One little weekend in Cape Town

IMG_3231 (2)I have a LOT to say about this past weekend I spent touristing in Cape Town. I have some reflections I’d like to work through about the poverty that I encountered there as well as the heartbreaking history that has been so beautifully presented and honoured. For the time being, however, I’d like to simply share what an awesome range of fun you can get up to as a tourist in Cape Town.

I started off with a fantastic lunch of tapas, a glass of lovely red wine, and a coffee for $7.25. I’m trying really hard not to be the kind of person who takes pictures of their food (even though I want to so badly!) but I did feel compelled to take a photo of their very groovy bathroom:IMG_3039

Next came my visit to the District Six museum. Despite having consistently heard about how wonderful this exhibit is, I was wholly unprepared for how beautiful and tragic and noble the space is. I’m not going to spend too long on it here, as I want to give it its own post, so I’ll just say that District Six was an area of Cape Town that community leaders declared to be a ‘Whites Only’ zone in the 1960s and proceeded to evict and bulldoze the homes and businesses of some 60,000 mostly coloured residents. This went on until the 1980s and the international community was so outraged that nearly the entire site remains undeveloped to this day. The museum space practically seethes with the trauma of having your community torn apart and scattered to the winds.


In this photo you can see the map of District 6 on the floor, all of the street signs that were saved following the destruction, photos of former residents, and a banner signed by some of the survivors.


I was really struck by the family photos – a lot of them reminded me of the snap shots of my mom and my aunt when they were kids.


The museum is housed in a former church in District Six that became a meeting place for anti-apartheid activists.


I was in the museum for a long time. I will go back. But more about that later.

Because you seemingly can’t do anything as a tourist in this part of South Africa (at least I can’t) that isn’t vaguely schizophrenic, I went to an old colonial mansion next.IMG_3154

Not much to say about this one. It was mansiony. There was some art inside. Moving on.

Dinner was next, at the very cool rooftop patio of The Grand Daddy on Long Street. Also, a very funky little spot. There were about seven Airstream trailers up on this roof. How on earth did they get up there?IMG_3179

After dinner, I retired to my lovely Hout Bay room and this viewThis is the view from the guesthouse I'm staying in this weekend )

On to day two, which sees me venturing to Table Mountain to ride the cable car to the top. Apparently it’s a must do. Were you at Table Mountain this past Saturday? If not you missed out, because I think everyone else on the planet was there. I took one look at the lineup and skedaddled right back down the mountain. Another time.

Instead I went to the Company Gardens, a very beautiful garden in the center of town that used to be the vegetable garden for the colonial settlement. It has trees like this:IMG_3293

Then I went to the Bo Kaap, the Malay settlement that also has a wonderful history and culture that I’m looking forward to learning more about.IMG_3257


Can we talk about this car?


Seriously, I kind of want to stalk the owner and force him or her to be friends with me.

Next up: Greenmarket square. This is where lots of the arts and crafts vendors gather and there are always lots of kids’ groups singing and dancing for the tourists. This is what it sounded like on Saturday:


The dancers take a break to listen to the singing


What could possibly be next you ask? Why it’s the Carnival of course! The Cape Town Carnival just began a few years ago and it is a big hit drawing huge crowds of people.


I think this girl was the queen of the waste collectors



The firefighters waiting their turn. Why don’t they have shirts on?

Turns out that the Carnival is mostly a parade, did you know this? Having been thoroughly traumatized by the Timmins, Ontario Santa Claus parades of my youth (I’ll give you a minute to process that one), I am not so much a fan of parades. Home to bed!

Sunday started off with the Hout Bay Market, which is a very chic little market in an old fish processing warehouse on the waterfront. I thought I was in Portland.IMG_3330IMG_3331IMG_20160313_121042781[1]

The rest of the day I wandered around the city mostly, but I did manage to finally find some African food!! Okay, I’ve already broken my promise about photos of food – but African food!! I never thought I’d be so happy to see ugali (only here it’s mealie pap, and I think they might even put salt in it because it is delicious!).IMG_20160312_173119552[1]

And I ended the day by going to listen to the vespers at the very imposing and glorious St. George’s Cathedral at the top of Company Garden.


