By: Emma Goldberg As we stepped into the classroom, thirty young children burst into song. Two of the children began to dance for us, wriggling their bodies and kicking their legs in the air.
“Feel free to photograph the children if you’d like,” our tour guide told us.
The nine Glotrippers on the tour exchanged uncomfortable glances. On our way out of the school the tour guide assured us that the children don’t mind when tourists stop by to oggle and photograph them, but our discomfort remained. I wondered whether the township children could sense the worlds that divided us even when they ran up to give us hugs and high fives.
This morning we experienced an entirely new side of South Africa when we went on a tour of three nearby townships. We saw the houses that residents live in – called informal settlements – which were often nothing more than ramshackle wood sheds, that our tour guide told us burn down easily in the winter. We visited an orphanage for HIV positive children, and walked roads that are piled with garbage, neglected by South African sanitation workers.
But it wasn’t just the poverty and suffering we witnessed that felt so unsettling. It was really our presence in the townships – our poverty tourism – that left me with a sense of deep discomfort. I wondered how the residents of the townships felt as we walked through their streets snapping photos of their homes, gawking at a lifestyle so radically different from our own. At one point our tour guide led us directly into somebody’s home in the Langa township. One of the men who lived there was walking through the living room and when he saw us he bowed his head and murmured, “excuse me,” ducking quickly out of our way. Why should he have to step aside and make room for us in his own home?
We asked our tour guide about the practice of poverty tourism, questioning whether it signaled disrespect to the people of the townships. Our tour guide responded that the residents of local townships depend on the tourism industry. Tourism, he told us, is the number one industry for job creation and poverty alleviation. The industry employs township residents as tour guides and bus drivers, and some Langa residents even profit from selling tourists T-shirts with the township’s postal code printed on the front.
“You can take home a souvenier of your visit to the townships,” our tour guide told us, pointing to the brightly-colored apparel.
He also maintained that the benefits of poverty tourism go deeper than money. Tourism, he explained, allows people from the outside world to understand the lifestyle of the impoverished in South Africa. It allows for rich interactions between people living in townships and people living abroad, something that might not otherwise happen.
“Tourism isn’t just about gourmet food and wine,” he told us. “It’s about meeting people and learning their challenges, hopes, dreams, and triumphs.”
I definitely feel that I deepened my understanding of the South African population today—it didn’t feel right to spend all my time here in posh neighborhoods, only exposing myself to the lifestyles of a very particular segment of the population. And yet I wonder if the township tourist industry is promoting the right sort of interactions between visitors and the township locals. I wonder how it feels to be a child growing up in Langa, constantly oggled by groups of white foreigners, snapping photos and laughing and talking in a language that you don’t understand. I wonder how our tour guide felt, watching our bus pull away toward Cape Town as he retreated home to the informal settlement where he lives. I hope someday we’ll be able to visit the townships without needing the security of a clunky white tourist van.