I first heard about the idea of touring impoverished areas a few years ago when reading an article on the growing popularity of tours through Brazil’s favelas. As a traveler who’s always curious about different aspects of a culture, especially the ones that some cities and countries actually attempt to hide or gloss over, the idea was immediately appealing to me. As a conscious and empathetic human being who makes her best effort not to exploit people (even unknowingly), my second thought was one of disgust. The idea of gawking at poor people in a way similar to how a family from Ohio might stroll through Times Square, expensive cameras in hand and mouths agape, seemed appalling.
To be honest, I absolutely hate the terms “slum tourism” or “poverty tourism”. Part of it goes back to the debate of “travel” versus “tourism”: the former invokes feelings of broadening your horizon, learning about new cultures and fostering an understanding of the world in order to be a better member of it, while the latter conjures up images of sitting on comfortable air-conditioned bus, surrounded by your fellow countrymen on the way to the least offensively local restaurant, all to get your travel thrills while avoiding the life-changing experiences of straying from your comfort zone.
(By the way, I realize it can be more nuanced than that, and I wouldn’t want to discourage anyone from traveling, even if said travel is done on a tour bus. But that’s a topic for another post.)
So you can see where I stand on the travel vs. tourism debate, and I speak from experience on both sides of that isle. Which is why, when I heard about a tour through a township in Cape Town and actually began to entertain the idea, I wanted to be absolutely sure I wasn’t doing it for the purpose of entertainment, but rather to learn about this ever-present side of South Africa and how it relates to a very beautiful but complex country’s past, present and future. I wanted to be sure that I wouldn’t be inadvertently exploiting a community, that my money would be put towards a sustainable solution, and that I wouldn’t be some clueless idiot gawking at the poor as if they had somehow signed up to be a tourist attraction.
A few weeks prior, Chris and I had done a photo tour around the city with a company called Cape Town Photo Tours. The second half of our day was spent at the home of a wonderful woman named Faldela. For one thing, the company itself is small enough that our tour felt personal and up-close, rather than a spectacle of 40 people jumping off a bus and chatting only amongst themselves. At Faldela’s house, we not only learned how to cook an insanely delicious Malay meal, but we also got to sit with this local woman and hear about her life, her family and her career goals. Faldela was fed up with working for someone else and had decided to go into business for herself, which is how she ended up pairing up with Cape Town Photo Tours. When we spoke to her in March, she was still trying to get her website up and running and build up partnerships to bring in customers. And that was where Cape Town Photo Tours and we came in.
So I decided to with this company again for the township tour because it was a few Capetonians working together with other Capetonians, specifically residents of the communities that play a central role in their tours. In the case of this tour, Cape Town Photo Tours works with Lulama and Anele, two young entrepreneurs and members of the township Imizamo Yethu. My guide Toby explained to me that Lulama’s twin brother had been killed and, despite all of his anger and frustration at the situation he had been dealt in life, he decided to put his education to good use and help his community in a positive way. According to Lulama’s own website, he has “worked in various social sectors and for various social organisations, including the Lovelife HIV Prevention Campaign as a life skills facilitator, and for Census South Africa, the statistics organisation in South Africa”. He was aided by his best friend Anele, who had helped set him on the right path after his brother’s death by inviting him to a wilderness retreat that aided in his healing. (When I was there in March, South Africa’s e.tv had just broadcast a report on Lulama and his efforts to improve conditions in IY, as the township is known locally. I was lucky enough to see it then and have been searching for it online to link here, unfortunately to no avail. You can, however, see a brief introduction to Lulama and Anele here.)
We showed up and, as Toby and I waited for Lulama and Anele to arrive, I noticed the stench of sewage flowing down the street. This invoked a reaction of not so much disgust at the smell, but of how a government could put so much investment into the surrounding areas of one of the world’s most stunning cities while ignoring a very basic need of some of its own. I know nothing about South African politics, but the idea that there was no proper sewage system here led me to believe that someone higher up has failed these people.
Our trusty guides arrived and as we climbed higher, the stench faded and what I saw was actually a pleasant sight: children running around, playing and laughing (they were on vacation from school that week). I was always very conscious about where I pointed my camera, but taking pictures of the kids felt easy because they appeared very entertained by it – especially whenever I would show them the picture on my screen. It almost seemed as though they were making a game of coming up with new poses and facial expressions.
I was thoroughly amused at one point when Anele stopped in front of a picture on the side of a building and asked “do you know who that looks like?”. I had no idea. “Michelle Obama”, he said with a grin, as I amused him and replied with a bit of hesitation “umm, yeah, looks just like her…”.
Not long into the tour, a van rolled up, stopped on the side of the road and rolled the passenger-door window down just enough to poke a camera through and take a picture. This, Toby explained, is what annoys the locals the most. When people don’t have the decency to get out of their air-conditioned van and get to know the community on a one-to-one level, is when you get township residents feeling exploited. The fact that we were on foot and chatting with the people of IY put my mind to ease.
The general feel of the place was amazing. Every other ramshackle house was a small business, whether it was the convenience store, hairdresser or internet shop. Take away all the McDonald’s, Starbucks and KFC, giant shopping malls and parking lots as far as the eye can see, and a place actually starts to feel like a community, regardless of how rich or poor it is.
We ended the tour with a walk through the school. The library was full of books and men were loading supplies from a truck to the front door of the school. I bought a few souvenirs from the tiny gift shop, the proceeds of which go straight to the school.
In short, I felt it was the right move to tour IY because Lulama and Anele seemed as though they and the community wanted me there. I felt it was the right move because I saw a side of South Africa that, despite all the talk of 20 years of freedom and the born-free generation, reflects an inequality in society that still needs to be addressed. I felt it was the right move because it was inspirational to see how children could grow up in absolute poverty but still act the same as I did at that age: riding down a hill on a skateboard, laughing and having a good time with their friends. I learned that these are not people we need to feel sorry for, they’re just people who need to be given the same kinds of opportunities I’ve had in life so they have the chance to flourish.
While I highly recommend Cape Town Photo Tours, where you can combine a township tour with a trip to the wine country (among other photography-oriented tours in and around Cape Town), you can also book a tour with Lulama himself at his website.
Have you ever felt conflicted about what impact your travels might be having? How did you deal with it? I’d also love to hear any ideas and tips on responsible tourism/travel.