Sunday chill, Township style

I am no longer a reverse-vampire. I have to say, having a car makes all of the difference in the world in living at Mama’s in the Township. I was renting a car here and there to get to meetings, and it just gives such a measure of freedom that my Dutch roomie and I decided to go halfsies and keep the car until she goes home next week. And yes, driving a standard on the wrong side of the road does make me feel cool.

Walking around here is really unsafe. The family we stay with worries about our safety a lot, and most of the people I know here have been robbed. I had lunch last week with a man who had been stabbed twice on the weekend. No one here is free. Looking over your shoulder and being worried about theft and violence is part of the everyday. It sucks.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

But that, of course, is only the crappiest part of living in the Township. I am much happier and having way more fun here than anywhere I’ve lived since arriving in SA. I’m making friends. I’m spending lots of time at Amazink and starting to feel like a welcomed temporary member of the community. And there are lots and lots of fun parts of life here, not the least of which is the amazing music (which will get a post all of its own one of these days when I get around to it).

IMG_20160513_212803443

I have a friend here called Patrick who took me out on Sunday to experience ‘real’ Township life. We went to a shebeen – a tin-shack pub tucked into a narrow alleyway with a pool table and a jukebox mounted on the wall. From there, we were invited to his friends’ house for the rest of the evening. The front door stood wide open and people and kids and dogs wandered in and out continually. The music was blasting and people took turns gathering some cash and darting out to the shebeen for more of the giant 1 liter bottles of Castle beer that stood lined up on the floor for anyone to help themselves.

DSCN0069

Our hosts got me a glass to drink out of. According to Patrick it is not okay for me to drink out of a bottle after a man has, despite these all being communal bottles. I’m not sure if those rules apply to all women or just me. The lady of the house dug out a lovely crystal tumbler and washed and dried it thoroughly before handing it to me. At first I was embarrassed – I don’t want any special treatment! But I quickly realized that I would do the same thing for a guest that I wanted to make welcome in my home. That little house was full of laughing and singing and dancing. No pretensions. Just a ‘Sunday chill’ with neighbours.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Patrick made me promise repeatedly that I would publish that he is a Legend. And he is. He took wonderful care of me the whole day and made me feel welcome in a part of Township life that I would never have known about otherwise. He treats me a bit like porcelain, which we’re going to have to work on, but I’m pretty stoked to be hanging out on the other side of the fence for a change.

Patrick is a Legend. Even if he wouldn’t let me take his photo.

 

Reflections on Race

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Homes in the informal settlement in the township

I’m feeling very conflicted about what I’m coming to lean about tourism in the townships. I still feel that it’s wrong somehow and I can’t shake that. But all of the people that I’m working with are telling me how good it can be for the community. Everyone seems to be in agreement that the stereotypical notion of tourists embarking on a bus and riding throughout the township with their noses pressed against the glass is wrong. Several people have made reference to the zoo analogy. And yet it seems that everyone feels they are involved in some other form of tourism – that they are doing it properly and in a way that is good for the community.

DSCN0071

A rooftop garden. Income generation, nutrition, and education all rolled into one, funded by the NGO that is funded by tourism.

Prior to living in South Africa I had never really given much thought to the concept of race. Maybe more than most privileged white people in Southern Ontario, maybe less. Here it seems to be all I think about. Why oh why did I spend so much time reading about postcolonial theory and not a word of critical race theory (that was for Rich 😉 )? Not that CRT would really help me wrap my head around the complexities of race here. I could live here a lifetime and never really understand, not from a white person’s perspective nor from a black person’s. So comes the question that I’ve begun to ask in my research: Is township tourism good or bad for racial relations in South Africa?

DSCN0105

Tourists and seniors interacting with one another at the seniors’ center in the township, also funded by the NGO

DSCN0106

The man I met with yesterday, who is a tour guide with an NGO that uses tourism to fund dozens of community development initiatives in several townships, believes that the answer is an unqualified Yes. The tours bring people together to share their humanity and learn about one another. This value is so central to what they do in his organization that over the holidays in June and December when many, many people return to visit family in the Eastern Cape, they don’t run any tours at all. Their tours are not about shacks and squalor, but about people learning about one another.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A tourist from France with the daughter of one of the tour guides. He told me that he always brings the tourists to see his home because they are curious about what it is like to live in a shack.

Another tour guide told me that while his tours do not directly support the community, many people who learn about the township through the tour will return as volunteers or will start NGOs or will make donations to the community. One German couple sent back many thousands (if not millions) of rands to transform the tinshack educare (pre-school) center into a multi-story facility that would not be out of place in my home community in Guelph. And who can forget the ‘sheeps’ head lady‘?

