Township Tours…

May 26, 2010

Ok, I’m just going to say it… Township tours really freak me out! I used to be more torn about it; on the one hand I was seriously disturbed by the patronizing and intrusive edge they have to them, but on the other hand I could see how it’s good to bring money, jobs and positive attention to the townships. And I believe when they are tastefully done, through community participation and inclusion, they can expose tourists, who might have otherwise been shielded from the poverty that affects the majority of South Africans, to the bigger picture of the realities in South Africa. But that is if they are tastefully done.

All too often they remind me of some weird kind of urban safari. One day I was walking in Site C, Khayelitsha, and I rounded a corner to see the tiny township street flooded with white, camera-wielding foreigners, all snapping away, maybe trying to capture that perfect “smiling-with-a-random-black-kid” photo for their Facebook profile pictures. As I approached them they looked at me in shock and annoyance; I don’t think I have ever been glared at so intensely by any other group of people in my entire life! They thought they had paid for the right to be the only white people in the township and I was ruining that magical ideal for them!

As I walked by, I cringed at the incredibly loud ignorant comments made by the tourists (comments that would really insult a resident), them posing with random children they have never seen before and will never see again, them speaking down at the people of Site C as if they were not on the same plane of intelligence, and so on and so forth. The whole scene made me sick to my stomach.

As the FIFA World Cup approaches, and the entire world will be on South Africa’s doorstep, I can’t help but think about things like township tours. I want all the tourists to experience the fullness of South Africa. I want people to be able to experience the amazing culture in the townships, and also not be shielded from poverty, but I do not want it at the expense or exploitation of people. Let’s look at it in another way… Can you imagine the reaction of residence of Bishops Court or Constantia if tour companies began doing tours through their neighborhoods; neighborhoods which were also established and enabled through Apartheid with potentially just as much interest as the ones on the other end of the socio-economic spectrum.

Imagine a tour bus stopping on a street in Bishop’s Court, followed by a bunch of foreigners flooding out of it, filling the street; stopping little white kids riding their bikes past so they can get a picture with them, taking pictures as the fancy cars drive by, climbing up the tall barrier walls to get pictures of the large mansions and yards, and making comments like, “Man, can you believe people still live like this?!” I do not think the Bishops Court residents would be all that happy about it. I don’t think those tours would last that long.

So yeah, I just wanted to get that off my chest. I guess it’s not the township tours per say that bother me. It’s probably, more specifically, the township tours that are done distastefully that bother me to the core of my being.

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Lessons of Indulgence Learned Through T-Pain, Me & Clinton, and Some Random Kids

May 23, 2010

About six weeks back I took Clinton to apply for his South African ID Book. Last Thursday he got the text message from Home Affairs saying that his ID Book was ready for collection. He was pumped. I picked him up from school on Friday and we went straight to Home Affairs. Sure enough, after not too long of a wait, Clinton was the proud holder of an official South African Identification Document Book! We decided to go to Steers for some celebratory lunch.

For those of you who don’t know, Steers is really no big deal. I mean, it’s just a fast food restaurant, though I realize it is a tad bit more expensive than McDonalds. But our reasons for going there were not special, and mostly just a matter of convenience because that particular Steers was on our way home. But yeah, I mean, fast food or not, I guess Steers is still a luxury in a country where the masses live in poverty. But still, really no big deal.

So, we pulled up to Steers and got out of the car. On the way in three little boys approached us with outstretched hands asking for “Fufty cents for some bread.” I smiled at the spokesperson of the group, “Sorry buddy. Not today,” and Clinton and I went on in to order our meal. It came to just over a hundred rand (about 13$ U.S.). Wow! Steers is more expensive than McDonalds! We got the food, sat down at a table, and began to eat. Both Clinton and I immediately got sucked in to the television that hung high above our heads. MTV Cribs was on and they were touring T-Pain’s house, “Yeah, yeah! And this right here, this is studio A. I got three studios: A, B and C.” Three studios?!?! I mean, what on earth does T-Pain need three studios for?! Would one not be enough?

Throughout the Cribs tour, Clinton and I continuously shook our heads in disbelief, looked at each other with the “can you believe that junk?!” face, and then rolled our eyes as we turned our heads back to the screen, as T-Pain showed us his cars, his kitchen (that is bigger than my whole flat), his three studios, his game room, his pool, his bedroom, his club (yes, in his house), and so on and so forth. We could not believe this guy, and the likes of him! I mean, wasting all that money on all that stuff!! I mean, the whole of Khayelitsha could live in T-Pain’s bedroom! The nerve! “How can someone live like that knowing there are people living in absolute poverty?!” I complained.

And then something happened. In between the rolling of eyes, sounds of exasperation, and comments of how ridiculous T-Pain’s spending habits are, I looked out the large Steers windows and made eye contact with the three little boys who were still standing just outside, the ones who had asked for only “fufty cents”. They were watching Clinton and I scarf down a hundred-rand-meal with the exact same reaction as Clinton and I had to T-Pain’s overindulgent estate and lifestyle. To them, our spending was just as ridiculous as T-Pain’s was to us. As Clinton and I sat, eating and judging T-Pain with our good-Lord-why-do-you-need-a-flat-screen-TV-in-your-shower’s, the three little boys outside were looking in on us wondering why we could afford to eat such an “expensive meal” without even being able to spare them fifty cents. Maybe thinking, “Don’t they know a chip roll is less than ten rand?!”

And I realized, I may not have six cars, two pools, three studios and a lounge the size of the small town I come from, but my lifestyle, as humble as it may seem to me, can look just as luxurious to others who have less, as T-Pain’s does to me. I don’t have to feel guilty or sorry for it. Maybe just aware. And I have to take the responsibility that comes with the level of lifestyle I live. The whole, “the more you have the more is expected of you” kind of thing. And not judging others is probably a good lesson to learn to. We’re no better than T-Pain, though for a minute, Clinton and I had convinced ourselves we were.


