'Travelling Tales' : American (re)constructions of South Africa and Africa through study abroad in Cape Town

Master Thesis


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University of Cape Town

Postcolonial theory has been critiqued for essentializing the North and being too theoretical. Yet it has also been described as essential for the ongoing decolonization of our world. Scholars in a range of disciplines have therefore suggested the need to 'examine specific practices and devises in particular times and places' in order to expose and challenge the ways that certain forms of discourse function to maintain imperialist interests and misrepresentations of Africa in the 'West.' To these ends, this study looks at the construction of early European/American travelers' tales and the experience of study abroad in South Africa as two particular practices that are relevant to the concerns of postcolonialism. While much has been written about each of these phenomena on their own, little has been done to bring them into a conversation with each other. To fill this gap, this dissertation draws on narrative analysis, symbolic convergence theory, discourse analysis and postcolonial theory to explore the dominant narratives that emerge in the pre-trip, embodied trip and post-trip tellings of both types of tales. In order to discover the meaning-making processes of these narratives, qualitative methods were used. Firstly, an extensive literature review was undertaken of early travelers' tales (written between 1600 and 1900), images of Africa in the United States, travel and tourism theory and study abroad literature. Eight focus groups and six one-on-one interviews were then conducted with a total of 36 American students, who were either directly enrolled at the University of Cape Town or participants in the School for International Training (SIT) in Cape Town. These interviews were then followed up with email correspondence once the students had returned home. This study found that while study abroad narratives have enormous potential to challenge the negative and inaccurate stereotypes about Africa in the United States, many strains still exist that mirror the rhetoric of early travelers' tales and promote notions of Africa as 'wild', 'dangerous' and 'underdeveloped' and South Africa as the 'light' version of Africa. However, in contrast to the writers of early travelers' tales, the students who participated in this study demonstrated many more instances of critical self-reflection and desire for change.

Includes bibliographical references (p. 127-138).