Mis-Education

Yesterday was my friend’s birthday, he of the lovely pink house:DSC00031

When I found out about it last week I offered to do something nice with him to celebrate. Initially my plan was to take him out for dinner, as I would at home with any other friend. But then I remembered how I invited him to my house last weekend for a beer, as he had invited me to his, and he became really uncomfortable and asked to leave. I promise I wasn’t being a creep. It just wasn’t his element. So dinner might not be the best idea. Then I thought maybe a movie? Then he wouldn’t have the pressure of making one-on-one conversation with me for 2 hours and we could just enjoy a flick. But I still wasn’t sure…

He called me yesterday morning to see what the plan was for the day, and let me know that it would be better if we all just got some meat (always with the meat!) and chilled at his buddy’s place. It took me a while to come around to it, but he of course wanted me to come over and pay for the meat.

At first I was a little hurt that he was rejecting my offer to do something nice for him and was once again treating me like an ATM. I’m a bit slow sometimes, but I did eventually realize that he just wanted everyone to be together and that it wouldn’t be a very nice birthday for him if he got something that he was not able to share with his friends.

If I had known that I would have brought more cash with me.

But he danced around it and never explained his reasoning to me. I guess I should know by now.

We had a really lovely time hanging out all together and chatting. When it was time to leave, my friend gave me a hug and said “Thank you so much, you really made my day. You made me feel like I exist, like I am a real person.”

That made me want to throw up.

The scary thing is that that wasn’t the first time I have heard something like that, although never directed towards me before. That the simple act of wanting to do something nice for a friend on his birthday would elicit that sort of response makes me feel so sick and angry and sad.

This week I am working on the presentation that I will give at a conference in Durban next week. In an attempt to illustrate the complexity of the context related to tourism in the townships, I have pieced together some of the footage that my Dutch friend and I shot here in town. We wanted to show the difference between town – where the white people are – and the township.

On top of the video I plan to play an audio clip from one of my interviews. Despite having his permission to do so, I am reluctant to share the audio of his voice on here, so hopefully the transcript will do. I begin by asking him whether or not people living in the poorer parts of the township would want tourists to come and see where they live:

Kwame: Definitely. I think that the idea that a person that I see as a superior person or a person that is better than me, the idea that a person like that can come and walk in the same street as I live makes me, even if there’s no money it does something for my self-esteem.

Meg: Who is, who is the person that is better?

Kwame: Hm, a white person.

Meg: Really? Why is that?

Kwame: Well white people are better than black people.

Meg: Well [awkward laugh]…they’re not. Like, is that the consensus?

Kwame: I know that. I know that.

Meg: Okay, that kind of makes me want to cry a little bit.

Kwame: I know that. But the rest of the people don’t look like, don’t think like that. A person looks at you, you are white, they know that you have something that they don’t have, you are much better than them. You know. Financially, you know, your life is more together than mine, you have had a better life, you grew up in a house, I’ve never seen a house, I’ve always grown up in a shack that always leaks every single day.

Meg: Yeah.

Kwame: I, I’m, we have a single parent whereas white people have two parents, you know, I’ve never seen the inside of a car, whereas for a white person a car is something that is like nothing, you know. I’ve never had enough money to buy enough school uniforms to go to school.

Meg: Right.

Kwame: I’ve walked to school bare feet most of the time with torn trousers whereas a white person has never seen something like that. So for that person to be able to come and walk in the street that I’m walking in and be able to hold my hand and be able to come into my place before even, you know, she even gives me money, that is, means so much for me.

Meg: Really?

Kwame: You know, it means a lot.

Meg: Why? What does it mean? I’m trying to understand this, ‘cause you know I’m an outsider and I’m a white person so I…what does that mean?

Kwame: It means, it means…I’m a person too.

Meg: Wow. That’s really heavy.

Kwame: It means…people, people don’t look at me the way I look at myself, it means…some people realize that I exist in this world.

Meg: Okay. Just by coming to see where you live?

Kwame: People coming to see where I live, they, they, and they can talk to me.

Meg: Yeah.

Kwame: Because I grew up not knowing how to talk to a white person. You know, that there, these people are actually even making an effort to recognize that I even am alive, you know…is, is a huge thing, you know. That, that now these kids that we have now know what a white person is because they can run to them.

Meg: Yeah.

Kwame: Whereas I grew up not even being able to talk to a white person.

Meg: Sure.

Kwame: So it’s a, it’s that self-affirmation and confirmation of existence that comes with it as well.

Meg: Wow.

Kwame: I talk a lot, don’t I?

This is one person’s perspective, so please don’t take this as representative of what everyone or even most people think. It is horrible enough that one person knows this to be ‘true.’

When you talk about postcolonial studies, invariably it comes up that colonialism is finished and we need to move on and not dwell on the past. This is the long-term impact of racist colonial laws and policies. This is what is left over 20 years later. This is not the only ‘truth’ about this country, but nonetheless this remains.

Sad and mad.

 

Reflections on Race

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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.

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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?

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

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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.

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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‘?

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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?

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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.

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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.

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*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.

Poetry & Politics

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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.

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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.

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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).

 

Reflections on Township Tourism II

IMG_3000I 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:DSCN0015

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.IMG_3384

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.IMG_3002

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?IMG_3369

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.IMG_3372

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).

 

Interested in some of my other musings regarding the role of tourism in the Townships? Check out Touring the township (and playing Andrea) and Reflections on township tourism III

 

Wanderings

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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.