying my audio recorder around with me (although not my camera -grr) and this is what I captured:
I came home at the end of the day brimming with positivity and energy following this experience. I was inspired by the stand that the students and workers continue to take to confront the inequities at the university. My roommate, however, had a very different take on the issue. I guess she got stuck in the student life center for a couple of hours when they went into lock down, and was outraged that these ‘riots’ had wreaked havok with her day. I countered that there were no riots – I was there and what I saw was a peaceful protest.
“Well they were swearing!”
“Okay, but I’d probably be swearing too. I think people have a reason to be upset, and I think it’s cool that they’re taking a stand for what’s right.”
This then deteriorated into a diatribe about ‘these people’ and I had to leave the room. Maybe she’s right – maybe everyone has had enough with the disruptions and the dissatisfaction and would just like to see things quietly carry on. I don’t know, since I’ve only just arrived here and don’t have an appreciation what things were like this past fall, or at any point in the past for that matter. It does seem very clear that she and I are approaching the issue from drastically different starting points.
A little while ago, I mentioned that my delightful sister-in-law Kimberly gave me one of the best gifts I have ever received: a stack of time capsules filled with love from home.
I moved into a new apartment the other day (more on that later), and I decided that it would be a good moment to open the first of my letters from Kim. Not feeling particularly celebratory or sad, I opted for something a little more neutral in tone:
Am I weird that as a 30-something year-old woman I was a little bit expecting that my homies would be my 5 and 2 year-old nephews? Turns out my homies are two of my all time favourite people!
Meg and Sam!! Two of my oldest and dearest friends and long standing honourary members of the Muldoon clan. Now I can see them every day here in South Africa.
This weekend’s trip into Cape Town was quite eventful and a study in contrasts. I think it goes a long way towards exemplifying some of the contradictions and complexities that are a part of living in South Africa (that was for Meg – I like alliteration too 😉 ).
I took the morning train in yesterday morning. Despite having been sort of vaguely warned about the dangers, it seemed to me that the only real danger being talked about was in taking the train before or after hours, and that riding during the day presents no problems. I was for sure the only white person that I saw on the train the entire journey, and it got me once again thinking about the racial segregation of space. At home I would take this train all the time! It was clean, more or less efficient (it was only half an hour late), and got me dead into the center of the city without having to deal with the ordeals of traffic (read: lunatic drivers) or trying to sort out parking. All for the low low price of CAD $1.75. Seems like a no brainer to me.
I planned this trip into the city expressly to participate in a Township tour. I booked my tour online (for Monday morning – they run a Gospel tour on Sundays, as opposed to the regular tour that runs the rest of the week) and not being familiar with the layout of the city, I looked to the company’s website for guidance as to what part of the city I should find lodgings in. The website advised that they would come and fetch people as far away as Camps Bay, but no further out. I read this as: they come to Camps Bay. So that is where I should stay. This is not the only part of this trip wherein I should have done a better job actually reading what I was getting myself into. I found a great deal on Hot Wire for a room in a villa near the beach (yay! Beach finally!) and took a taxi once I had my fill of wandering around Cape Town (more on that later, maybe – that city is a really wonderful place to explore!).
Turns out I’m not so much Camps Bay people. I thought I was out of place at the university, with all of the willowy blonde giantesses, but now I have officially found the place where the beautiful people congregate. To be fair, it was a little like walking onto the set of Beverly Hills 90210, so that was exciting for me (only I was being played by Gabrielle Carteris). Camps Bay appears to be everything that a wealthy seaside resort ought to be – lots of restaurants and cafes with patios spilling out onto the sidewalks, kids playing drums and dancing on the beach, massive crashing waves (but a wicked riptide, apparently. I didn’t see anyone in the water), and luxury cars cruising up and down the waterfront strip.
This is what it sounds like when you’re walking along the waterfront:
As an aside, Hot Wire is a wonderful thing! Check out this place that I was able to stay at! I’m usually more of a hostel kind of girl. Now, how do you (as me) contend with the reality of that room, knowing that the purpose of my visit is to go to a Township to see how the poor people live, or in travel brochure-speak, see the ‘reality’ of life in the city? Is this not also reality? Or is it less valid as reality because it is a reality available only to a few?