DSC06141

Her life and the lives of hundreds of others are changed for the better in a very real way because of tourism. So why is there still a bug in my butt about it?

I ask about dependency. What does it do to a community to embrace tourism because the white people who come might give them stuff? I’m told that people believe that since the tourists are in a position to help, and they want to, why shouldn’t they?

DSCN0267

A tourist wanted to help out after visiting the seniors’ center. He contracted another organization in the township to make blankets for all of the seniors to help them through the coming winter.

And yet…

I went to the Africa Day celebration at Amazink yesterday. My friend Bongani led the singing of the national anthem, because his “friends from team Canada”  were present 🙂 And there were lots of speeches, lots of which I didn’t understand. But again the anger shone through, loud and clear. The anger and pain of the elders as they spoke about their horrific experiences under apartheid. And I mean horrific – reading about it in no way prepares you to hear firsthand about what people had to endure. And the young people are angry about the lack of change that they see having been accomplished since 1994. In these black spaces I truly feel that no matter what is being said or presented or even believed, learning about the Other will not be enough to undo the damage that has been done here. The distrust and the hurt just run too deep.

DSCF2050

My neighbour the barber. He was given a donation from a tourist to buy the shipping container that now houses his barbershop

I’ll keep digging at it. As I said to my friend yesterday, if these things were simple or painless they wouldn’t make much of a study. I feel that my head and my heart and my imagination are hardly big enough to contain all that I am learning and struggling to understand here, but I’ll keep at it.

Coming home is going to be very difficult.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

*As before, please be aware that all of the photos published on this page were taken by the study participants, and the participants and the people who appear in the photos have given full informed consent to have their photos published and used for the purposes of this study. I would respectfully ask that other people not reproduce these photos for other purposes.

Reflections on Township Tourism III

DSC06163

I have finally begun collecting some data from my participants (yay!), and as expected (once again) nothing has gone as expected. I thought that I was being clear in asking participants in the study if they would take pictures in the community, with the cameras that were given (and once again, many many thanks to all you beautiful folks who donated your cameras!!!), of what tourism is and what tourism could or ought  to be. I’ve left the question deliberately open-ended in order to allow for a multiplicity of responses and perspectives that I could not have anticipated as an outsider to the community.

The first woman I met with arranged for me to speak with several people in the community who had experiences with tourists, including the ‘sheeps’ head lady,’ a man who sells arts and crafts to the tourists, and someone who lives in one of the old residences. She also brought along her friend to photograph me as we made our way through the township. Hm. I was really just going there to give her a camera, but we can roll with this.

DSC06117

The ‘sheeps’ head lady’ tending her fire

DSC06153

Interviewing the ‘sheeps’ head lady.’ She told me that a couple from ‘Swederland,’ a couple that she does not remember meeting, decided to pay the school fees for her two children after having met her on a tour. Her children have been attending private school now since 2011.

DSC06171

The front room of the apartment of the man who sells arts and crafts to the tourists is crammed to the ceiling with his wares.

The second man I spoke with took it upon himself to conduct a full community survey. I really hope he didn’t think I asked him to do all that work, but awesome! He conducted interviews with dozens of people around town, and sent out opinion polls on Facebook and What’s App that buzzed with responses the entire time we spoke. He had even typed and printed out four pages of responses from the interviews that he conducted in the community! Again, really not what I was anticipating, but so cool!

I have to say, I was feeling a little dismayed at what I perceived to be a lack of criticality regarding the socio-cultural impacts of tourism among the people I spoke with. Maybe this was due in part to the fact that one of my main methods of meeting participants was through engaging with the tours myself as a client? Or maybe I am completely wrong-headed about the whole thing – the financial impact of the tours is very evident, and maybe this is enough to make them be wholly valued by the communities? Maybe I’m just being too pushy with my own perspective that the tours can be harmful?

DSCF2037

This man, who has a physical disability, spends quite a bit of time outside the local liquor store, which is across from where many of the tourists park their cars. He has taken it upon himself to protect the cars, chasing away would-be robbers and vandals. For this he receives no ‘tip-out’ from the tour guides, and the tourists have no idea the role he plays in keeping their valuables safe.

But, then I heard another tourist say that ‘Everyone back home should go on a tour like this’ and I felt all of my insides clench. I’m sorry, but I just can’t get on board with the notion that we all ought to go look at other people’s poverty for our own edification. And I saw repeated examples of both tourists and the guides reinforcing negative and harmful stereotypes about the Township residents, for instance that young African fathers are not present in their children’s lives. I went back to my proposal in search of a little guidance and grounding, and re-encountered this gem of a video:

Camps Bay Reverse Township Tour

So it is not just me.

