Poorism. It’s a word that’s been gaining traction over the last couple of years, and it’s one of those terms that cannot be misunderstood. It means exactly what you think it means. It’s poverty porn disguised as “tourism”, where people’s impoverishment is the main attraction. This usually takes place in India’s slums, Brazil’s Favelas and South Africa’s townships to name just a few places. It goes without saying that this is a highly unethical, exploitative and downright voyeuristic form of “tourism”. Having said that, there are plenty of community tour initiatives doing incredible stuff showing off the unbelievable wealth of culture and sense of history in the country, and which steer clear of poorism aspects. But how can I differentiate between township tours disguised as community tours and the real thing, you ask? No need to worry, we’ve got you covered. Here are four quick pointers to look out for and to consider before booking your next authentic community tour.

  1. To start with if you’ve ever caught yourself thinking or saying “I wonder how the other half lives” then we’re glad you caught yourself in time and haven’t acted on it. This phrase turns poverty in to a choice and a voluntary lifestyle – nothing could be further from the truth. It also has expedition/safari written all over it and again places people’s impoverishment at the centre of the tours. And why is this a problem you ask? Because poorism is based on unequal power balances. It means that tourists who go on tours, which emphasize poverty and deprivation, are involved in the act of gawking at poor people’s lives without the equal opportunity for poor people to gawk back at theirs.
  2. Question your intentions. Why do you want to go on a particular community tour? Are you interested in learning about the country’s history and sense of culture that has often been inseparable from townships, or are you interested in seeing a stereotypical image of Africa and “making a difference?” If you want to visit the street that produced two Nobel Prize winners in Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, then by all means, be our guest. If you want to hand out candy and play with poor African kids then what you’re looking for might be an NGO or a poorism tour. Any tour that makes you feel like you might be on an Oxfam mission to save the world is not a tour.
  3. We’ll be the first to say it - tours are always transformative experiences; you learn more about the world and take on different perspectives, but if that transformative experience is based on someone else’s impoverishment then that’s not cool. In other words, you should never walk away from a tour saying, “They had so little, but they were so happy. It taught me so much. I’ll never complain again.” There should never be a personal and spiritual lesson in other people’s poverty.
  4. Is your tour guide showing you around shacks, porta-loos, people’s living spaces and kids with runny noses? We call poorism! But besides these “selling points”, such tours are often less structured and lack a cohesive thematic thread. They are manipulative and tug at heartstrings. The tour guide is concerned more about showing how bad people’s lives are. They are not at all concerned with showcasing the rich cultural diversity, incredible traditional cuisine, history and the many other shades of beauty the country has to offer.

To round this all up, there is an inescapable level of poverty in most townships. It would be near impossible to not see any of it even when you go on some authentic community tours. The difference, however, is that this is never the focus of the tours. The focus of community tourism is to unearth the great things happening in communities around the country, without lapsing into people’s hardships. Also consider that townships are spaces loaded with history and culture. There are many great museums, culinary experiences, monuments and events that take place in townships. These are neighbourhoods that are shaped by their residents who are introducing more and more tourist attractions that are to be celebrated and not pitied.