On Monday morning, I was picked up at the villa by the charmingly effervescent Sabrina, who was to be our guide for the day. Sabrina is a former resident of the Township, although she now lives in a different part of the city with her husband. Our tour group eventually grew to 7 as Sabrina navigated the minibus (silently shrieking ‘tourists’ everywhere we went) throughout the various neighoburhoods of the city (turns out, I was staying the farthest outside of the city center). As we drove, Sabrina told us about the history of the Township, which was founded in the 1920s as single men immigrated to the city from the Eastern Cape looking for work. Single room dormitories were constructed and colonial regulations regarding movement, later to be replaced (and made more restrictive) by the apartheid-era Pass Laws, regulated whether or not these men’s families would be able to come and visit with them, as well as when (or whether) they would be able to return home for a visit. Eventually, demand in the city for female domestic workers led to the government permitting wives and children to join the men in the Township. It probably goes without saying that housing facilities were not adapted to meet the changing needs of the community. Eventually, rooms that were originally designed to house one man became home to multiple members of one’s immediate and extended families. Intolerable crowding and an utter lack of privacy (this is the one that struck me as an unanticipated shock – privacy. Imagine never being able to close a door?) led to many families constructing their own habitations from whatever materials available outside the dormitories.Today, most residents commute into the city for work, spending about 25% of their incomes on transportation, although it is estimated that 35% of the population is unemployed*.
The improvised shacks seem to be made of just about anything – the ubiquitous corrugated tin, pressboard, shipping containers, I even saw what looked like an old refrigerated trailer converted into a home. Electrical connections are improvised and are often cited as fire hazards, although I have not seen any evidence of recent fires. In some areas there are blue porta-potties to service the families that have no private facilities. Super gross, and totally inadequate for any person to have to use long term (think about the johns at the end of a weekend festival. Bleh. Then think about only having access to that). That being said, they are provided by the city and are maintained weekly, and can only be an improvement over the holes in the ground that overflowed when it rained that I was used to seeing in Dar es Salaam. And do I think that by making that comparison it somehow makes it okay? The houses that I saw also had municipally supplied garbage bins and the truck comes and empties them weekly. Another luxury that my friends in Dar would have been happy to see.
In this first part of the tour we drove around the community and peered through our windows at the vocational school, the youth center, and people’s homes. I felt like a real creep – totally conspicuous in the air conditioned front seat of the big white van with the tour company’s logo emblazoned on the side. Like we didn’t want to get our hands dirty or sully our clothes by stepping beyond the glass.
We finally stopped and got out of the van to join Joshua, a young man from the community who was taking over the next part of the tour. Incredibly, it actually got worse from there.
The first stop on our walking tour was a lovely preschool. About 20 children between the ages of 3-5 were sitting on a carpet as Joshua explained that the teacher had identified a need for preschool education as well as English instruction in the community. Joshua had all the children stand and come to the front of the carpet. As we tourists stood in a semi-circle around them, the children were made to sing 6 or 7 songs for us, complete with hand gestures. This to me felt so exploitative and abusive that I felt my eyes welling with tears (which anyone who knows me will tell you is not so unusual an event – I’ve been known to cry in movie trailers. But still), and I had to move to hide my face from the children. Here we are, interrupting their school day, and they are being made to perform for us like little trained seals. What lessons are these kids learning from this? Do their parents know about this, and if so, what must they think? I can’t imagine any of the parents that I know back in Canada would be happy to hear that this was happening in their child’s classroom.
Just when I think it is finally over and we can get the hell out of there, Joshua tells us to brace ourselves because now he is going to tell the kids to hug us. As soon as he says the word, all the kids rush forward and clamber into our arms and laps. What the actual fuck? Some kids were even shoving one another to get closer. One little boy repeatedly tried to kiss me on the lips, a little girl kept touching my face, my nose, my eyelashes. This went on for way too long – at least 10 minutes. Did the other tourists know that this was going to happen? Is this part of the appeal of this particular tour?
Before going inside, Joshua told us it was perfectly okay to take photos of the children. This is something I had not thought twice about in the past, but now makes me deeply uncomfortable and is something I would prefer not to do unless asked. He did say that it was important not to take photos of people in the community without first asking their permission. He also advised one of the tourists who asked about contributing to the community that is was important not to give anything to children in order that kids not learn that they may be given things by white people, potentially leading to paternalism, dependence, and begging, and instead to make a donation to an NGO or a social service agency in the community.
After the preschool we walked through the community and saw a wide range of living conditions. The community has advocated that no one should be moved out of an inadequate living situation without being moved into something more suitable, and there are a number of new housing developments where families have been relocated. There are also a number of really lovely homes, in an area known as the Beverly Hills of the Township, where people have been successful and have chosen to remain in their home community. There is no denying that there are too many people living in truly abhorrent living conditions, but it is also true that a significant number of families in this community have done very well for themselves and have chosen to remain in their home community, a part of the narrative of life in the Townships that I think may be often overlooked by the tourists who visit there.
