Sunset on the Ottawa River. Canada is pretty too 🙂
I have been back home in Canada now for 3 weeks and I have struggled with what to do with this blog. I have thoroughly enjoyed the creative writing aspect of it and have loved engaging with other bloggers and readers from around the world, and I think I have benefited hugely from having the opportunity to share and reflect on all of the moral and social complexities that I engaged with over the course of my time in South Africa. But how do I justify maintaining a travel blog from my couch (okay, Sam’s couch)? Do I still get to call myself Mis Tourist? How to gauge the potential interest of future audiences in reading about my exciting adventures reading Derrida in the windowless basement of the campus library?
*Sigh.* 2016-2017 is going to be awesome (insert sarcastic tone here).
On the plus side, I have had a lovely few weeks reconnecting with friends and family in Guelph, Georgian Bay, Rideau Ferry, and the Ottawa Valley.
Adorable neffies on Georgian Bay
Full moon in Rideau Ferry
I have been back to ‘reality’ this week (although I still haven’t summoned the strength to make it into the office), and I have been working on my presentation for next week’s Critical Tourism Studies conference in Huntsville. My presentation topic is on what I have learned through my practice of keeping a blog as part of my reflexive practice in my dissertation research.
What have I learned?
I confess I don’t know, which is why I’m writing this posting rather than putting together a really mind-blowing presentation at the moment.
I had three defined objectives at the outset of keeping this blog. They were:
As a practice of critical self-reflexivity;
As a site of meditation and reflection, and;
As a site to trouble and grapple with dominant discourses of “Third World,” “ethical,” “reality,” and “responsible” tourism in the Majority World.
I must admit I’m not sure I accomplished any of that, although I have felt that the practice of writing for an audience and anticipating feedback has been supportive to my own well-being. I do feel very grateful for all of the wonderful feedback that I have gotten over the past several months, in terms of other people sharing their experiences and feelings on the issues that I have been attempting to understand.
I think my problem is that it is hard for me to express in presentation (read: impressive academic) form just what keeping this blog has meant to me, and what I have learned along the way. My intention was to create a forum where people could engage in dialogue and trouble their own uncertainties related to tourism and poverty and the places where they intersect. I hope I have done so, and I hope that I can continue to do so from sunny downtown Guelph.
I should get back to it (although I am also contemplating going for a run on the treadmill – this is how bad my procrastination angst has gotten), but thanks for letting me ramble on a bit. I do hope to keep having stories to post, especially as I start getting back into my data and reflecting on what it all means. I still have hundreds of photos to go through too, and I look forward to sharing those as well and hearing what you think.
And, in case you were wondering, 10 year-olds make the best welcome home surprises 😉
Oh, and before I go, my last photograph of South Africa before I headed off to the airport. I’ll be back!
Beaded jewelry made by the women at the women’s center is sold to the tourists and the income generated is then used to support the other initiatives of the center, including providing hot food to others in the community and helping people with HIV/AIDS access medication.
I am in the process of transcribing the audio recordings from my interviews at the moment. For those of you who have not had the pleasure of experiencing this special form of hell, I envy you. For those of you who have told me about your own tortuous run through this mill, I now feel you.
That being said, the cool part of transcribing is that it allows you to really, really hear what people are telling you, free from the distraction of thinking forward to your next question or wondering if any of what a person is telling you is actually going to be helpful in the end. Helpful for me of course, because as researcher it is my universe that is central :-/. It is amazing to me how much I have missed of what people are actually saying to me because my head has been wrapped up in other gunk.
Thank goodness for transcribing.
As I listen to my conversations, I wonder if I have actually spoken about my research methodology on here. I learned something cool about my chosen methodology the other day, in conversation with 6 women involved with a women’s skills development program in the Township. My methodology is PhotoVoice: I ask participants to take photos related to tourism and then to tell me about why they took that particular photograph. Here is one that was shared with me the other day:
Taking photos of ‘tourism’ in the township
I looked at this and said “Is she taking a selfie?” and everyone laughed. The woman explained that she took this photo because to her it represented all of the opportunities to learn new skills and have new experiences that tourists bring. If I hadn’t come on tour and met them, they would not now be having this chance to participate in my research and get to develop their photography skills. Pretty cool.
