A (not so) secret confession


Meghan in Nairobi in 2009

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).+4w5536

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…1935249_300995705117_5312299_n

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.


6 thoughts on “A (not so) secret confession

  1. A dilemma indeed. I must confess I would not go on a township tour in SA or anywhere. It just feels wrong and I try to think how I’d feel if I lived on a grotty council estate in an inner city in England and bus loads of tourists came in to gawp and take photos, meanwhile patting themselves on the back and feeling smug about helping the ‘poor’ people. I know it’s not quite the same and I read what you say about the need to understand. I’m not judging. Simply saying how I feel.
    Jude xx


    • I agree wholeheartedly with what you are saying, and I feel the same way. I used to work in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver (same concept as a grotty council estate, I think) and I was horrified that people would want to do walking tours through there to look at the drug addicts. I came into this study because I learned about these tours and was horrified that this was a real thing. I also think that it is possible for caring tourists to find a community organization for the cause off their choosing (my friend donated to the animal shelter in Freetown, for instance) and donate their money in that way, and not have to make a field trip out of it. On the other hand, I also think that many of the tourists do come away changed in the long run, and what is the empirical effect of that? Personally, I feel very much the same way as you do, and I think a big part of my ‘job’ here is to try and confront some of the power balances that are inherent in much of tourism (and most visibly, blatantly in this form of tourism). That being said, I am trying to be open to people’s good intentions. I appreciate you engaging me in a discussion about it. I never find it easy to boil down the complexity of how I feel about this issue!


      • Well I think you are doing great. I sense the struggle you have with this and I understand how and why you would feel that way. You are coming into a multi-racial society that has a long and bloody history and a deep distrust of politicians. My heart bleeds for South Africa as there are so many wonderful people living there and it is such a beautiful country, yet there is still far too much extreme poverty, racial tensions and fear. I look forward to reading how you get on with your job.


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