One man told me that people in the poorer parts of the Township really want tourists to come through because it means so for much for them to have ‘superior’ people walking through the same streets that they walk. When I prodded for an explanation, he told me that the white people are the superior ones, and that some people feel that to be seen by white people, to have a chance to interact with them, means that you are a person too, it means that you exist. Holy Fuck. Please bear in mind that is this (hopefully obviously) not what I think, nor is it what he thinks, but rather what he thinks other people think (I think). Tourism is not responsible for the racial disparities in this country, but hearing stories like that doesn’t make me think that it’s helping a whole ton either.

DSCF2021

This lady owns a shebeen in the Township. She doesn’t like seeing the white tourists walk past, because her pub is unlicensed and she is afraid that one of them will report her to the police

Another told me that some people will come to the Township to film their music videos, because it makes them look edgy and ‘fresh’ – that they pay the residents a paltry amount of money to act a certain way for the cameras – ‘thuggish’ – and that to him this was exploitative and abusive, as many of the people did not know what they were consenting to, they just saw an offer of money. Some musicians, like Skrillex for example, have come to the Township and have stayed and mentored young local artists, but to my young friend others just come and take and perpetuate negative stereotypes about the people who live there.

IMG_4552

The residents of the Township gathered to take part in a music video.

Lots of the people that I meet in my day to day tell me that they are studying tourism – I mean lots and lots of people. It’s a bit astonishing to tell you the truth. But then you see how much more money those involved in tourism are making than many other people in the community. And in parts of the community where many people struggle to make a living, you can imagine how divisive and political these imbalances can become.

DSCF2013

This young lady is studying tourism at her high school. Like many people I have spoken with, she views tourism as a field in which she has the potential to make a very good living.

Please keep in mind that I have only formally interviewed a handful of people, and have casually chatted with many others, so don’t take anything that is said here as some sort of conclusive statement about the ‘Truth’ of Township tourism – only a few early observations that have stood out in my mind. I would love any feedback from others’ experiences or opinions on the matter!

*Also please be aware that all of the photos published on this page were taken by the study participants, and the participants and the people who appear in the photos have given full informed consent to have their photos published and used for the purposes of this study. I would respectfully ask that other people not reproduce these photos for other purposes.

DSC06165

Recycling in the Township

 

Interested in reading about some of my earlier musings about the role of tourism in the Townships? Check out Touring the Township (and playing Andrea) and Reflections on Township tourism II. Thanks!

Happy Mothers’ Day from Mama’s House

Today is Mother’s Day, and a Happy Mothers’ Day to all you mums out there!  I have an incredible Mom. She is kind and caring and generous and thoughtful and funny and intelligent and a kick-ass cook. I am *some*  of those things, in very small measure. This is my Mom in one of the photos Kimberly gave me, along with my sister who is also an incredible mom.IMG_4396

(Mom is also an endlessly good sport with all the crazy nonsense I *encourage* her to do!)

I also learned, thanks to my lovely new Dutch friend, that this past Thursday was Freedom Day in the Netherlands, a day that always brings back powerful memories of my Grandmother who lived in Holland throughout the occupation.

Frank and Jopie

Frank and Jopie, looking dapper AF

My grandmother was a force of nature, incredibly brave and powerful, and one of my favourite people ever. When ever I wonder why I’m not more like my loving and gentle mother, I just think back to Jopie and am grateful that all that sass and ferocity skipped a generation 😉

On this mothers’ day I am missing my mom, and grandma, and my sisters who are also awesome moms, but I am happy to be living with this wonderful family and Mama whom I think would have gotten along with my Jopie very well 🙂

So, with gratitude and love I once again dig into The Greatest Gift courtesy of the wondrous Kimberly:IMG_4394

My mother grew up in a small town in Northern Ontario that holds a very special place in all of our hearts, not least of all because of the giant cow on the way up, and the tiny island that has been in the family for decades, where now the third generation of kids born in Canada is learning to swim and fish and be tortured by mosquitoes.IMG_4395Thank you again Kimberly, I love it!!! A big Happy Mothers’ Day to you and to all the mothers out there! xox

Poetry & Politics

IMG_4154

The arts and culture space in the Township

I had the privilege of attending the InZync Poetry Session last night at the Township’s incredible arts and culture space with Esme and the Dutch student who is also living at Mama’s. The venue was jumping, crammed full of mostly young people, white and black, all very cool and hip and arty. The line-up was pretty stellar, and included a Syrian now living in France, a Nigerian, South Africa’s Dissident Poet, South Africa’s Poet Laureate, and a number of exceptionally talented young local artists.