This is the neat thing about this methodology. I looked at this picture and thought, meh. Then I got the story and it took on a whole new meaning, a whole new life. Likewise, the photos open up avenues for conversation and understanding that I would never have known or thought to pursue without their being introduced via the photos.
This is a car wash:
Car wash in the Township
The lady who took this photo explained that a tourist came to visit the Township and met with the young guys who were trying to get their car wash business off the ground. He went with them and bought a secondhand vacuum, the zinc siding, and a shipping container to store everything in. Now they have a successful and sustainable source of income. Long-term impact of tourism.
One of the people I spoke with gave me the old ‘hand-up rather than hand-out’ analogy. Tourists are in a position to give people a little, or a big, nudge that can help them get their initiatives off the ground.
A Mama doing bead work at the women’s center
The lady who took this photo explained that she posed this woman doing bead work out front of the women’s center because she wanted to represent how she had once been, sitting out front of her house beading with no job and no prospects. Then an American tourist came and created the women’s center (which, incidentally, is home to the groovy community garden I wrote about earlier) and now she has a job and a place to go and be with friends and give back to the community every day. Big impact.
A lady cooking sheep innards at her home in the Township
The woman who took this photo explained that this lady, her neighbour, doesn’t have a job and is trying to support herself and her family by cooking and selling sheep innards. She wants the tourists to come to her home and buy her food, to have a unique experience to try some local food and help her make some money. As much as I’m *enjoying* my adventures in meatland, I don’t think I’m quite ready for that one, but maybe some others will dig it.
For the women at this center there is no downside to tourism (I asked). The tourists give them an opportunity to learn new skills and have new experiences. And there is always the possibility that one tourist will offer to pay for a child’s school fees or help buy the tools to help get one’s business off the ground. Tourism will always involve imbalances of power, I don’t think there’s any way around that. Maybe, for these women in this community, tourism is filling a gap that their government has not been able to fill in terms of helping to provide pathways out of poverty. Maybe.
Donated children’s books in the women’s center. It was explained to me that this lady likes to keep the books neat and tidy so that the tourists will see that they respect and value their donations.
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.
The ‘sheeps’ head lady’ tending her fire
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.
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?
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
I realize that I haven’t posted in a while, but I have been in Thailand for the past 10 days and I have found it difficult to find the time. I realize that this is meant to be a blog about my experiences in South Africa, but it’s also a travel blog so what the heck. It’s also my travel blog, so I think I should be able to do what ever I want with it 😉
I am here for the Tourism Paradoxes conference, which is a small gathering of people who like to think about tourism and the ways that it shapes our world. I presented about my work in South Africa which was very well received and I got lots of great questions and suggestions for how to engage with shame productively in my work. And Hazel Tucker was there! Hazel Tucker came to my presentation – eeeep!!
It has been a wonderful experience travelling around Bangkok and Chiang Mai. It is funny because I have had very little interest in travelling in Asia in general – I have been too smitten with Africa in recent years, but also because I feel as though Thailand has been ‘done’ in a way. Like, it was the hip happening place to trip to when I was about 20, but it’s been done (even if – like myself- you’ve never actually been before). And of course there are lots of implications of this. What happens to a place when everyone and their brother decides that it is the ‘it’ place to check out, and then, in turn, what happens when that same demographic decides that that scene is played out and they move on to a newly discovered locale?
At any rate, I have had a wonderful time checking out the temples, I have had a borderline obscene number of massages, I have eaten myself silly, and I have loved reconnecting with old friends and meeting thoughtful and inspiring people who share a real passion for changing the world for the better (Salut Emmanuelle!). The scenery and the people are beautiful and warm (actually, the weather has been hotter than the seventh ring of hell) and I have thoroughly enjoyed my vacation.
