IMG_2740Feb 23, 2016

In my wanderings so far today I have seen a Burger King, a KFC, and the inevitable McDonald’s. Burger King is now serving breakfast.

The town itself is very beautiful, from what I have been able to see thus far. The streets and gardens are overflowing with large trees and flowering plants. The sky is the clearest blue and there is a range of craggy brown mountains off in the distance. The buildings are all white-washed in what I am assuming is an old Dutch-colonial style. There is little to no garbage in the street.IMG_2741

I am acutely conscious of my presence and appearance and mannerisms. To appear too standoffish, to not make eye contact or smile at someone as I pass makes me feel rude, snotty, condescending. At the same time, if I do smile am I invading a person’s privacy, perhaps their right to hate me? Is it being too forward, implying an invitation where there is none? Does having all these worries and awareness make me a racist?

In wandering about town, at first glace it appears that little must have changed since apartheid, at least as regards the physical nature of the city center. The street signs are all in Africaans, occasionally also in English. The wide boulevards ¬†are lined with expensive-looking shops – Thule, and lingerie store (I find it amusing that I had to look up the spelling of that word), a bicycle shop, consultancy firms, and lots of upscale cafes, wine shops, and bistros. It doesn’t feel unlike the touristy drags I have been down in and around Sarasota, Florida.

IMG_2742This is the only sign I have seen thus far written in a language other than Africaans or English :-/

I am acutely aware of not wanting to be perceived as a Africaaner. I don’t want to be like them, privileged on the backs of others. But who the hell am I to judge anyone? Canadians are no better. We just pretend that we are not racist, perhaps because we have been allowed to render invisible the people we have supplanted. Perhaps I am worse, because it is my relative privilege that has allowed me to be here, sitting in this beautiful tropical garden, writing about my big feelings about white privilege; it is this imbalance of power that has allowed me to travel to this place in safety and comfort, and to not feel too badly about the 5 caches of valuables that I have scattered throughout my apartment.

My first stop this morning was the Tourist Information Office. I found a couple of pamphlets about Township tours, but very little information. I asked the woman working there about medium-length accommodation rentals, but she said I would be better off checking the ads in the weekly paper that comes out on Thursday. I wanted to ask about guesthouse stays in the Township but I didn’t have the nerve. Instead, I asked what she knew about local ‘reality’ tours. She didn’t seem too friendly about my question, saying there wasn’t anything that they supported there. She did give me a name of a contact person to get in touch with with, though. She said that there are two Townships here, neither of which I caught the name of. One of these is “more colourful. The other is more African. Where I live.” She was not friendly as she said this. There is no question in my mind that this first lady I spoke with, who works in tourism, is not a fan of tours in her neighbourhood.

First Impressions

Welcome to South Africa


February 23, 2016

“This is scary, and I am scared. But I can do this.”

I woke up in the middle of the night with this phrasing in my head. In the midst of a fitful, post-flight sleep I decided that this would be my new mantra. Sure, this new adventure is scary, but I have done lots of scarycool things before and have loved all of my adventures.

Only now that I’m fully awake and can hear the sounds of the morning, the unfamiliar birds chirping and the traffic roaring past on the highway – commuters on their way into their jobs in the city – I’m not sure that this is scary. I’m taking very seriously the warnings to not walk alone at night, to exercise caution around ATMs, and to ensure that the burglar bars are locked tight at all times. However, this part of the country, this town, this neighbourhood feels more like a cross between Beverly Hills and the Okanagan Valley than like any part of Africa I have ever been to before.IMG_2771

The highway that the taxi took from the airport last night is a beautiful 4-lane road complete with streetlights and overpasses and nary a pothole to be seen. The other cars on the highway all appeared to be Mercedes’ and Land Rovers and Toyota Highlanders, all shiny and new. There was one beat up looking pickup on the side of the road, possibly a farm truck, but apart from that there was no evidence of battered cars or even crappy public transit buses crammed to the rafters with people on their way home from work. I saw one public transit bus on the highway – it was nicer than the city buses in Guelph.

