South Africa · Travel

The other perspective of slum tourism

Virtually right after I posted my piece on doing a township tour in Cape Town, I came across this NY Times opinion piece that profoundly questions the value of slum tourism. The writer has a perspective that’s the opposite of mine or any other visitor, precisely because he is a former resident of such a slum, the famous Kibera in Nairobi, which was visited by US President Barack Obama, when he was a senator, and Michelle. The writer certainly mentions some crass examples of tourist visits such as when a filmmaker who’s interviewing him sees an old man crapping and presumably films it, and another time when an acquaintance takes a group into a home as a woman is giving birth, which I find unbelievably obscene. I’d like to think that the tours I went on into the townships in Cape Town and Soweto were more respectful and organized, and they were for the most part. Yet I can’t deny that it didn’t feel so right, a little intrusive in fact, in Cape Town, when our guide took us into a hostel and into a room where an old man was actually lying on one of the beds. Our guide spoke to the man, then spoke to us about the hostel’s inhabitants and in the end, several of us including myself took a few pictures. I did refrain from taking a picture of the man lying on the bed, but it certainly must have felt somewhat uncomfortable and embarrassing for the man to have had us tourists come into the room. I do stand by my opinion that township tours are good for raising awareness and deepening insight into essential social and political events in South Africa like apartheid and inequality. Is this applicable for other places like Kenya or India or Brazil, I don’t know, because I’m not sure what lessons people can learn from visiting slums in those countries. Respect for residents is key and this needs to be vital element of any slum or township tour.

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