I have thoroughly enjoyed the signs:
And I am also getting a kick out the phone booths. They’re like a funky blast from the past:
I am less enjoying all of the middle-aged white men accompanied by young Thai women. Although it is possible that my Western feminist perspective is imposing a lack of agency on women in the developing world, constructing them as being less empowered than myself
I will say that something really did surprise me about this conference this week. Despite the fact that everyone there is involved in the study of tourism and most, if not all, are concerned with social justice and the impacts of tourism, the touristic activities that we participated in were very much run-of-the-mill. Take the location for our gala dinner, for instance. This was a beautiful outdoor restaurant and the food was wonderful, but over the course of the dinner we were entertained by ‘traditional dancers’ performing specifically for our group. There is nothing wrong with this, I don’t think, but seems to me to be exactly the sort of commodification of culture that we theorize about so extensively.
Likewise, the following day a group of us loaded up into a large coach bus and went on a handicrafts tour. At each site (an umbrella making site, a silk making site, and a silver shop) we descended from the bus, were trouped through to see how the products were made, and then bought the handicrafts that were on offer. Again, there’s nothing wrong with this – income is created for local people and we learn something about local craft skills. And I also want to say that I in no way wish to critique the organizers, who planned this entire event from multiple different countries (not Thailand) in their ‘spare time,’ and the experiences were lots of fun. I just found a bit of a disconnect between what we research and critique, and then what we choose to do when we gather as tourists.
This woman is laughing because a silk worm, still in its cocoon, jumped out of the bowl at Claudia, who nearly had a heart attack.
We did also have a brief visit to an organic farm, where some local guys had a good laugh, presumably at Juliane and her melon:
“I carried a watermelon?!” came up frequently after this 😉
The other thing that sort of blew me away was that there was a stack of pamphlets with tour options for us to sign up for on our free day, and one of the conference participants approached myself and another woman and showed us an ad for a tour featuring stops at 5 different tribal villages in one afternoon, including a stop to see the so-called ‘long-necked’ Karen people. Again, we’re critical tourism scholars. Both myself and my friend were a little horrified that this person would be interested in participating in such a tour, as these kinds of tours don’t allow tourists to engage with the people they are visiting or share in any kind of mutual exchanges, but seem to involve little more than descending on a village, snapping the obligatory photos to show the folks back home, then loading back onto the bus. It is particularly troubling in the case of the Karen whom, I am led to understand, have little (if any) legal status in Thailand, do not have access to passports, and many villages have seen a significant exodus of younger adults who do not want to be part of the tours (if you’re interested, check out Malia’s great blog posting about having visited the Karen and reflecting upon it afterwards on Twenty-something Travel). Again, I’m not trying to be judgmental or tell people what they can and can’t do as tourists, but I think that it is often easy to get swept away in an exotic new locale and forget that there are real people who are impacted by the choices that tourists make. And elephants. And tigers. I found a good resource, if anyone is interested, for how to try to make sure that your visit with tribal people is done in a respectful way at All Thailand Experiences.
And because I hate to end on a negative note, the food here is marvelous (as if there was ever any doubt!). I’m participating in a cooking class tomorrow morning and then (hopefully) jogging back to my hotel room afterwards.
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).
This weekend’s trip into Cape Town was quite eventful and a study in contrasts. I think it goes a long way towards exemplifying some of the contradictions and complexities that are a part of living in South Africa (that was for Meg – I like alliteration too 😉 ).
I took the morning train in yesterday morning. Despite having been sort of vaguely warned about the dangers, it seemed to me that the only real danger being talked about was in taking the train before or after hours, and that riding during the day presents no problems. I was for sure the only white person that I saw on the train the entire journey, and it got me once again thinking about the racial segregation of space. At home I would take this train all the time! It was clean, more or less efficient (it was only half an hour late), and got me dead into the center of the city without having to deal with the ordeals of traffic (read: lunatic drivers) or trying to sort out parking. All for the low low price of CAD $1.75. Seems like a no brainer to me.
