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An Expat in South Africa
By: Sine Thieme - Also see author's expat blog listing & expat interviewI wake up with a start. My bedside alarm tells me it’s 4:30 in the morning and it takes me a moment to remember that I’m in a brand-new house, in a brand-new country, on a brand-new continent. What on Earth was that noise that just jolted me from sleep?
It sounded like a pig was being slaughtered right outside my window.
As I lie in bed, unable to go back to close an eye again, I reflect upon the rather startling fact that we – myself, my husband Noisette, and the four kids – now live in Africa, a continent we never thought we’d make our home one day. It’s a miracle we moved here at all, really. When the prospect of Johannesburg first came up I went online to Google South Africa, and I was shocked to find out that we probably wouldn’t survive the trip from the airport to our house. Every expat forum discussing South Africa tries to outdo the next one in terms of spreading crime horror stories, so that when you finally arrive here you are saddled with a huge amount of anxiety. Even though we made it to our new home from the airport in one piece, we were warned by our driver about a place called “Alexandra” which we could see from the highway, the most dangerous township in the area and one to never set foot in if we held our lives dear, or so we were told. Not an entirely comforting start.
Except now that we are here, I’m much less concerned with the prospect of murder, at least my own. What really frightens me is the murder of whatever it was that made this horrible noise just a minute ago, at such an ungodly hour in the morning. Because there is no way I’ll ever sleep in this country with that kind of a racket going on.
It is the middle of March; technically the onset of autumn, but the night is stifling hot. The Joburg winter is cold and short and still a few months away. Since I can’t sleep, I open the door to the balcony to let in the fresh night air and it feels wonderful. Getting used to living without air conditioning will not be a problem, I can already tell. I step outside, lower myself against a wall, and barely manage to avoid what I only now realize is a blanketing of bird shit. I make a mental note that something will have to be done about that. Item number sixty-three on my ever-growing expat moving-in list.
But soon all thoughts of to-do lists and crime rates are temporarily forgotten. Because I’m about to witness my first ever African sunrise, and it is simply glorious. Within minutes the sky transforms to a soft pink, outlines of trees appear on the distant ridge, and the sun creeps over the horizon, fiery and orange and full of warmth and promise not just for this day but for our new life.
With a sunrise like this to start things off, everything is bound to be just fine in South Africa.
It is now two years later and I often think back fondly to my first night here on that balcony. I was so full of wonder back then about this new country, and everything was so fresh and different. It is when I decided I would write down every experience along the way, and so my blog was born, enabling me to share all my baby steps (and, more often, missteps) with others and dish out advice to those following behind me.
If you are one of those (following behind me, that is) you’ll now want to hear some of that advice.
Where to start? Well, with the noise waking me up that morning, of course. It was a hadeda. A bird. But not just any old bird. The hadeda is the only bird in the Ibis family known to man that makes any sound at all. And it’s the ugliest, most piercing scream you can imagine, jolting you from sleep the first few weeks of your expat existence just as the sun comes up, which is early in a South African summer. The hadedas will descend on your lawn in groups, most likely searching for Parktown prawns (a large and disgusting member of the insect family you will learn to hate when you are faced with the prospect of fishing one out of your pool filter), and they will converse with each other loudly while landing, only to screech off again a while later, no doubt to the next newly-arrived expat house to scare the living daylights out of them.
But trust me, you’ll get used to the hadedas. As you will get used to the many other peculiarities of life in South Africa. Like the fact that South Africans employ three different expressions to convey they’ll do something eventually, all three of which misleadingly have the word “now” in them, even though it is very obvious, after having lived here just a short while, that “now” is most certainly not the intention of the speaker. You will get used to no one calling you back who promises to do so “just now.” You will get used to carrying your passport and lease agreement with you for the first six months, always aware that you might be asked to produce them whenever signing up for any kind of service. You will get used to being sent home again, without your new cell phone contract, because you are only the spouse and your husband will have to sign it instead. You will get used to turning on the faucet to find no water coming out of it, and you will eventually no longer have the urge to call a person of authority to alert them of this shortcoming. You will similarly learn not to flinch when the power is off for several days because of some mistake by the utility company, and you will not even find it particularly offensive when a reconnection fee appears on your bill later after the power is restored.
And you will quietly discard your to-do list one day, realizing that you no longer get the same satisfaction from crossing things off of it. Probably because you never get to cross anything off.
