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).