The caliber of the poetry was like nothing I have have ever witnessed before. Spectacular poetry. I was particularly impressed by the amateurs who performed. So, so moving and evocative and powerful. Clearly I am not a poet, because I am utterly at a loss to describe how bodily and emotionally and intellectually I was moved by their words and performances. (Obviously I forgot to bring my audio recorder, so I tried to catch some sound using the video setting on my camera).

I have had a number of conversations with various people over the past several weeks about the surprising (to me) lack of anger that I sense in many of the people I have met here. I feel that if I were living in a Township, after having been forced to leave my home community because the ruling minority decided that my part of town was ‘desirable,’ if I saw these prosperous gated communities and massive wine farms and old white people driving Bentleys and Aston Martins I would be PISSED. One incredible Mama that I met, who had been a social justice advocate at a time when her colleagues were being assassinated, told me that it takes too much energy and eats away at you to hold on to all that anger and resentment. Another incredible Mama told us about when people had to wear a large placard around their necks, known as ‘dompas‘ (literally ‘dumb pass’), any time they wanted to leave the Township to go to town; this while she hosted my dad and I for lunch in her home and laughingly encouraged me to keep trying to learn to cook chakalaka.

IMG_4391

A pink BMW convertible drives past Mama’s house in the Township

These conversations generally lead to talking about how the students are angry, and I have touched on the student protests already in a previous post, but I don’t think I have adequately expressed how PISSED they are. I got a real taste of just how angry some of the students are last night.

The poets spoke about their anger at living in townships, about having been taught a history that glorifies their colonial oppressors, about being robbed of their culture and dignity, about the stupid wine farms. About seeing white people clutch a little more tightly at their bags and edge a little further away on the sidewalk when this particular young black man approaches. There were lots of fists clenched high in solidarity and protest. There was singing and cheering. I didn’t understand all of it, as a lot of the poetry was in Xhosa, but believe me when I say that I felt it. And I know that I barely grasped a fraction of what was going on due to my total lack of understanding of what it is to be South African.

IMG_4392

In this photo you can see the white suburb on the right, wine fields, the farm manor house at the far left, and the shacks on the lower right.

At one point, a performer asked the other poet on the stage, ‘Do you hate all white people?’ as part of the dialogue in their performance. Without missing a beat, someone in the front row shouted, ‘YES!’ and the room erupted. There was laughter – the outburst didn’t feel hostile or threatening – but there were for sure a few ‘Damn straights!’ in there as well.

Now let’s put this in perspective (from my perspective): easily 40-50% of the people in that room were white. Two of the poets were white, as was the DJ. And the white poets spoke very evocatively about the need for change. In that moment I felt strongly how little some South Africans feel has been accomplished in terms of achieving racial equity. At the same time and upon further reflection, I’m fairly certain that a mixed-race crowd erupting into laughter and cheering at a statement of ‘I hate black people’ would literally be national news.

A short while later, the MC came on stage and asked that these discussions be held respectfully and without hostility. He said that these are issues that must be discussed, in spite of discomfort and awkwardness, but they must be discussed in the spirit of friendship and reconciliation. Afterwards, Esme told us just how rare these discussions really are, that honest conversations about race and all that implies, in her understanding at least, are almost taboo among many South Africans.

And did I feel guilty, standing there in the back of that room? You bet I did (thank you Catholic upbringing). Shame flooded over me when the young man talked about seeing white people grasp at their purses at his approach. I may not have pulled that exact move (I hope), but I have been guilty of wondering if certain black men in a crowd are looking for an opportunity to snatch something of mine. To be fair, my white skin stands out like a neon sign in the Township, and at any given point in time I am usually carrying enough sellable stuff to literally change a person’s life (I’m saying literally too much, but it’s true). I have also been robbed by young black men at least six times in various countries in Africa. And the family I am staying with is constantly advising against my leaving the yard alone, to the point that they come and stand on the sidewalk in front of the house to wait for the bus with me (yes, it feels exactly like kindergarten). On Sunday afternoon I wanted to bring something to a Mama who lives half a block away and had to be accompanied by Mama’s daughter and three little kids. Are they acting in an overabundance of caution? Probably. And is it unfair to the residents of this community, who have been nothing but kind and welcoming to me? Absolutely. But guess what the narrative becomes if something bad happens to me or any other visitor to the Township? What then gets told of what is ‘true’ about this community?

At any rate, last night’s experience at InZync is not one I will soon forget. It has given me a lot to ponder about race, rage, and the powerfully painful legacies of colonialism (one of which, of course, is my presence here).