Township tour (or, my day as a poorist)

A few days ago, I went on a half-day tour through some of Cape Town’s biggest townships. The townships are located 20 minutes to an hour outside of the center of the city, and were initially created for non-whites who were “relocated” during Apartheid. Obviously, they are not officially segregated anymore, but the racial composition hasn’t changed much over the past twenty years.

The majority of the people living in the townships are very poor, although there are some middle-class families living there as well. The middle-class homes in the townships look pretty nice — they’re mostly moderately-sized brick houses with small yards, some of which have swimming pools. Of the remaining homes, about half of them are government-built houses, which are small (mostly two rooms) but well-built (at least if they were built recently — up until a few years ago, the government was building the roofs with asbestos) and have indoor plumbing. The other half are one- or two-room shacks made out of wood or tin. The government is supposed to be replacing those homes with new (asbestos-free!) houses, but there is a lot of work left to be done on that front.

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Most of the tour was spent driving through the townships while the guide — who grew up in Langa, Cape Town’s oldest township, but no longer lives there — talked to us about their history. We made a few stops, including:

What our guide described as a local fast-food joint, where sheep’s head is a delicacy

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The office / pharmacy of a local medicine man, who looked so much like a stereotype that I was convinced he was planted there by the tour agency until I saw a newspaper article about him posted outside (I would tell you what it said if only I could read Afrikaans, but it looked pretty legit). He uses a lot of dead animal skins and assorted other animal parts in his remedies, so I didn’t last that long in his “office” before the smell drove me out.

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A craft market that sells pottery, paintings, and other art made in the townships. No photos necessary, because basically, if you’ve ever been to any developing country, you’ve seen this craft market.

A memorial to Amy Biehl, who I won’t write about now because her death is such a sad story, but who you can read about here if you’re interested.

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A nursery school, where a class of four year-olds sang us some songs and did a dance for us, and where we were then given the option of hanging out with them for a little while or going to see the daycare area of the school. I chose to stay and play, which involved trying to teach a group of kids who seemed to be on some kind of exercise-high from the dancing to play “high five / other side / up high / down low / you’re too slow.” At first they seemed to really like it, but then I realized that they didn’t really understand what I was saying and just thought I was giving them free license to hit me and each other. Oops. To their credit, they only hit playfully, not hard.

The kids were cuter than cute, but I don’t have any photos to post of them because taking pictures of other people’s children without their permission gives me a very serious case of the icks, for lack of a better word. That’s not to say that you’ll never see me post some particularly friendly or adorable little faces on this blog in the future, but in this situation — where we were on a tour of the school rather than interacting with the kids organically — taking photos seemed especially tasteless. Did I mention that the nursery school is sponsored by the tour company? I still can’t decide whether that increases, decreases, or has no effect on the icks.

Even aside from the nursery school, I felt pretty squeamish about the entire idea and experience of the township tour, and all of the thinking I’ve been doing about it over the past few days hasn’t gotten me any closer to taking a position on it. I’m certainly not the first (or even close to among the first) to feel ambivalent about “poorism,” also known as “slum tourism.” Just in case any of you haven’t thought about it before and don’t feel like clicking on the links, the short version of the debate is: PRO: “Poorism / Slum Tourism” is positive because (1) without it, tourists wouldn’t get a real or complete sense of how people live in the places that they’re visiting; (2) it raises awareness about poverty; and (3) it feeds tourism money to the people who need it most (because it brings tourists to local markets; the guides often come from the neighborhoods being visited; and the tour companies often make donations to the neighborhoods). CON: “Poorism / Slum Tourism” treats poverty as a tourist attraction, which is just plain gross. It exploits people living in poor neighborhoods. If tourists want to help people who are living in these areas, they should donate money to them, rather than paying them to be allowed to look into their lives and paying tour companies to facilitate those looks.

I tend to agree with both the pros and the cons, which I guess is kind of the definition of ambivalence. All of that said, I never even considered not going on a township tour, because I wouldn’t want to spend two weeks in Cape Town without ever seeing the areas where a large percentage of the population actually lives, and all of the guidebooks that I’ve read (and the locals that I’ve consulted, of all colors,) say that wandering around the townships on your own — which would probably be a better way of actually seeing them — is not safe. But still, I felt kind of dirty when the tour ended. If anyone has further thoughts on this topic, I would love to hear them! I suspect that this will not be the last time that I confront this issue.

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5 thoughts on “Township tour (or, my day as a poorist)

  1. Elana, I struggled with the same thing when I was in New Orleans and saw that a tour was offered to the 9th Ward to see the devastation from Katrina. I did not go on the tour bc I felt it was exploiting the poor. However, I also did not donate any money to help either, so maybe the tour would have been doing something?!?! I think that you have nothing to feel guilty about, as the purpose of your traveling (im guessing) is to learn and experience as much as possible about each place you visit. Poverty is a very prevalent issue in these countries, this whole part of the world! So, I say that being a “Poorist” is part of learning the whole story about where you are, as long as you can put aside your own guilt. Otherwise, you mind as well check into the nicest resort there and sit by the pool! I am LOVING your blog so far and am forwarding each entry to my sister who is also following your travels! Keep it up! My friend worked at an orphanage in Cape Town while she was in college and still sponsors a little boy there. Let me know if you would like an experience visiting an orphanage and i can see what she says. Stay safe please!

  2. Dear Elana, I know exactly what you mean. I had the same feeling, when I was in Namibia. They offered a township tour in Windhoek, but I felt dirty too about it, so I didn’t go on the tour. I think you are very considerate person with a good heart, so if you do a tour like that, you really give it some thought and learn new things about the topic. I am sure, it will only help you and maybe even inspire you one day to help in a project. So, don’t feel guilty, take it in and see where this experience will lead you. Love Conny

  3. Hey Elana! Just catching up on your blog posts! I want to say, I felt the same way when my family and I toured SOWETO outside of Jo-burg. But, to our credit, at least we’re thinking about these issues.

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