My kind of church

Finally, I checked myself into this very cool, old (I’m guessing former fleabag) hotel just off Long Street. It had a distinctly Overlooky vibe to it, and I will definitely be back there 🙂IMG_3346IMG_3349

Okay, sorry I know that was a lot of content – I just wanted to share all the fun adventures that one person can get up to in a weekend in Cape Town! Don’t worry, I’ll be back to my overly introspective critiquy self soon enough 😉

Unrest on Campus

As I was preparing myself for this trip in the fall of 2015, I was saddened and horrified to encounter a number of news stories about violent protests erupting on university campuses throughout South Africa (don’t tell my mom). Some of the issues include rising tuition fees, the use of Africaans as a mandatory teaching language, and allegations of racism. All of these factors have resulted in inequitable access to higher education for Black South Africans.

Violent Protests Force S.A. Universities to close.

Edwin tells me that a number of campuses remain closed. When I asked about the violence, the senseless destruction of university facilities, and was there not an avenue to have conversations about these things, he suggested that perhaps people were (justifiably?) frustrated after decades of seemingly fruitless conversations.

Yesterday as I tried to leave the library, I noticed that a large metal door had been partially lowered over the main entrance and that a man was shouting outside demanding admittance. The security guard escorted myself and some other students out through a back door.IMG_20160309_123553408_HDR (2)(sorry about the crappy photo quality – I only had my phone on me)

Does your university library have a giant metal gate that can close over the entrance? I don’t think mine even has security guards.

A number of young black African men and women were gathered in the courtyard below, while many white onlookers peered down from the overpasses. When I asked one student what was going on he irritably muttered something about ‘black workers.’IMG_20160309_123520948[1]

I went and sat on the steps for a while (after the speaker invited her white family to join them below) and tried to figure out what was going on. I was very moved by the passion of the speakers in demanding justice for the 150 workers who had been fired following protests the previous fall (there have been no displays of violence on this campus) and for pay and opportunity equity for all university workers. I found the signs that the participants were holding (including “70% of land in the hands of 13% of the population” and “No justice for Black students at White universities”) to be particularly evocative. I later found out that the university workers had joined in solidarity in with the students protesting colonial statues on campus. There were apparently some clashes earlier between the students and the private security forces the university had hired for this planned protest.Stellenbosch

I was also particularly moved by the singing of the people gathered. Ever since Edwin told me about his audio mapping project (Getting down to work), I have become interested in capturing the sounds around me (and have added an audio file of the Camps Bay waterfront to the Touring the Township post). Luckily I have started carrying my audio recorder around with me (although not my camera -grr) and this is what I captured:


I came home at the end of the day brimming with positivity and energy following this experience. I was inspired by the stand that the students and workers continue to take to confront the inequities at the university. My roommate, however, had a very different take on the issue. I guess she got stuck in the student life center for a couple of hours when they went into lock down, and was outraged that these ‘riots’ had wreaked havok with her day. I countered that there were no riots – I was there and what I saw was a peaceful protest.

“Well they were swearing!”

“Okay, but I’d probably be swearing too. I think people have a reason to be upset, and I think it’s cool that they’re taking a stand for what’s right.”

This then deteriorated into a diatribe about ‘these people’ and I had to leave the room. Maybe she’s right – maybe everyone has had enough with the disruptions and the dissatisfaction and would just like to see things quietly carry on. I don’t know, since I’ve only just arrived here and don’t have an appreciation what things were like this past fall, or at any point in the past for that matter. It does seem very clear that she and I are approaching the issue from drastically different starting points.


Getting down to work

February 25, 2016

I am back in the botanical garden at the university, a magnificent green oasis in the middle of the city (even though, really, the rest of the city is quite lush and green). It is so much cooler in here, and even though you can still hear the traffic and the university girls giggling on the street, mainly the sounds are of leaves rustling and birds singing and water flowing. I have found a seat under some spectacular 40-foot palms and I feel very removed from the 401 and winter.


The Botanical Garden

I had the great pleasure of meeting my local supervisor Edwin yesterday, who is delightful and I only regret that I did not arrive sooner in order to get to spend more time with him before he leaves on sabbatical (academics – do they ever work?). He showed me around our department at the university and introduced me to some of the people who may be able to help me out with my research, and he also showed me some of the key spots on campus. He then took me on a driving tour of the city, pointing out certain neighbourhoods and areas of interest. As he drove, he explained a lot of the historical and socio-political context of the university and of the city, which I think will be invaluable for me to at least have the outlines of. He told me so much, but I’ll try to draw out some of the key points that stuck in my mind.