Borrowed Car, Borrowed Time

February 5, 2010

There’s a certain resilience that comes with poverty; a “make something out of nothing” attitude that fills the moneyless gaps. This translates into things like: newspapers, magazine pages, or product labels being used for wallpaper to decorate the would-be-destitute walls of a shack in a township, or making meals feel more filling by a huge pile of starches and little to no meat, or like when underprivileged children turn any random found object into a toy that can entertain them for hours, days, months even. Money is stretched for weeks longer than it should be, and saved in areas thought impossible. Resources, considered rubbish by those with “more”, become useful parts of every the day life of those with nothing. I have grown to admire, appreciate, and learn from this buoyancy, adopting it when I myself am pinching penny’s to squeeze out a dollar.

One day I called my friend and he told me he was walking through the aisles of a store, trying to do a week’s worth of grocery shopping with only 30 Rand (Roughly $4.00 U.S.). “Let me guess what’s in your trolley,” I said. He seemed to like the idea of an impromptu telephonic game. Game on. “Eggs, a loaf of bread, and two-minute noodles,” I said with absolute confidence. At this point I think he looked around and over his shoulders for a few seconds before answering, “Are you in here?” I laughed and said I wasn’t at the shop, but I knew that line-up well, and had just lived off the same supplies the week before. People who have always had more than enough would be surprised to know how cheap it actually is to have enough.

A material resource can be stretched until the elasticity of that resource is absolutely compromised. But as I took the thirty-minute walk from my flat to the train station yesterday, I thought about one thing that cannot be stretched, manipulated, or messed with: time. Sure, one can learn how to manage it, using every second for the most productive outcome, but those seconds can neither be frozen, lengthened, nor made shorter. With time, you take what you get, and you have to learn to work with it; one has to learn to budget it, and work around it, because it will not work around you. So yesterday, as I walked and watched car after car whiz past me, the drivers turning my thirty-minute walk into a mere five minute drive, seemingly taking their comfort for granted if only in my mind, I realized (maybe for the first time with such an epiphany) that another aspect about poverty is it can be incredibly time-consuming.

Luxuries like cars, microwaves, and hot water from the tap, things seen as “basic needs” in most of the developed world, shave minutes, even hours, off of daily tasks. The twenty-five-minute drive I take to work when I have a car turns into an hour-and-forty-minute journey when I am without; a thirty minute walk to the train station, a forty minute train commute, and another thirty minute walk to my place of work. My mentioning this is far from a complaint, but merely an observation, because I realize that millions, if not billions, of people all over the world live in this constant reality, and rarely, if ever, complain. I mention it because I know how easy it is to take these luxuries for granted; I fall into the trap of becoming ungrateful when they are at my disposal.

For instance, the other day when I borrowed my friend’s car, I popped in here and quickly stopped there; conveniently forgetting that merely one of those stoppings or poppings, taking five minutes out of my car-graced day, would have taken me an extra hour on a day I’m on a taxi-train-foot mission. I was again humbled, and brought back down to reality, when I dropped the car back off at my friend’s, and began my twenty-minute walk home, realizing it would have been a one-minute drive. But I know that I am not alone in my subconscious adaptation and ungratefulness in times of much. I see others around me who blindly take the wonderful luxuries of life completely for granted, and even worse, people who are merciless when it comes to dealing with others who do not have those valuable things.

It is for this reason I am angered to the point of fighting and spitting when I hear a rich South African “Madam” of Constantia complaining that her Domestic Worker from Khayelitsha is late every now and then, the Madam most definitely unaware of the efforts taken and the challenges overcome to even get there at all; the Domestic Worker, coming from a township conveniently placed far from the eyes of the rich, has to wake up around 4:00AM, to boil water for her own children to wash and get them ready for school, making sure they are fed and out the door before she can begin her first walk, or taxi ride, to the first train station, to get on a train that travels for thirty-minutes, taking her to another station where she gets another train and rides for twenty-minutes, to then board a taxi which takes her twenty-minutes and drops her at the outskirts of the wealthy suburb, where no minibus taxis are allowed in. There she begins her thirty-minute walk to the Madan’s mansion.

By the time the Madam is groggily sipping her first wonderful mouthful of coffee, made by the Domestic Worker, she is blissfully unaware that her employee has already been awake for more than four hours. One would argue that the Domestic Worker should not complain because “at least she has employment and it’s her responsibility to get there”, but the complaints I hear do not come from the Domestic Workers; they come from those who have more than enough, if not way too much, and they are insensitive, ignorant and non-empathetic complaints at that. The Domestic Worker is not asking for the right to be late all the time, or for pity or patronizing attitudes, but rather a little understanding when the trains are not running properly, or the taxis are striking, or when her shack is broken into; happenings often perceived as “lies” or “excuses” by many-a-madam.

Cars, microwaves, and hot water from the tap are conveniences of life, not obtainable to all. Conveniences have the power to turn hours into minutes and minutes into seconds, but convenience has a price. Those who cannot afford it have to learn to manage the time, that will not bend for them, and make do with what they are given. I am not saying it is better or worse to have or not have; that is up to the individual to judge for his or her self. But what I am saying is no matter how little or how much we have, it is an important exercise to look around us, taking stock, and being grateful for what we do have, whether great or small, because just as we can count on time to remain the same, predictable, steady force, we can equally count on life for being the unpredictable, unreliable, and mysterious force that can take something and turn it into nothing, or take everything away with one fell swoop. It does us good to appreciate what we have. Because what we have today may indeed not be there tomorrow. An time… it will remain steady, and keep on ticking. It waits for no one.