Africa, you will learn, is determined to teach you patience, however determined you might be on your part to bend it to your will. The thing is, eventually you’ll be grateful for it. You’ll become a more relaxed person, a person who knows that life goes on even if certain things simply do not get done, or at least take a lot longer than you expect. You might as well laugh and joke and say “Eish! There is nothing to be done” when things go wrong. Take a break, dunk a rusk in your Rooibos tea, have a Boerewors, and raise your glass of Chardonnay with a toast of “Welcome to Africa,” just like everyone else does.
Live in South Africa for a few months and you will get used to saying “tomahto sauce” for ketchup, you will find it normal to hear the word “shame” in every other sentence, you will no longer be afraid you might run over the hawkers at the intersection or the parking guards waving you into your spot. You will find it perfectly natural to call a traffic light robot, you will consider it no big deal that the robots often don’t work, and you are okay with the minibus taxi drivers ignoring them even when they do work. You will feel a stirring of interest in sports like cricket and netball and rugby, even though you will never publicly admit that rugby is in fact superior to American football, and you will not be surprised finding yourself submerged in a cage in freezing water staring at a Great White shark swimming at you, or perched atop the world’s highest bungy-jumping bridge staring down into the void, even though in your former life you swore you’d never do any of those things.
Because this is life in Africa. The adventurous (and the frankly weird) is always just around the corner, and my advice to you fellow expats is to seize it. Forget the messy house when your container first arrives and nothing is in its place, and book a safari instead. Go watch mating lions and hunting wild dogs and bathing elephants. And when you come back without ever seeing a leopard, go book your next bush trip, and take a photography class somewhere along the way. Go see the wonders of Victoria Falls, of Table Mountain, of penguins living in Africa, of the gigantic red sand dunes of Sossusvlei. Go swing from tree to tree like Tarzan on a canopy tour, and go climb Kilimanjaro, the continent’s highest peak. Do as much of this as you can, because there is so much to see both in South Africa and the surrounding countries, and you never know how long you’ll be here.
You might bankrupt your coffers, but you will make valuable investments in the memory bank. There is something special about living in Africa, and it gets into your blood. Some things might never move off of your to-do list, but your life will be moving along at an exhilarating pace.
Aside from the myriad travel opportunities, there are two things most expats immediately fall in love with in South Africa: The weather, and domestic help. Johannesburg in particular has what hast to be the most agreeable climate in the world, with ten months of warm weather that is almost never too hot but nice enough to spend at the side of your pool, and two months of freezing nights but dry, sunny days. Those freezing nights will make you curse the flimsy state of South African housing and the lack of proper central heating and force you to go to bed at 8:00 at night because that is the only warm place in your house, but they will be over before you know it and, like every other Joburger, you will spend the next ten months in a state of blissful amnesia, banning any thoughts of winter from your mind until you find yourself waking up again one cold June morning without a single gas bottle in the house.
If you’re coming from Europe, the idea of a live-in maid might strike you as alien, and if you’re coming from Asia, the idea will be a huge comfort. Either way, you’ll most likely end up with domestic help, either part or full-time, and come to love it. It’s a South African way of life. Domestic workers often become a part of the family they are working for, and by employing someone you are not only providing one job but often a livelihood for an entire extended family. It will take some getting used to and it is important to think about what kind of person you want to hire to be around you all day before you get started, but the benefits to everyone involved will be well worth it. Who knows, you might even start a blog in your newly-found free time.
This all sounds great, but what about that crime rate, you will ask?
As I said, moving to South Africa can be very scary. At least up to the point where you actually do the moving, if you listen to all the bad press about it. Yes, Johannesburg isn’t the safest city (and neither is Cape Town, which doesn’t get nearly so much bad press but in fact has a higher crime rate, based on the latest government statistics), but that is true for many other cities of the world. Most locals will tell you that you just have to be “sensible” and I find that to be very true. You’re careful where you go at night and you keep your eyes open, but you also realize that the possibility of crime and bad luck can’t rule your life. Remember that place called Alexandra we were warned about the very first day we set foot on South African soil? I have since driven into the heart of it dozens of times, and have lived to write this column. I stood out like a sore thumb, the only white person for miles around, in a nice big car to boot, and I admit it made me nervous the first few times. All these scary stories you hear about South Africa focus on township criminality and violence, and whether you want to or not, you’ll arrive in South Africa afraid of black people, made “worse” by the fact that there are so many of them. 80%, in fact, of South Africa’s population is black (and 9% is white with the rest made up of another 9% Coloured – yes that term is still used – and 2% Indian) and the vast majority of it still lives cramped together in the townships they were confined to under the apartheid system.