One of the other tourists noticed that the words ‘Real Phandaz’ were spray painted throughout the community. Joshua explained that Real Phandaz means taking action to improve your situation, showing entrepreneurial spirit, moxie if you will, and not sitting around waiting for the government to solve your problems or give you a job. Everywhere in the community there is evidence of Real Phandaz – car washes that consist of a few buckets of water and a little home vacuum, grill on the side of the road featuring all kinds of meat, and convenience shops and beauty parlours operating out of shipping containers.
On our way back into the city, we made a quick stop at a monument dedicated to 7 anti-apartheid protesters shot and killed by police in 1986 (known as the Gugulethu Seven). I am left wondering about the actual changes that have been felt here since these young men lost their lives. Apartheid, the Pass Laws, and the Bantu System have all been repealed. But ethnic segregation is still alive and well in people’s living environments, and some of these homes do not seem fit for human habitation. From what little I have seen, recent governments have made substantial efforts to provide decent and affordable housing for people. But there seems to be little movement towards the dissolution of physical racial divides. People work together and share space in that sense, but how can people come to know and understand one another when their living worlds are so far apart?
Also, I have to say that I did not see any evidence of this tour benefiting the community. There were jobs created for Sabrina and for Joshua, and surely for other guides, but no mention was made of reinvestment back into the community. I took it for granted that that was a central component of all of such tour operations, but perhaps that is not the case.
*Can we all please acknowledge the grossly inadequate historical reckoning of the establishment of the Townships presented here, due (in part) to the constraints of this form of communication and not from any lack of concern or caring on my part about the importance of all of the nuances related to this history?
It is interesting to think about working with Edwin and his colleagues in the visual arts department. I consider myself to be a social justice scholar (without ever, ever putting it in such terribly lame terms, but you’ll see where I’m going here) who is using art as a research methodology, almost as an afterthought. Edwin and co. are artists, using art to work for social justice in the community. It might be parsing, but it might also be very interesting to see how we come to work together from such different starting positions. Edwin gives very clear indication that this is his focus and objective, without ever coming out and saying anything so lame as ‘I’m working towards social justice.’ (Also, if it seems as though I am talking a lot about Edwin on here, it is because I know virtually no one else here yet).
So…, I’ve decided to go on a Township tour. This is something that I have struggled with, and it even came up as a question at my proposal defense back in June. As much as my research is about learning about local perceptions and experiences of tourism, and I hope that I will be open to whatever they may be, my own feelings are that the tours are exploitative, paternalistic, and maybe even a little morally repugnant. I have decided, however, that it would be unjustifiable for me to attempt to critique and take an arbitrary moral high ground over something that I have no first-hand experience of.
Now here’s the dirty secret part (or maybe it’s not so secret as I think it is): I’m looking forward to it. I am fascinated by these communities, as would be obvious from the fact that I chose this area of study for my PhD research. I cannot pretend that I am somehow morally superior to any of the other tourists who choose to participate in these experiences. I find these communities fascinating – I want to get out and walk around and talk to people and take a million photos. Where does this compulsion to consume the Other come from? Is it just innate human curiosity, or it is something more sinister? Could it be the desire to witness a way of life that us so materially inferior to one’s own? (and by materially inferior, I of course mean on a purely quantitatively economic scale).
It also comes to mind that these questions might be completely inane and self-serving. There are many things that I feel are morally wrong that I don’t question – for some reason child prostitutes in Thailand comes immediately to mind – that I would never feel compelled to ‘sample’ in order to decide for myself how I felt about it. I know that the comparison is hardly apt, but it bears thinking on…
Of course, I like to believe that as a regular, everyday tourist I would never choose to participate and support this particular brand of tourism. I just wouldn’t. But even this is being disingenuous. Because of course the truth is that I do get to enter these neighbourhoods and interact with people for reasons that I have determined are justified, and not merely about curiosity. Do you see the difference? Whereas the ‘tourists’ tell themselves that the $$ that they pay for the tour is supporting the community, allowing themselves (perhaps) to assuage their guilt about their voyeuristic intentions, my being there is legitimized by the fact that I am there for business, not leisure. Does that make my voyeuristic intent any purer? Not a chance. Do I tell myself, same as everyone else, that my being there is helping, and that in turn I am come away changed for the better? You betcha. So I cannot hide behind my moral proclamations that the intent behind the tours, from the tourists’ side, is wrong because I know that I share the same intent, in my heart. Now I feel as though I’m trying to justify myself. I’m really struggling with this.