I planned this trip into the city expressly to participate in a Township tour. I booked my tour online (for Monday morning – they run a Gospel tour on Sundays, as opposed to the regular tour that runs the rest of the week) and not being familiar with the layout of the city, I looked to the company’s website for guidance as to what part of the city I should find lodgings in. The website advised that they would come and fetch people as far away as Camps Bay, but no further out. I read this as: they come to Camps Bay. So that is where I should stay. This is not the only part of this trip wherein I should have done a better job actually reading what I was getting myself into. I found a great deal on Hot Wire for a room in a villa near the beach (yay! Beach finally!) and took a taxi once I had my fill of wandering around Cape Town (more on that later, maybe – that city is a really wonderful place to explore!).
Turns out I’m not so much Camps Bay people. I thought I was out of place at the university, with all of the willowy blonde giantesses, but now I have officially found the place where the beautiful people congregate. To be fair, it was a little like walking onto the set of Beverly Hills 90210, so that was exciting for me (only I was being played by Gabrielle Carteris). Camps Bay appears to be everything that a wealthy seaside resort ought to be – lots of restaurants and cafes with patios spilling out onto the sidewalks, kids playing drums and dancing on the beach, massive crashing waves (but a wicked riptide, apparently. I didn’t see anyone in the water), and luxury cars cruising up and down the waterfront strip.
This is what it sounds like when you’re walking along the waterfront:
As an aside, Hot Wire is a wonderful thing! Check out this place that I was able to stay at! I’m usually more of a hostel kind of girl. Now, how do you (as me) contend with the reality of that room, knowing that the purpose of my visit is to go to a Township to see how the poor people live, or in travel brochure-speak, see the ‘reality’ of life in the city? Is this not also reality? Or is it less valid as reality because it is a reality available only to a few?
On Monday morning, I was picked up at the villa by the charmingly effervescent Sabrina, who was to be our guide for the day. Sabrina is a former resident of the Township, although she now lives in a different part of the city with her husband. Our tour group eventually grew to 7 as Sabrina navigated the minibus (silently shrieking ‘tourists’ everywhere we went) throughout the various neighoburhoods of the city (turns out, I was staying the farthest outside of the city center). As we drove, Sabrina told us about the history of the Township, which was founded in the 1920s as single men immigrated to the city from the Eastern Cape looking for work. Single room dormitories were constructed and colonial regulations regarding movement, later to be replaced (and made more restrictive) by the apartheid-era Pass Laws, regulated whether or not these men’s families would be able to come and visit with them, as well as when (or whether) they would be able to return home for a visit. Eventually, demand in the city for female domestic workers led to the government permitting wives and children to join the men in the Township. It probably goes without saying that housing facilities were not adapted to meet the changing needs of the community. Eventually, rooms that were originally designed to house one man became home to multiple members of one’s immediate and extended families. Intolerable crowding and an utter lack of privacy (this is the one that struck me as an unanticipated shock – privacy. Imagine never being able to close a door?) led to many families constructing their own habitations from whatever materials available outside the dormitories.Today, most residents commute into the city for work, spending about 25% of their incomes on transportation, although it is estimated that 35% of the population is unemployed*.
The improvised shacks seem to be made of just about anything – the ubiquitous corrugated tin, pressboard, shipping containers, I even saw what looked like an old refrigerated trailer converted into a home. Electrical connections are improvised and are often cited as fire hazards, although I have not seen any evidence of recent fires. In some areas there are blue porta-potties to service the families that have no private facilities. Super gross, and totally inadequate for any person to have to use long term (think about the johns at the end of a weekend festival. Bleh. Then think about only having access to that). That being said, they are provided by the city and are maintained weekly, and can only be an improvement over the holes in the ground that overflowed when it rained that I was used to seeing in Dar es Salaam. And do I think that by making that comparison it somehow makes it okay? The houses that I saw also had municipally supplied garbage bins and the truck comes and empties them weekly. Another luxury that my friends in Dar would have been happy to see.
