Five years later, I still haven’t figured out why I chose to go on a township tour. Born and raised in one myself, it wasn’t a foreign space or a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Or even the outcome of a series of unfortunate travel events.
I now know that one of the factors was a lack of judgement, but when I think back to the decision, I can’t quite recall why I wanted to pay money to see a township in Tanzania.
When I’m being kind to myself, a helpful narrative is that by paying to go on the township tour, I contributed towards the reduction of poverty and the growth of economic prosperity for the tour guide and the families I met. I imagine this would have informed my choice at the time. But what a poor choice it was!
As townships go, it was standard. There were some upper-market areas alongside others that were really impoverished; houses built of bricks and shelters made from random pieces of anything; clean streets and dirty streets; quiet parts and rowdy parts.
I could have closed my eyes or narrowed my scope of vision and just as easily have been in Diepsloot or Ntuzuma.
My tour guide January was an adept translator and an entertaining chaperon. We were having a decent time. Until he took me for a stop at Bebe’s house. Suffice to say, her living conditions were deplorable and while January, Bebe and I, huddled in her tiny space, I realised how invasive my presence was. And how distasteful, perhaps even perplexing, it was.
But Bebe likely needed the money and so decided that she would have to perform her poverty for visitors such as me.
Proof of famine
In the community Bebe is known as a trustworthy herbalist, January informed me. She passed me a sprig of a castor leaf, and as I took a sniff I thought back to my childhood and spoonfuls of the too frequent and too fast remedy for constipation.
I realised then that even if she felt supremely confident in her vocation as a herbalist, Bebe likely needed to present herself as demure. She would have had to dim her brilliance to the level of her material wealth. Even as my presence and witness to her destitution assaulted her dignity, she couldn’t repair it by showcasing her importance or value while in my presence. She couldn’t respond to me with assurance, boldness, conviction, determination, elation, flair or glee. Poverty doesn’t look or behave like that.
I wish I had known to give her permission and an invitation to be all of who she is, despite the austerity of her environment. Yet, somehow, she and I found ourselves trapped on a stage where our characters could not move beyond the labels of congenial benevolent visitor and timid melancholic ever-thankful host. A script was set and both of us gave Oscar-worthy performances. Except that one performance was extremely damaging, while the other was just an exercise in sociability and decent manners.
This predetermined script saw us playing along to the narrative that poverty has to look and sound a certain way in order to fully qualify as poverty.
Fortunately for Bebe, my township tour amount was fixed and had been paid already.
But imagine if I was a good-hearted CSI executive coming to the notorious slums of XYZ to see potential candidates for a female entrepreneurship project. If Bebe had been too happy, or too stately, or not humble enough, would I have deemed her poor enough?
For the countless Bebes worldwide, the answer is no.
Those with money and resources and the ability to assist want to see poverty in order to believe it and then sign cheques to alleviate it.
And when we see poverty, we often need it to look a particular way. Part of the difficulty is that poverty can be easy to recognise but hard to define.
We recognise it in two ways: an internal assessment of how our lives differ, such as what amenities I have that another person doesn’t; and by a visual catalogue of scenarios such as dirty torn clothing, facial expressions and body language.
In reality, however, poverty can and does look a myriad different ways; beyond the crouched young child with flies swarming around their face, or the huddled ashen downcast woman in African attire.
Poverty can be defined as the state of not having sufficient means to survive; but it is lived out in ways that go beyond these words. Poverty can manifest in forms such as structural, economic, social, environmental, political and even spiritual deprivation.
Academics have two terms that foster a more holistic view: absolute poverty and relative poverty.
Absolute poverty is a shortage of the finances necessary to meet basic needs such as food, housing and clothing; while relative poverty assesses poverty in relation to the economic status of other members of society.
Under both definitions, people are poor if they fall below the standards of living that prevail in their context.
Honouring all mankind
In his book The Philosophy of Liberty, Kenyan philosopher Odera Oruka, outlines a helpful framework for understanding and addressing poverty. Oruka posits that we are all deserving of The Human Minimum, which comprises these basic human needs:
- shelter and clothes
- freedom of action or movement
Oruka then categorises these into three freedoms which should be the rights of all:
- Freedom from hunger
- Freedom to find shelter
- Freedom from ignorance
These, he believes, constitute ‘a human minimum consistent with the notion of human dignity’.
When these freedoms are absent, and basic human needs aren’t being met, people’s dignity has been violated. Poverty tourism, like the township tour I went on, then exacerbates this violation through the additional trauma of performed lowliness and abasement.
It insists on first dehumanising an individual in order to tug at the heartstrings of the rest of humanity.
Understanding poverty as it relates to dignity is important for the privileged. We come to the poor possessing food and clothing and shelter, with our dignity intact and in hand; yet despite this abundance, we take from their already meagre portion by expecting poverty to be proved and performed.
On top of the hard work of staying alive, the poor must now also add the hard work of rebuilding their dignity. Underneath shaky leaking roofs, despite rumbling empty stomachs, in the face of scorn and marginalisation, they must believe in their inherent dignity and value; that they are worth the hard work of working themselves out of poverty.
I have not gone on a township tour since I met Bebe; I know better now. But there are so many ways in which my privilege undermines the reality of the poor, and exacerbates their hardships.
Believing that privilege is solely the result of hard work is short-sighted. Telling poor people that hard work leads to progress which then leads to wealth is not sharing the complete roadmap. Presenting talent, skill and merit as the building blocks of success is hazardous construction. And expecting poor people to manoeuvre their way out of poverty while we diminish the dignity essential to navigation, is disingenuous direction.
All this leads the poor on a path that seems promising, but after the hill, over the barricade, through the obstructions, and around the corner, it still leads to poverty – just at a new address.