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.

 

Youth Day and Reconciliation Lunch

Today is Youth Day in South Africa and a public holiday. This day was set aside to commemorate a dark event in this nation’s history: The Soweto Uprising that began on June 16, 1976. Young students and their allies took to the streets of Soweto (the largest Township in South Africa, located in Johannesburg) on this day 40 years ago to protest the government changing the official teaching language of some parts of public education to Afrikaans. This was perceived by many people to put black students at a disadvantage, as their focus would shift from understanding the content to deciphering the language of instruction.

Police responded to this protest with shocking brutality. The official number of people killed is 176, despite police reports at the time that only 23 had died, and others claiming that as many as 700 were killed. This is the photo most closely associated with the Uprising:

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Hector Pieterson, a 13 year-old boy killed by police in Soweto on June 16, 1976 (photo credit Sam Nzima)

Other communities joined in the protests, and by the end of 1976 more than 600 people had died. Although it was another 14 years before Nelson Mandela was released from prison, these protests forever changed people’s acceptance of apartheid rule in South Africa.

I think I have mentioned before that there is a white family living in the Township. They moved here in 1998, inspired by the spirit of reconciliation and a desire to do what was within their power to help heal the wounds of the past. This is so extraordinary that even today, 18 years later, their friends in Town introduce them as “the people that live in the Township.”

Every Wednesday the Lady of the House hosts a Reconciliation Lunch. She serves a full lunch (honestly, I can’t have breakfast on Wednesdays anymore) and the doors to her home are open to anyone in the community who would like to attend. Anyone. I have been going regularly and I don’t know that I have ever seen fewer than 30 people in attendance. Imagine. Opening your home to 30 friends and total strangers every single week and feeding them until they’re stuffed.

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Steam bread and stew. Delicious traditional South African food.

The idea of the Lunch is to sit and eat with people that you would normally not have an opportunity to sit and eat with and learn about one another’s lives. The Lady of the House has a topic to discuss every week and everyone at the table must share their perspectives on the topic. Sometimes the topic is light and fluffy, for instance ‘talk about your best friend growing up and what you did together’, sometimes it can be quite intense and heartbreaking, such as when she asked us to share about our experiences with crime.

Sometimes I think the topic is going to be fluffy, as in ‘talk about your mother’ following Mother’s Day, and I end up crying at the table.

I always learn something. This week we talked about our hometowns. Several people spoke about growing up in the Township and how much it has changed in terms of safety since they were kids. A student from the University spoke about growing up in Joburg and living behind electric fences and having their family dogs poisoned by people trying to break in. One lady spoke about how lovely her hometown was because she was able to ride her bike to and from school without worry. That one really struck me. It never occurred to me that it would be a privilege to be able to ride your bike as a child without having to worry about what might happen.

I don’t feel that I contributed much to the conversation this week. Barrie was…nice?

I would love to ask the Lady of the House if she would make one Lunch topic about tourism, but I won’t because I don’t want to take away from the objective of the Lunch, even though I know it would be an amazing discussion. As it is I feel very lucky to have met such incredible people and to have had the opportunity to learn about the community in such a special way. On this Youth Day it is nice to reflect that the simple pleasure of sitting down and sharing a meal with one’s neighbours is no longer impossible, just special.

Playing dominoes in the Township, Cape Town, South Africa

Local dudes and students from the University playing dominoes together

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).

 

A (not so) secret confession

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Meghan in Nairobi in 2009

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).+4w5536

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…1935249_300995705117_5312299_n

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.