But the thing is, there are good people everywhere, and so it is in a township. All it takes is getting to know some of them, and you’ll no longer feel afraid. Some of my best memories of life in South Africa will always be those of cheering a bunch of township kids during their baseball games, seeing their faces light up when we were able to give them new shoes, or new t-shirts, or new hats, but mostly just to see us come and take part in their lives that are so different from ours. The income inequalities in South Africa are huge, even though it is much more developed and westernized than the rest of Africa, and many people still live in cobbled-together shacks without access to running water or electricity. Nevertheless, you will hardly find a place with more cheerful and friendly people than South Africa, and the energy and vibrancy all around you is infectious.
You might choose to stay holed up in your secure estate, worried about crime, but you’d be missing out on a truly educational, even life-transforming side of living in South Africa.
In the end, being happy as an expat in any new place comes down to one thing, and that’s the people around you, the friends you are able to make. One of our best decisions upon moving here, and something I can highly recommend to anyone else, was to send our four children to a local private school, not an international one. We were admittedly anxious how that would work out in terms of friends, but we needn’t have worried. Most of our friends are South Africans, with a sprinkling of expats, and we couldn’t be happier. Being on the same schedule as our local friends has given us plenty of opportunities to travel together and experience the country differently than if we were hopping on a plane for home leave every time the school goes on break.
It has also been a good experience for our children to be enrolled in a local school, even if they might have more of an adjustment to master upon returning or moving on. They have been sorted into houses. They have learned a new national anthem that is sung in five languages. They have learned to play netball and field hockey and cricket and rugby and the marimbas. They are “proudly South African” just like their peers when it comes to cheering for the national team, and they are just as proud to have competed in an Impala-poop-spitting contest. They have learned to speak Zulu and Afrikaans, entirely useless on the world stage, you might argue. But which other languages use a poetic “I see you” (sawubona) for a simple hello, and a more prosaic but oh-so descriptive “lekker” for something good as opposed to “kak” for when things go wrong?
Oh, and one last piece of advice: Pack some warm sweaters. Africa has a hot sun, but contrary to what you might think, it can be a cold land.
The key to a successful life as an expat is to adapt to the country you’re living in, wherever that might be. You can almost never replicate your old life in a new place, or if you try, you’ll probably be miserable. Yes, you can come to South Africa and bemoan the high crime rate, but on the flip side you can enjoy the fact that you can more or less just drive up to a wild lion or elephant without ever signing an indemnity form. You can be uptight about the lack of customer service at many government agencies, but you can also enjoy the fact that it forces you to stop sweating the small stuff in your life. You can miss the convenience of shopping online or in big supermarkets for your every need and whim, but you can enjoy buying the freshest mangoes you’ve ever had at the small grocery store around the corner. You can rail against the lack of public transportation, or you can buy yourself a four-wheel drive vehicle and become a true South African at heart, only happy when there is at least one dirt road between you and your destination, one that will teach you to change more than your fair share of tires.
If you keep an open mind, you’ll discover new joys around you every day.
If we had listened to all the naysayers condemning South Africa for its crime rate, or if we had been discouraged by the ridiculous amount of paperwork you’re required to submit to obtain your visa, we might never have moved here. We would have been the poorer for it, as this is an amazing place to live.
About the author:I’m Sine, and I live in Johannesburg with my family of six. I love Africa, the weather, going on safari, and blogging. I haven’t been hijacked yet, have no idea when exactly “just now” is, and have an opinion about pretty much everything regarding expat life in South Africa. To follow my (mis-)adventures as an expat, visit my blog
Blog address: http://www.joburgexpat.com/ Twitter: @sthieme
Contest Comments » There are 27 comments
Tony wrote 10 years ago:
Great post Sine! Your blog has been a great resource for my wife and definitely put her at ease about moving here!
Hi everyone - thank you SO Much for all your wonderful comments, it really means a lot to me that so many keep reading my blog and find it helpful (as well as entertaining).
