Voyeur

Last Wednesday Kerri and co-hosted a tour (alongside Education Director Mandy Sanger) of District Six, as well as the Lwandle Township (a long-time home to migrant workers living in South Africa) for a tour group of students from a Connecticut boarding school that was visiting the District Six Museum where we are working for the summer. After finishing the tour of District Six we took a hour-long drive to Lwandle and upon arriving our boss, who was serving as the primary tour guide, asked the students to respect the privacy and dignity of the Lwandlan residents, for the group was unbundling cameras and video recording devices before we had even driven into the township streets. Nonetheless, a flurry of excited camera clicks and flashes began as soon as the first township resident, a young girl of about six or seven years, wearing nothing but an oversized pink tee shirt, ran barefoot to the edge of the dirt road, waving at our tour bus. “Wow, the people like, love to wave here!” one student exclaimed from the back of the tour bus. At this point, I was chuckling to myself, making note of their childish disregard. But I would soon be knocked from the pedestal of cultural sensitivity I had hoisted myself upon by an experience that followed soon after. We stopped at a museum in Lwandle, the Lwandle Migrant Labor Museum, which highlighted the stories and struggles of the men who had emigrated from various African countries to settle in Lwandlan migrant labor hostels to support their families at home during Apartheid. After exploring the museum, we walked further into town to visit the last remaining hostel, Room 33, which had been converted into a national heritage site, and presumably, a tourist attraction. As we crammed through the doorway and into the damp, dark, low-ceilinged building (which was designed to house as many as 30 male workers yet was about the same size as my Central Campus apartment at Duke, which I share with only one roommate) we noticed a large piece of cardboard, which was framed on the stone wall. It read “We the residents of Room 33 deside to write this notice disagree with you about this room to be a messeum [museum] firstly give us accommodation before you can get this room. Thank you from Room 33” Immediately after reading this statement I realized why I had no rightful reason to judge the boarding school students as naïve for their actions and statements on the bus—at that point I had lived in South Africa for only about three weeks, yet had considered my cultural knowledge and cognizance to be superior to those of newcomers. Sure, I work at the District Six Museum. Sure, I’ve learned a formidable amount of South African colonial, tribal, and Apartheid history. But right then and there, I was nothing more than a tourist, peering into the history and living community of others for my own benefit. Aristotle is famed for asserting that knowledge is nothing with praxis, or action, and that is a notion that I’ve disagreed with. Learning, about anything, is an enriching experience for the self, one that can have positive effects on one’s actions, even those outside of the context of the subject. But in that very moment I didn’t feel like a historian, a student, or a scholar—I felt like a voyeuristic outsider, the type of foreigner who “oohs” and “aahs” at the sights of a new city, the type of tourist who ogles at the poverty in an exotic, faraway land yet drives speedily through the poverty-stricken neighborhoods in his own country. Who was I, a visitor, to come into Lwandle, peering into their society, fully cognizant of their past and present struggles, while doing virtually nothing to alleviate them? I’m sure that one could argue that this sort of tourism is harmless—helpful even, if our group had stopped at the local food market to purchase our lunch. But I urge anyone reading this blog post to envision a parallel scenario: if a group of tourists, armed with digital cameras and backpacks, had come into your hometown, visited a landmark or some area of historical significance, and proceeded with snapping endless pictures of your homes, your children, your community, how would you react? sign remade One of my favorite moments in the Lwandle Township came after we left the hostel, and around 50 local children, alerted to our presence by our big, white tour bus, surrounded us, forming what looked like a parade as we walked through the roads in the township. With at least four children holding my hand on either side, and another five both in front of me and behind me, all singing and dancing gleefully for the “Americans”, I couldn’t have felt more admired. In my carefree happiness, I can safely say that not once did I think of the children’s’ parents, or their opinions on what was occurring. In factEven though I am living and working here, it’s hard to realize what distinguishes an invasive tourist from a casual visitor, a voyeur from a scholar. As I continue my stay here, I hope that I can transcend the boundary that separates those who simply marvel at, photograph, and tell stories to friends and family back home about the destitution and the suffering I have witnessed in so many areas here. I know I can’t change the world that I’ve entered, in fact, whatever I accomplish will probably only help a minute fraction of a fraction of those affected by the problems that exist in such wide range and depth here. And that’s okay. Because so many people that I have encountered, despite enduring struggles that are quite deserving of dropping jaws and opened eyes, are full of life. Children who dance and jump with visitors yet are uncertain of the availability of their next filling meal. Teenagers that spend over two hours travelling by public transportation from the slums of Khayelitsha to the District Six Museum every Saturday to spend their day learning (from me!) how to research and meaningfully present their personal histories, community histories, and collective history of struggle throughout the decades of Apartheid—while so many township kids of similar age turn to drugs and crime to fill their weekends. Cape Town, like South Africa, and the entirety of Africa, isn’t a land to be pitied, or to be ogled, or to be photographed and then forgotten at summer’s end. It is a land full of problems and prides, like any other community, town, or region in the United States. As I meet more people here, luminaries like Desmond Tutu and everyday heroes like Joyce Jonathan, a woman who was forcibly removed from District Six during Apartheid and comes to the Museum every Tuesday to share stories and craft memory-revitalizing art projects, I realize that this world is so much more than the Save the Children commercials one sees so often on American television programming. As I live and learn more here, I’ll keep you updated.

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2 thoughts on “Voyeur

  1. Pingback: Close Encounters of the Familiar Kind | Cape Town DukeEngage 2013

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