Reflections on Township Tourism II

IMG_3000I 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:DSCN0015

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.IMG_3384

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.IMG_3002

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?IMG_3369

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.IMG_3372

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).


Interested in some of my other musings regarding the role of tourism in the Townships? Check out Touring the township (and playing Andrea) and Reflections on township tourism III


20 thoughts on “Reflections on Township Tourism II

  1. Hi Meghan. This is a really interesting reflection. Reading it reminded me of conversations with my friend Claudia Bell ( who is a lecturer in Sociology at the University of Auckland. She has written a lot about tourism. Not so much about Africa recently, though she spent quite a lot of time in Namibia in the early 200s. You share similar insights, and I wonder if you know her work. Cheers, Su.


  2. Thank you for labeling my feeling when I travel. Shame, yes, that’s exactly it. It’s interesting to see how other families live but I’ve always questioned if this is ‘really’ how the locals live.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for sharing Susan! I’m glad to know that this is a shared feeling. Checkout that article that I mentioned, if you’re interested. I’m going to keep digging around in Tucker’s notion of how to make that feeling productive 🙂


  3. Hello, Meghan,
    Thanks for sharing your experience with us. I appreciate it a lot. After seeing your photos, I respect Africa people more. I thank you for giving me a chance to connect and think of them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Helen, thanks for sharing. I feel as though I have certainly learned a lot from the African people that I have gotten to know over the years, and while I know that there are jerks everywhere, the people I have met have continually impressed me with their resilience and determination to make their communities stronger.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Shame is an excellent word. It’s an emotion I walk around with a lot when I encounter scenarios like this one that make me feel extraordinarily uncomfortable.

    I wish you good luck in finding a local muse to help you shatter that *ceiling* you are currently bumping up against. The tours are not geared for the kind of research you are trying to do, yet at the same time, they are a necessary experience in order for you to weigh your opinions and observations.

    For the kind of contacts you are trying to make, have you considered approaching the communities from a different direction – for example, the churches?


    • Thanks – that’s really awesome advice. I always forget that churches play an important role in most people’s lives. I’m also mindful that this whole past week people have been on Easter holidays, which coincide with the end of the tourism high season, and is generally a really busy time for folks. I will reach out to some of the local churches and maybe youth groups and see if I get any uptake. Thanks!


      • I hesitated about suggesting the community churches and their related groups. You know I’m usually the LAST person to recommend church anything :/
        … but in this case, you need to find trusted partners who can open doors for you. I think the local churches can and would.
        Good luck!!


  5. I think that it all depends on the spirit of the traveler and the intentions. Okay, sure, the road to hell and all, but I think tourism done right can be a way to bring people together. I see the work you’re doing and the blogging as a way to share what the world is really like versus how rumor or innuendo or spin might portray the world to us. No one, including myself, wants a stream of tourists coming through my home to judge or criticize, but if that group were coming through to learn, to understand all the ways of being on the planet, to better understand each other, then I think that’s a good thing.


    • I tend to agree with you Paula. I think that there absolutely is value in learning about other people and the world that we live in. People invariably come away from these types of experiences feeling powerfully changed. What I wonder about is how the people who live in these spaces get out of the exchanges. Do they also feel as though they are learning about the people who visit, or do they feel as though they are being exhibited, and if so, how do they feel about that? I’m being purposely black and white here, because I don’t think it’s that simplistic, but that’s part of what makes it fun to explore 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  6. You’ve done a wonderful job of describing how discomforting it is to be voyeurs into such poverty and the contradictory emotions it can set off. About 10 years ago I took a tour with some social justice colleagues such as you’ve described, we went into Khayelitsha and I suspect it’s only become worse. We were all very conflicted about it but our host assured us that it generated income for the families and creche we visited…I’m still not comfortable about having donate, so look forward to your eventual conclusion beyond shame. One group you should try and contact is the trade union central COSATU – they are very thoughtful about social issues and very active in communities and of course they were major players in ending apartheid…the general website contact is but you may want to be persistent in calling their local offices directly and explaining your research and asking if you could meet with a researcher or community organizer. I assure you, you couldn’t meet nicer people. Good luck with all this – it’s fascinating!
    On a lighter issue, my grandmother from Wales was very fond of sheep’s head and considered it a treat…I think it has a lot to do with poverty that some people can afford what the rest of us might throw away but that doesn’t mean it can’t be tasty and nourishing.


    • Thank you so much for your comment – it is very interesting to hear that you experienced similar feelings while in Khayelitsha. I will certainly get in touch with COSATU – I would love to speak with some community groups and I hope that they will want to give me some feedback. And I love the story about your grandmother 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: Touring the Township (and playing Andrea) | Mis Tourist

  8. Pingback: Reflections on Township Tourism III | Mis Tourist

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