I picked up my apartment keys at a private college, a beautiful old colonial building on a leafy tree-lined boulevard. Once settled in my short-term AirBNB apartment, I went and picked up some groceries from the supermarket in the plaza around the corner, which also features a fish mart, an organic health spa, and a wood oven pizza bistro.IMG_20160302_191941810_HDR

The shopping plaza

What does it say about me that I’m disappointed in this state of affairs? That despite the fact that I was not looking forward to again facing the challenges of what I have come to associate with living in Africa, that I’m just a little let down with how easy yesterday’s travel and set up was. What does it say about me as a poverty advocate and researcher that I am disappointed to find my own living conditions well beyond anything I have ever before experienced?


My garden

To be fair, I think I could have chosen to live this sort of life in Dar es Salaam, to live behind high walls and never have encountered local people apart from cashiers and cab drivers. The fact that I chose not to live that way (and I probably couldn’t have afforded it anyway, let’s be honest) probably exposed me to more daily ‘challenges’ than I would have faced otherwise, but it also allowed me to live IN the city, and not in a fishbowl.

I could be wrong about this, but I feel like the difference might be that in Dar the white communities were the enclaves, and that as soon as you emerged you were in the bustling, chaotic metropolis with all of the noisiness, pollution, industry, and poverty that that implies. Maybe that’s why Dar doesn’t have any ‘reality’ tours – the whole city is reminiscent of a slum (I mean that in the nicest way possible). Maybe that’s why tourists don’t like to stay in Dar.

This town (based on my vast experience of having been driven through in a taxi from the airport yesterday afternoon) feels almost like the polar opposite: it is the Black Africans who are living in the fishbowl, allowed to emerge to go to work, but otherwise relegated to behind the fences that have been built. Don’t get me wrong, there is a fence around my house too – only mine is to keep people out, not to keep them in. At any rate, there may not even be any fence, but I think the metaphor holds. The Black people are kept in and the White people and the tourists will occasionally choose to wander through their neighbourhoods to marvel at the ‘reality’ of life in this city.


My big electric fence

None of this is news of course, and none of it is based on my actual experiences here yet, just the early morning musings of someone who has done too much reading on the subject. I worry that I’m sounding a little bit like the American blogger of whom I was so critical a few years back, who wrote that she¬†needed to ‘check her privilege’ after a luxurious vacation at the Kloof, and so went on a Township tour to get a dose of ‘reality.’ I’m worried that I can have little integrity and rapport with the people that I hope to work with if I choose to live behind walls designed to keep them out. How do I balance my (perceived) safety with my (perceived) integrity, or is that a really stupid question to even be pondering? I worry about being a good poverty researcher when I live in wealth and privilege. I worry about how the community will appear to my eyes when I live so far removed from it. And I worry that people in the community will never come to trust me in any small measure – and why should they?

I got a glimpse of the sprawling Township near the airport yesterday. From the highway I could only see the rooftops and the tangle of electrical wires and TV antennae, although occasionally some houses had been built on a rise so I could see their facades. The community was bordered by a high coral-pink wall, which in Canada would have been considered a noise barricade from the highway, and may also serve the same purpose here. There were some small red-roofed houses within that I could tell were government-built homes, but overwhelmingly the roofs were of corrugated tin. What struck me the most was the imponderable size of the community – it seemed to go on for miles along the side of the highway – although this tells me nothing about how far it stretched in the other direction. I think I read somewhere that 1 million people live there, and having now seen its boundary I don’t doubt that estimate.


I also saw some small jumbles of homes outside the walls of the Township that looked like truly wretched abodes – tiny little hovels of patched together tin and canvas sacking. What must these residents think of all the shiny cars that race past them everyday?


It is really nice to be able to drink the tap water.