In this first part of the tour we drove around the community and peered through our windows at the vocational school, the youth center, and people’s homes. I felt like a real creep – totally conspicuous in the air conditioned front seat of the big white van with the tour company’s logo emblazoned on the side. Like we didn’t want to get our hands dirty or sully our clothes by stepping beyond the glass.
We finally stopped and got out of the van to join Joshua, a young man from the community who was taking over the next part of the tour. Incredibly, it actually got worse from there.
The first stop on our walking tour was a lovely preschool. About 20 children between the ages of 3-5 were sitting on a carpet as Joshua explained that the teacher had identified a need for preschool education as well as English instruction in the community. Joshua had all the children stand and come to the front of the carpet. As we tourists stood in a semi-circle around them, the children were made to sing 6 or 7 songs for us, complete with hand gestures. This to me felt so exploitative and abusive that I felt my eyes welling with tears (which anyone who knows me will tell you is not so unusual an event – I’ve been known to cry in movie trailers. But still), and I had to move to hide my face from the children. Here we are, interrupting their school day, and they are being made to perform for us like little trained seals. What lessons are these kids learning from this? Do their parents know about this, and if so, what must they think? I can’t imagine any of the parents that I know back in Canada would be happy to hear that this was happening in their child’s classroom.
Just when I think it is finally over and we can get the hell out of there, Joshua tells us to brace ourselves because now he is going to tell the kids to hug us. As soon as he says the word, all the kids rush forward and clamber into our arms and laps. What the actual fuck? Some kids were even shoving one another to get closer. One little boy repeatedly tried to kiss me on the lips, a little girl kept touching my face, my nose, my eyelashes. This went on for way too long – at least 10 minutes. Did the other tourists know that this was going to happen? Is this part of the appeal of this particular tour?
Before going inside, Joshua told us it was perfectly okay to take photos of the children. This is something I had not thought twice about in the past, but now makes me deeply uncomfortable and is something I would prefer not to do unless asked. He did say that it was important not to take photos of people in the community without first asking their permission. He also advised one of the tourists who asked about contributing to the community that is was important not to give anything to children in order that kids not learn that they may be given things by white people, potentially leading to paternalism, dependence, and begging, and instead to make a donation to an NGO or a social service agency in the community.
After the preschool we walked through the community and saw a wide range of living conditions. The community has advocated that no one should be moved out of an inadequate living situation without being moved into something more suitable, and there are a number of new housing developments where families have been relocated. There are also a number of really lovely homes, in an area known as the Beverly Hills of the Township, where people have been successful and have chosen to remain in their home community. There is no denying that there are too many people living in truly abhorrent living conditions, but it is also true that a significant number of families in this community have done very well for themselves and have chosen to remain in their home community, a part of the narrative of life in the Townships that I think may be often overlooked by the tourists who visit there.
One of the other tourists noticed that the words ‘Real Phandaz’ were spray painted throughout the community. Joshua explained that Real Phandaz means taking action to improve your situation, showing entrepreneurial spirit, moxie if you will, and not sitting around waiting for the government to solve your problems or give you a job. Everywhere in the community there is evidence of Real Phandaz – car washes that consist of a few buckets of water and a little home vacuum, grill on the side of the road featuring all kinds of meat, and convenience shops and beauty parlours operating out of shipping containers.
