Poverty porn or poverty tourism is one aspect of my time in South Africa that was difficult to understand. Before I go any further I will state that the United States also has issues with poverty porn, which plays out on television for millions of viewers on a number of “reality” shows. The US entertainment industry has exported this idea to the UK too. You’re welcome. No, really-I’m sorry.
I took a couple of tour trips into townships, two of them were with my school group on a city tour. When the bus pulled into the township children and men (unemployment rate is 26%) would come toward the bus. Some of the people smiled, but many of them flipped us off and yelled obscenities at the bus. I couldn’t feel mad at them because almost felt like we shouldn’t be there. Yes, going through the township helped me visualize the conditions, but it just felt wrong. It felt like the residents were, yet again, being exploited without their consent for the gain of the country. The people looking on our bus with distain did not know that we were students eager to learn about their country and trying to do it with a sense of respect. I think what bothered me the most on the township tour was that the tour was not given by someone who lived in the township. People deserve the right and ability to tell their own story. Especially, when it comes to people from the continent of Africa because a single African story has been so deeply woven into the fabric of the Western narrative that the majority of westerners do not realize what a fallacy it is.
Billed as a themed B&B where “you can experience staying in a Shanty within the safe environment of a private game reserve. This is the only Shanty Town in the world equipped with under-floor heating and wireless internet access! The Shanty Town is ideal for team building, braais, fancy theme parties and an experience of a lifetime.”
As part of Africa Week here at NMMU I attended a lecture last night by UCT Professor Harry Garuba about Textualized Literature. First he spoke about Textual Territories which are areas of the world that have been written about so much that the writing has forever altered our perceptions of the place. He gave the example of Robben Island being inextricably linked to Nelson Mandela that the perception of the island will always be viewed through the “Mandela lense”. Then he made the argument that Africa itself is an over-textualized territory. First, Africa was written about by people who “discovered” various places in Africa. They wrote tales of discovery. There were diaries by missionaries, memos from colonial administrators that wrote back to their home countries of the manners and customs they witnessed. These might be considered amateur ethnographies. Literature of this first type that has reached canonical status are: Heart of Darkness, King Salomon’s Mines, Mister Johnson, Out of Africa, and Tarzan and the Apes. These books participate in othering which is a process where the authors define identity by what they are not. They identify themselves at the norm and everything else is negative or abnormal (white/black; good/evil; Christian/heathen; civilized/primitive or savage). These texts and pieces of literature were published by the colonial powers about the land and people they were occupying in the colonies.
The next wave of literature then writes back to the empire. African writers read the canonical works of literature and answered back with their own form of ethnographic novel. Nobel Prize winning author Chinua Achebe said that he wrote because he didn’t see himself in the books he read for school. As he was growing up he noted that at first he imagine himself as the explorers finding finding his way through the jungle. But then he came to realize that in the book the author would have written him as one of the dark faced cannibals not the explorer. Achebe’s generation of authors wrote deeply contextualized pieces to show themselves through the books illustrating their own rich culture with long-standing traditions. This generation was writing back to the cannon and presenting a unified front.
Following that wave were authors who wrote back from the perspective of further marginalized people. So, homogeneity gives way to heterogeneity and differences within a culture are given room to be exposed. In this wave class and gender are discussed. Some of the books in this category are: So Long a Letter, The Joys of Motherhood, Woman at Point Zero, A Man of the People, The Beautiful Ones are Not Yet Born.
Then comes the 3rd wave or post-independence writers. They are struggling with the current realities of African life and culture throughout the continent. There is disillusionment with the current situation because the promised life that they were fighting for during apartheid or colonial domination has not come true as it was imagined. These authors are posing what could be called a Marxist challenge to their current governments. Professor Garuba argued that literature from South Africa should be considered interconnected to the literature from other countries on the continent. These new writers are offering plural truths which allow for levity and a new lightness of being. He postulated that the next concern for African cultural literature are authors who are represented as African authors but who no longer live in Africa. It seems simple that this will happen because publishers find it easier to deal with a local author rather than one who is on the continent. However, these authors call into question the authenticity not of their individual voice but their individual voice being held up as representative for a whole people once again.
This week was orientation, I think I’ve mentioned that bit. Today, we only had one workshop and it was “The Danger of a Single Story.” During the workshop we watched this video and following the video there was a presentation by Somina Igani, a third year law student. I appreciated these presentations in conjunction with each other. Out of the whole group, I was the only person who had seen the video before, but each time I watch it I do get something new from it. Especially watching the talk again, now, in this environment it resonated even deeper with me. In the past week and a half, I’ve been getting to know the SCSU group I’m with. Then we met the other study abroad students who came on the weekend orientation, from a variety of countries. We were all just trying to get names correct! As the week continued we keep getting to know one another but none of us want to be a “single story” to another person.
What Samina’s presentation added to this video was powerful because it dealt directly with multiculturalism at NMMU. There are students from more than 60 countries at this university, from Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas. I hope to get a copy of his presentation because it was very good. His presentation was trying to help us understand that just because we do things differently, it does not make us crazy or less human. Moreover, doing things differently is what we should expect but love should happen anyway. We need each other in this life and if we want to make the world a better place then we need each other.
“A tree can never make a forrest.” -African Proverb