Posts Tagged ‘education’

Township Tours and the human spectacle

I wrote an article last year about a ‘township tour’ that I took part in. The piece was literally dripping with tears of emotion and sentimental guilt. I could not believe that in my fourth year at Rhodes University, after resisting so many of those guided tours into the black populace, I was roped into one.

The trip was a mandatory part of our course, we had to write about the experience, and I guess it was for the purpose of broadening our horizons. However, I believe that is the first major wrong about the situation. We had to go into people’s spaces as voyeurs, as writers, as plunderers, as seekers of material and as exploiters of chance.

Our aim and goal was never congenial, never for the purpose of reaching, touching, smelling, or seeing beyond the surface. We did not have the time to witness brick upon brick the building of a house, or a family of five, previously homeless, making the harsh environment a home. We were not the neighbour that greeted across the fence, or the passerby that looked in or the lost traveler stumbling through, or even the stray. We were lookers through the glass window. We were prying eyes in a combie, leaving a cloud of dust behind us. We were on safari, wide eyed, staring, gaping, gawking, pointing, marveling, pitying, reassured, and glad that this reality was not ours.

We held starving babies and made weird ‘aawh’ noises that sounded strange the minute they escaped the lips. We took pictures of wry smiles and understandings that we were uselessness personified. We stayed as long as we had to knowing that plenty awaited us on the other side. We hated ourselves for crossing the divide. We hated ourselves for being ourselves and loved ourselves for being ourselves and not them. The ‘other’ from across town, the ‘others’ from the hilltop where the sun squats half the day looked through us.

We noticed the lack of trees, and quiet, and plenty, and the abundance of scarcity. Soon it was time to go and it was not soon enough. We waved; it was awkward. They waved, a little embarrassed and amused that we had come all the way.

In retrospect I guess the trip was a success. Some people probably never went back to the township; the tour was their first time. To them black locations are an experience, one they won’t have again, and one that makes for good story at a dinner party.

Is it useful? It’s sometimes necessary to force people to go, to make them leave the comfort of campus and see how wider Grahamstown lives. I have no qualms with the principle of the tour. My problem is that if we look at it, it’s a space that needs to be scrutinised and evaluated. We need to assess the way that it is done and see if there aren’t better ways, more useful ways we can introduce different cultures, classes and races to each other.

The current model threatens being a zoo-like experience; the better-off going to view the human animal. Hopefully with the help anthropological studies conducted Dr Joy Owen (Lecturer in Anthropology at Rhodes University), theory will formalize these ramblings of a destabalised mind.

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