On our way back into the city, we made a quick stop at a monument dedicated to 7 anti-apartheid protesters shot and killed by police in 1986 (known as the Gugulethu Seven). I am left wondering about the actual changes that have been felt here since these young men lost their lives. Apartheid, the Pass Laws, and the Bantu System have all been repealed. But ethnic segregation is still alive and well in people’s living environments, and some of these homes do not seem fit for human habitation. From what little I have seen, recent governments have made substantial efforts to provide decent and affordable housing for people. But there seems to be little movement towards the dissolution of physical racial divides. People work together and share space in that sense, but how can people come to know and understand one another when their living worlds are so far apart?
Also, I have to say that I did not see any evidence of this tour benefiting the community. There were jobs created for Sabrina and for Joshua, and surely for other guides, but no mention was made of reinvestment back into the community. I took it for granted that that was a central component of all of such tour operations, but perhaps that is not the case.
*Can we all please acknowledge the grossly inadequate historical reckoning of the establishment of the Townships presented here, due (in part) to the constraints of this form of communication and not from any lack of concern or caring on my part about the importance of all of the nuances related to this history?
It is interesting to think about working with Edwin and his colleagues in the visual arts department. I consider myself to be a social justice scholar (without ever, ever putting it in such terribly lame terms, but you’ll see where I’m going here) who is using art as a research methodology, almost as an afterthought. Edwin and co. are artists, using art to work for social justice in the community. It might be parsing, but it might also be very interesting to see how we come to work together from such different starting positions. Edwin gives very clear indication that this is his focus and objective, without ever coming out and saying anything so lame as ‘I’m working towards social justice.’ (Also, if it seems as though I am talking a lot about Edwin on here, it is because I know virtually no one else here yet).
So…, I’ve decided to go on a Township tour. This is something that I have struggled with, and it even came up as a question at my proposal defense back in June. As much as my research is about learning about local perceptions and experiences of tourism, and I hope that I will be open to whatever they may be, my own feelings are that the tours are exploitative, paternalistic, and maybe even a little morally repugnant. I have decided, however, that it would be unjustifiable for me to attempt to critique and take an arbitrary moral high ground over something that I have no first-hand experience of.
Now here’s the dirty secret part (or maybe it’s not so secret as I think it is): I’m looking forward to it. I am fascinated by these communities, as would be obvious from the fact that I chose this area of study for my PhD research. I cannot pretend that I am somehow morally superior to any of the other tourists who choose to participate in these experiences. I find these communities fascinating – I want to get out and walk around and talk to people and take a million photos. Where does this compulsion to consume the Other come from? Is it just innate human curiosity, or it is something more sinister? Could it be the desire to witness a way of life that us so materially inferior to one’s own? (and by materially inferior, I of course mean on a purely quantitatively economic scale).
It also comes to mind that these questions might be completely inane and self-serving. There are many things that I feel are morally wrong that I don’t question – for some reason child prostitutes in Thailand comes immediately to mind – that I would never feel compelled to ‘sample’ in order to decide for myself how I felt about it. I know that the comparison is hardly apt, but it bears thinking on…
Of course, I like to believe that as a regular, everyday tourist I would never choose to participate and support this particular brand of tourism. I just wouldn’t. But even this is being disingenuous. Because of course the truth is that I do get to enter these neighbourhoods and interact with people for reasons that I have determined are justified, and not merely about curiosity. Do you see the difference? Whereas the ‘tourists’ tell themselves that the $$ that they pay for the tour is supporting the community, allowing themselves (perhaps) to assuage their guilt about their voyeuristic intentions, my being there is legitimized by the fact that I am there for business, not leisure. Does that make my voyeuristic intent any purer? Not a chance. Do I tell myself, same as everyone else, that my being there is helping, and that in turn I am come away changed for the better? You betcha. So I cannot hide behind my moral proclamations that the intent behind the tours, from the tourists’ side, is wrong because I know that I share the same intent, in my heart. Now I feel as though I’m trying to justify myself. I’m really struggling with this.
The truth of the matter is that I have been in slums many times and none of the fascination has worn off. I’m not sure what that says about me, or what is at the heart of that.