The truth of the matter is that I have been in slums many times and none of the fascination has worn off. I’m not sure what that says about me, or what is at the heart of that.
We talk about art in Uluntu. Edwin tells me that there is a permanent community art collective in the neighbourhood, some form of collaboration between community members and artists from the university. Esme, whom I am hoping to work with, is based there. Edwin tells me about the art installations that are in place now, on exhibition in people’s homes and in public spaces throughout Uluntu, although he adds, almost as an aside, that most is the work of wealthy white artists from down below. It is hard for me to think of these two spaces as part of the same city, the shiny white enclave surrounding the university that I have come to think of as ‘the city,’ and this other space which could not be more opposite. Geography separates them – not only the vast space in between the neighbourhoods, but also the clear boundaries delineated by major roads as designed by the city planners.
I wonder aloud if it would not make more sense, to my way of thinking, for art from Uluntu to be displayed in the city center so that the stories and perspectives and experiences of the Township could be shared with the larger community, rather than expecting that the residents of…
(I stumble here – I nearly said the name of the city. This is when I become aware of how deeply cemented the difference between these two spaces had become in my mind, almost from the very first)
…the main part of the city…
(I am aware of my language here – relegating this space – the poor, Black space – to Other. I don’t know how to correct it in time. I hope Edwin hasn’t noticed. I feel deeply ignorant. Am I overthinking this?)
…to come up into the Township?
If Edwin is aware of my fumbling awkwardness, he is much too charming to let on. He tells me that people have been over saturated with images of Township life. They are sick to death of stories and images of these impoverished communities after all the years of failed efforts and initiatives. The inability to effect significant change here has led to a sort of unconscious blindness to the problem that does not seem to have a solution. Sound familiar?
One final irony – as we begin to drive down the mountain back towards ‘town,’ Edwin informs me that the best views of the city are from where we are at that moment. Most of the tourism images that you will see of this city and the surrounding region have been photographed from within the Township.
I am back in the botanical garden at the university, a magnificent green oasis in the middle of the city (even though, really, the rest of the city is quite lush and green). It is so much cooler in here, and even though you can still hear the traffic and the university girls giggling on the street, mainly the sounds are of leaves rustling and birds singing and water flowing. I have found a seat under some spectacular 40-foot palms and I feel very removed from the 401 and winter.
The Botanical Garden
I had the great pleasure of meeting my local supervisor Edwin yesterday, who is delightful and I only regret that I did not arrive sooner in order to get to spend more time with him before he leaves on sabbatical (academics – do they ever work?). He showed me around our department at the university and introduced me to some of the people who may be able to help me out with my research, and he also showed me some of the key spots on campus. He then took me on a driving tour of the city, pointing out certain neighbourhoods and areas of interest. As he drove, he explained a lot of the historical and socio-political context of the university and of the city, which I think will be invaluable for me to at least have the outlines of. He told me so much, but I’ll try to draw out some of the key points that stuck in my mind.
One of the buildings on campus
This university is still struggling with its ties to the apartheid movement and its segregationist past. There have been protests, sometimes violent, against the colonial legacies of universities – including using Africaans as a teaching language – throughout South Africa in recent months, and this university has been no exception. According to Edwin, the school is still struggling with its historical legacy and diversifying its population. When you look around campus, it is VERY white and Edwin says that there is a serious lack of Black people in positions of power as well. He took us through a part of campus that had once been a coloured* neighbourhood, but once apartheid came into effect all the residents were evicted and moved to the newly-established coloured neighbourhood (are these neighbourhoods known as Townships as well? I have no idea) and the land was appropriated by the state, then given to the university. The former residents were never compensated.
The Slave Houses on campus
Today there is a plaque commemorating that event in the entrance way of one of the buildings on campus, but it was done by the university administration, and Edwin speculates as to what the memorial might have looked like and represented had it been done in collaboration with the community. He pointed out some beautiful old houses in this part of campus, known as the ‘slave houses,’ that used to be home to the people who were relocated, and which are now quite posh and expensive addresses.
