The camera clicks. The photo that the group and I are posing for has been taken. Feelings of guilt, confusion, and extreme discomfort rise up inside of me because I realise what I’ve just done. I’m not okay with it. I wasn’t okay with it before the photo was taken. And yet I smiled for it. I shouldn’t have done that. Wow, I really shouldn’t have done that.
I play back this moment hundreds of times in my head as I get back into our tour bus and we start the drive back to our B&B in Johannesburg. I watch as the local people of the township we were visiting, Alexandra, seem to pointedly stare at us through the bus windows. No one is waving at us. Heck, no one is even smiling. They all look at us blankly or with a somewhat disgusted look on their faces. The expressions I see convey nothing else to me than to say, “why are you here?”
So why were we there? Why were we driving through Alexandra, one of the poorest urban areas in the whole of South Africa? The answer is perhaps obvious. I’ll spell it out anyway. We were there to see the shanty town nature of the living situation there. In other words, we were there to see just how destitute the township was, especially when compared to the affluent area of Johannesburg that DukeEngage had put us up in.
But the way in which we approached our visit was questionable, or at least it was in my opinion. We didn’t engage with any local people while we were there save for our waiter at the tourist-spot open barbecue restaurant full of Americans that we frequented for lunch. And so, by not engaging with the people of Alexandra, we managed to completely objectify them and their community. We stared at their homes and lives from our privileged perspectives and made no attempt to understand the story of even a single local there. I felt like we had invaded their homes and had made a sort of ‘poverty tour’ out of their lives. Yikes.
The group photo that we took was before a background of Alexandra’s makeshift houses made from materials that I know would be considered fully unsuitable as shelter back home in London. The perfect example of our objectification of the community. Think about it. Why do people take photos when they’re travelling? Because they see something different. They see something so different from their own lives and environments that they feel the need to pose in front of it so that they can remember that they were there. The trip was completely for us. We made no attempt to connect with the community. We posed and smiled in front of a kind of landscape that many of us had never seen before. A landscape different to our own. A life different to mine. But taking a photo was wrong. Objectification is wrong.
I struggle with this experience still, days on from it and located now in a completely different city, Cape Town. We reflected for quite a while on this experience as a group in our reflection session and expressed our feelings. Many of us have been struggling with it but I will only speak for myself in this post. Going forward, I want to make sure that I engage with the communities around me. When I start my internship at the Women’s Legal Centre tomorrow, I will do my best to engage with everyone I meet. When we go visit clients in local townships, I will do my best to engage with everyone I meet. When we go to trials, I will do my best to listen and interact with those around me. I’m not sure if this is the solution. I’m not sure if what I experienced in Alexandra necessarily needs a solution. But I do know that I need to continue reflecting on it and the experiences to come so that I can continue struggling with my feelings. Yes, it’s uncomfortable. But if I’m still struggling inwardly, hopefully my experience doing the Cape Town DukeEngage programme will be more meaningful for me and everyone involved.