Me again, sorry to butt in again but Mike, I had to answer to your wonderful comment. You've just started another blog post for me I think, if you'll let me use your words about Africa. They did get me started on that second round of crying which I know is going to be long. But like you said we will be back for sure. And no, hadn't heard of Yasmine but will put it on my farewell list (yes, I'm an anal person and actually have such a list). Great reason to undertake the beautiful drive out to Harties again. My heart always catches when you crest over that ridge. I know exactly where that windmill is. No, I'm not from Braunschweig, but my husband is from Hannover. Glad you love it so much here in SA and glad to have you as a reader. And thanks again to everyone else for reading and commenting!
Gretchen Wilson wrote 10 years ago:
Sine, I appreciate your positivity, but I'd like to offer you the constructive feedback that some of your language in this post was (inadvertently) quite offensive to me. Crime is indeed a huge problem in South Africa (where I live). But you write: "...whether you want to or not, you’ll arrive in South Africa afraid of black people, made 'worse' by the fact that there are so many of them. 80%, in fact, of South Africa’s population is black... All it takes is getting to know some of them, and you’ll no longer feel afraid." I know that you did not intend this to sound racist, but this was deeply hurtful to me. I see that you did qualify your 'worse' with quotation marks, suggesting that it is not to be taken seriously. But any time a writer talks of fellow human beings who happen to be black as "them" -- as in "all it takes is getting to know some of them" -- it suggests that "they" are as distant from us as scary aliens from another planet. Please imagine how that would feel to read your sentences above if you were a non-white South African. It would hurt. As it does me. My impression is that you made an assumption in your writing that everyone reading your blog post would be white, and perhaps an ex-pat, and be able to get a sense from your writer's voice that you were being a bit tongue in cheek. My impression is that you also assumed that anyone reading who was neither white nor an expat would similarly get where you were coming from and not take offense at this racist language. But that was certainly not the case with me. I wish you lots of luck with your future blog posts. Thank you for considering this constructive feedback.
Gretchen, Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I think I understand exactly what bothers you. It nagged at me myself as I was writing it. And yet that is precisely why I chose to write what I did in that paragraph and bringing race into it instead of taking the easy way out and keeping it in general terms about crime. You are absolutely right, the target reader I had in mind was an expat like me (since this is a website for expats), though not necessarily white like me, looking at South Africa from the outside. I’ve had people of different races admit to me that they were utterly afraid of the townships when first moving to South Africa. My intent with this piece was to point out to the reader that we associate crime with certain people, and that we form prejudices against these people, and that we have to force ourselves to overcome these prejudices by reaching out to “them.” I had a woman in Alexandra tell me that she was utterly afraid of the people in Diepsloot and would never set foot there in her life. She, also, was afraid of “them.” It had nothing to do with race, but a fear of who you don’t know. And yes, I did use the quotes around “worse” intentionally and sarcastically. The use of the word “them” is indeed a bit unfortunate. I might have found a better way to phrase that with more elegant language. I strongly feel that I'm doing more good by making the expat reader uncomfortable about their prejudice than I'm doing harm by mentioning racial fears in the first place. Clearly you see it differently. Had I left that part out, I wouldn’t have offended you. But I also would have let the reader get away with silently thinking along the lines of “well I just won’t go into a township and crime wont’ be such a problem for me; it’s their problem, not mine.” I am in total agreement with you that we have to get from “them” to “us” and this is my way of drawing attention to the divide and the need to overcome it.
Judy Fairchild wrote 10 years ago:
Love this blog! Sine always makes me long for Africa, and her writing is always compelling and beautiful!
Kritika wrote 10 years ago:
Thanks for allaying my fears /concerns over our next big move! very well written Sine:)this postcard from joburg is a sure winner !
Rashida Mangera wrote 10 years ago:
A great blog. I grew up in Johannesburg but have been living abroad for many years. Sine has made it possible for me to re-connect and keep in touch with my home city and rediscover all it's quirks and beauty and more. And makes me want to move back.Beautiful writing style.
MJ wrote 10 years ago:
Love reading this makes being an expat seem way less lonely! As well as having a warmth and sense of humor to her writing- it is so practical and helpful.
Mel wrote 10 years ago:
Great blog! And great advice!
Luetta Rempel wrote 10 years ago:
Loved the article. Clearly, you have learned the art of making adjustments and, in the process, getting the most out of life. Makes me want to visit South Africa. (No, that's not been a desire before!)
Dominique Phohleli wrote 10 years ago:
What a beautiful summary of all you have been through while living in Johannesburg, Sine. I am a fan of your blog, ever thankful for the positive take on living in South Africa.