One of the buildings on campus

This university is still struggling with its ties to the apartheid movement and its segregationist past. There have been protests, sometimes violent, against the colonial legacies of universities – including using Africaans as a teaching language – throughout South Africa in recent months, and this university has been no exception. According to Edwin, the school is still struggling with its historical legacy and diversifying its population. When you look around campus, it is VERY white and Edwin says that there is a serious lack of Black people in positions of power as well. He took us through a part of campus that had once been a coloured* neighbourhood, but once apartheid came into effect all the residents were evicted and moved to the newly-established coloured neighbourhood (are these neighbourhoods known as Townships as well?  I have no idea) and the land was appropriated by the state, then given to the university. The former residents were never compensated.


The Slave Houses on campus

Today there is a plaque commemorating that event in the entrance way of one of the buildings on campus, but it was done by the university administration, and Edwin speculates as to what the memorial might have looked like and represented had it been done in collaboration with the community. He pointed out some beautiful old houses in this part of campus, known as the ‘slave houses,’ that used to be home to the people who were relocated, and which are now quite posh and expensive addresses.

We drove through the coloured neighbourhood next, which appeared to me to be quite a lovely, if a little ramshackle, neighbourhood, like a 50s post-war community that’s just a titch rundown. There are little cottages with postage-stamp lawns, and none of the big electrified fences that characterize the neighbourhood that I am currently staying in in suburbia. Here, Edwin told me of a really interesting audio mapping project of the city that he had worked on. In this neighbourhood, for instance, the audio recordings would include the sounds of children playing, whereas in neighbourhoods like mine all you would hear would be the whir of the electric fences and the pop-up lawn sprinklers (although, to be fair, in my neighbourhood you would also hear the constant yapping of the dogs next door).

After this, we continued on towards Uluntu**. Edwin explained that when the Black people were moved out to this Township roads and other infrastructure were built, but the population outgrew these sections and soon expanded into areas that are unplanned and unserviced. Esme, one of the PhD students in the department and someone I am very much hoping to work closely with, is working on a community-based mapping project to start to document and legitimize some of these areas.

As Edwin drove, we crested a hill and I got my first glimpse of Uluntu. The Township is built high into the hillside, thousands of tiny little corrugated huts, that to my eyes look like the little dilapidated shacks where you would go to clean your fish in Northern Ontario, all crammed together pell-mell, all the way up the hillside. Many of the homes have been painted in bright colours, and the usual hornets’ nest of electrical wires and TV antennae crisscross the rooftops.

Edwin drove us into the neighbourhood, pointing out the soulless cinderblock and cement buildings that are the first we pass as we enter – government-built housing, built around the time of the end of apartheid, and sometimes guesthouses. Perhaps I could stay in one for a time. As depressing as they look, I think it would be invaluable for me to spend some time living in the community, rather than always helicoptering in and out.

I asked about the shortage of government houses – there were a few more that we passed, but not many, and they all looked shitty. Edwin explained that there was much excitement and hope for the future of the ‘Rainbow Nation’ at the end of apartheid, and throughout Mandela’s rule, but it soon became obvious that many wounds were too deeply entrenched to heal overnight. The deep-seated racial segregation and the mistrust between the artificially-constructed racial categorizations could not just be said to be over. At the same time, the high cost of improving living standards mixed with rampant government corrupting led to a stalling, if not a complete standstill, in efforts to improve living conditions here or desegregate the communities. So here we are.

The road we took through the community is still quite good, and despite the smallness of the buildings and their rudimentary construction materials, I did not see any evidence of squalor or misery. Poverty, yes. But I wonder what life is like down the side streets that I glimpsed, those parts of the community that are not accessible to any looky-loo who wishes to drive through. Maybe these buildings on the main thoroughfare are an act of resistance, with their brightly painted facades. I asked Edwin if people minded our driving through like this, just to take a look. He said he didn’t think so.

Edwin said, later over cappuccino, that Esme’s mapping project could potentially make the community more accessible to tourists, that they would be able to go in and explore Uluntu and its local art installations without having to rely on a local guide. I wondered at that, as most tourists who participate in these types of tours (to my understanding) justify it in the sense that the tours create local employment opportunities and give money back to the community. If you are not on a tour, are you just gawping at another person’s poverty? Edwin’s response was that there is value in the experience itself, that people learn from it and come away changed, that it is an experience that they will carry with them forever. While I agree with this perspective, I still have to wonder at the question which remains at the heart of my research: at what cost to the people in the community?


*The distinctions between Black, White, and Coloured citizens are a residue of apartheid and are still prevalent in people’s language. I struggle about when I ought and ought not to capitalize these words, and would welcome any guidance in this area. I do not mean to offend any sensibilities in using these words, and only present them in the ways in which they are used here, which strikes me as having no valuation attached.
**Uluntu is the Xhosa world for ‘community,’ which is what I am choosing to call this Township here.


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.