We drove through the coloured neighbourhood next, which appeared to me to be quite a lovely, if a little ramshackle, neighbourhood, like a 50s post-war community that’s just a titch rundown. There are little cottages with postage-stamp lawns, and none of the big electrified fences that characterize the neighbourhood that I am currently staying in in suburbia. Here, Edwin told me of a really interesting audio mapping project of the city that he had worked on. In this neighbourhood, for instance, the audio recordings would include the sounds of children playing, whereas in neighbourhoods like mine all you would hear would be the whir of the electric fences and the pop-up lawn sprinklers (although, to be fair, in my neighbourhood you would also hear the constant yapping of the dogs next door).
After this, we continued on towards Uluntu**. Edwin explained that when the Black people were moved out to this Township roads and other infrastructure were built, but the population outgrew these sections and soon expanded into areas that are unplanned and unserviced. Esme, one of the PhD students in the department and someone I am very much hoping to work closely with, is working on a community-based mapping project to start to document and legitimize some of these areas.
As Edwin drove, we crested a hill and I got my first glimpse of Uluntu. The Township is built high into the hillside, thousands of tiny little corrugated huts, that to my eyes look like the little dilapidated shacks where you would go to clean your fish in Northern Ontario, all crammed together pell-mell, all the way up the hillside. Many of the homes have been painted in bright colours, and the usual hornets’ nest of electrical wires and TV antennae crisscross the rooftops.
Edwin drove us into the neighbourhood, pointing out the soulless cinderblock and cement buildings that are the first we pass as we enter – government-built housing, built around the time of the end of apartheid, and sometimes guesthouses. Perhaps I could stay in one for a time. As depressing as they look, I think it would be invaluable for me to spend some time living in the community, rather than always helicoptering in and out.
I asked about the shortage of government houses – there were a few more that we passed, but not many, and they all looked shitty. Edwin explained that there was much excitement and hope for the future of the ‘Rainbow Nation’ at the end of apartheid, and throughout Mandela’s rule, but it soon became obvious that many wounds were too deeply entrenched to heal overnight. The deep-seated racial segregation and the mistrust between the artificially-constructed racial categorizations could not just be said to be over. At the same time, the high cost of improving living standards mixed with rampant government corrupting led to a stalling, if not a complete standstill, in efforts to improve living conditions here or desegregate the communities. So here we are.
The road we took through the community is still quite good, and despite the smallness of the buildings and their rudimentary construction materials, I did not see any evidence of squalor or misery. Poverty, yes. But I wonder what life is like down the side streets that I glimpsed, those parts of the community that are not accessible to any looky-loo who wishes to drive through. Maybe these buildings on the main thoroughfare are an act of resistance, with their brightly painted facades. I asked Edwin if people minded our driving through like this, just to take a look. He said he didn’t think so.
Edwin said, later over cappuccino, that Esme’s mapping project could potentially make the community more accessible to tourists, that they would be able to go in and explore Uluntu and its local art installations without having to rely on a local guide. I wondered at that, as most tourists who participate in these types of tours (to my understanding) justify it in the sense that the tours create local employment opportunities and give money back to the community. If you are not on a tour, are you just gawping at another person’s poverty? Edwin’s response was that there is value in the experience itself, that people learn from it and come away changed, that it is an experience that they will carry with them forever. While I agree with this perspective, I still have to wonder at the question which remains at the heart of my research: at what cost to the people in the community?
*The distinctions between Black, White, and Coloured citizens are a residue of apartheid and are still prevalent in people’s language. I struggle about when I ought and ought not to capitalize these words, and would welcome any guidance in this area. I do not mean to offend any sensibilities in using these words, and only present them in the ways in which they are used here, which strikes me as having no valuation attached.
**Uluntu is the Xhosa world for ‘community,’ which is what I am choosing to call this Township here.
I am one of those immeasurably lucky ducks who is blessed with a truly wonderful family. Case in point: for Christmas this year my siblings and I all drew straws in our first ever attempt at a gift exchange. I drew Brad – easy-peasy – something kitcheny, something to do with Die Hard. Sold. I love that guy.
I was lucky to have had my name drawn by my wonderful sister-in-law Kimberly. What do you give the girl who wants nothing, and is about to purge the little she has in order to relocate to the other side of the world?
If you’re as thoughtful and as creative and as generous as Kimberly, you give the gift of family love from afar. After hearing stories about living away from home for years, she gave me the only things (apart from sunscreen) I would always need. A taste of home…
Some friendly faces…
Some reasons to celebrate…
And some cheer for the crap days…
And of course, my personal favourite…
Kimberly, you are a treasure. I can’t wait to explore all the parts of this wonderful gift!!