Astrid wrote 10 years ago:
Sine, this is a very encouraging article! It makes me really looking forward to the start of my 'adventure'.
Debs wrote 10 years ago:
Wonderful post Sine! I think I have read every single post you have ever written and some of them twice or three times. I have printed out your instructions on what to do if I get pulled over by the Metro cops so that I have my own story to tell. Your insight into the lives of expats in Jozi is so refreshing. Our children have been with reading groups into Diepsloot, and class visits to Ivory Park. They have also become proudly South African. More people need to realise that Joburg is not such a bad place to bring your family on a secondment. It will truly enrich your lives. In fact if I was given the choice to make again I would choose Joburg!
Kathryn Lowell wrote 10 years ago:
Sine, your blog has been invaluable to me for the 16 months since arriving. I treasure every post. You keep it real and honest and have covered so much ground in the blog, it is a MUST READ for any expat. By the way, I've heard it said that when you can sleep through the hadedas at 5am, you've finally acclimated. I still awake with a jolt after all these months!
Henda wrote 10 years ago:
As a South African expat living in the UK and about to be repatriated to SA, I love how you choose to focus on all the good things going for SA. I often refer my eternally pessimistic friends to your blog for a good dose of (realistic) optimism. Thank you. Good luck with the move back!
Nicole wrote 10 years ago:
I love the blog - it made my decision to move to Johannesburg a lot easier. And I still get a lot of useful information...we also did our first trip in the bush when the boxes were not unpacked. Great! The blog also helped to get over frustration with nothing being done of your to-do-list and just start to enjoy the African way of life! Thanks Sine for the delightful way of describing our lives!!!
Maryanne wrote 10 years ago:
Sine's stories are straight from the heart and have made me laugh, cry, and most importantly, want to visit this beautiful and crazy country. Thank you for sharing your family adventure!
Alice wrote 10 years ago:
I love reading your blog. The stories you choose to cover always seem to have answers to burning questions of my own. Your comfortable style of writing is like sitting down and listening to a good friend. Keep up the good work and keep on writing!
Mike Rost wrote 10 years ago:
Sine, we arrived in SA in 1975 as imigrants from Germany and i was 13 yrs. old at that stage. Still living in SA and not longing back. I stumbled apon your blog quite by accidend and have since read every post and can't wait for the next update. I particular enjoy your writing style and humor and the accurate discriptions of certain situations. I am sorry to learn that you are leaving beautifull SA. It is said the you only cry two times in Africa first when you arrive and secondly when you leave, but the second time much harder and for longer then the first time. You will be back i am sure, for once you drank the water of Africa it stays with you and in your blood. This must be one of the best places on earth to live and raise children. By the way have you discovered Yasmine at Hartebeespoort dam yet? you will find Apfelmuss and Curry sauce there as well as other European delis.It is the building with the windmill next to it.I hail from Braunschweig and belive it is not far from were you grew up.
Mike Rost wrote 10 years ago:
Sine, youre most welcome to use any words you wish for a new post. A visit to Yasmine will most certainley make at least one post as well, and i am sure you will enjoy it as much as we do.I will be following your blog and await the one that say's " Back Home in Africa" Home underlined and in Bolt.
Suzie wrote 10 years ago:
Great helpful blog! Smart and funny writing!
Sonya Szabo wrote 10 years ago:
Sine, You speak the truth. Thank you for sharing your experiences with us. And at the same time they're all of our experiences. Cheers ;)
Conrad Günther wrote 10 years ago:
Sine, auch dieser Eintrag ist Dir wieder exzellent gelungen, bin wirklich gespannt, wie es mit Joburgexpat weitergeht!
Noisette wrote 10 years ago:
Sine, your writing wonderfully captures the essence of our experience and reflects on so many of our shared moments. Thank you for being so supportive and sharing in our journey to South Africa, our time on the continent, and now the return to our adopted home.
Lucy wrote 10 years ago:
Thanks for taking the time and effort to record and articulate the feelings and thoughts that you are having in South Africa. I share many of them but was letting them just wash over me. I had often wished I kept a personal record of my experiences in SA - but now I have your record that is more than sufficient for me right now!
Melinda Nutter wrote 10 years ago:
First visited SA in 1981 and still enjoy visiting your wonderful country. It is difficult to describe SA to the outside world but you do a wonderful job of it with your blog