Everything You Need to Know About South African Schools

May 23, 2016

Which school to pick for their children in South Africa, and how to get into the one they've picked, is by far the most discussed topic among prospective expats on my blog and Facebook page. Second to that are questions about bureaucracy, especially the dreaded Traffic Register Number and vehicle license disk renewal, and the always-pressing quest to find the perfect house in the right suburb.

Which just goes to show that at the end of the day, fear of crime - the one thing South Africa is infamous for - is not at the top of people's minds. Day-to-day practical considerations and our children's education take precedence.

At any rate, I spend quite a bit of time every day fielding questions about schools, having evolved as somewhat of an authority on the topic - not so much by virtue of my own knowledge, but because of the vast network of friends and acquaintances I've built, and my ability to ask any of them to chime in on a particular school. Still, quite often I will go hunt on my own blog to dig up the appropriate blog post on a given school-related topic so I can forward it in response to an inquiry, and that can be quite time-consuming. 

In order to make my readers' life - and mine! - a little bit easier, I thought I'd gather all my blog posts discussing South African schools in any way, shape, or form, into one tidy list to hand out henceforth. Bear in mind that I wrote these over the course of 4-5 years, and that my knowledge of the topic evolved over that time period, so it's a good idea to read the more recent posts in addition to the older ones. (Even though I've grouped them by topic, you can see the date under the heading of each.)

Without further ado, voila!

Joburg Expat's Recommended Reading
on South African Schools

School Listings

St. John's College, one of the oldest and most prestigious schools in Johannesburg

South African Schools: An International Comparison

Dainfern College

Language Education in South African Schools

Sports at South African Schools

8th Grade South African rugby players

Other Extracurriculars at South African Schools

Grade 0 ("nought"), the incoming pupils, together with Grade 7, the outgoing Senior Prep
class, Dainfern College, South Africa

Transitioning from a South African School Back to the United States

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What is the Best Month to Travel to South Africa?

May 16, 2016

Over the years of authoring Joburg Expat, I've answered many questions about expat life in South Africa. And often it's not just future expats asking away, but friends and acquaintances who are intrigued by my love for a country they haven't given much thought to in the past.

"I want to come visit; what is the best time of year?" is the most frequently asked question by these prospective travelers.

I'm always tempted to say, it doesn't matter. There really isn't a bad time to visit South Africa.

However, that's not what they pay me the big blogger bucks for (ha! Who knew, right?), so I'll try to be more specific. Meaning, it depends.

It depends on where you go

What time of year you should visit depends on where in South Africa you plan on going. If your most important destination is Cape Town and all you want to do in South Africa is stand at the Cape of Good Hope, have some wonderful wine in Stellenbosch, and scale the slopes of Table Mountain, I'd say go either in spring or fall. Bearing in mind that spring is in October/November and fall (or autumn) is in March/April.

Franschhoek near Cape Town, the heart of the South African wine region, in October

Cape Town, and also Kruger Park, tend to get very crowded during the South African school holidays from beginning of December until mid-January when everybody floods to the beaches. Incidentally, this is the most quiet time in Johannesburg and therefore a good time to visit and have less traffic to contend with.

I personally prefer South African summers (which really are one long stretch from October all the way to May), just because I love the heat, and you will be nice and warm on morning game drives. December and January are the hottest (but also rainiest) months. We've been on safaris year round and always enjoyed them and always saw plenty of animals. Winters (June through early August), on the other hand, can get very cold in Southern Africa, particularly on the Highveld around Johannesburg, and especially at night, so if you do go in winter, you have to bring enough layers of warm clothing.

Winters are great for safari holidays

Winter is a good time for a South African safari (photo taken in Pilanesberg National Park in June)

However, there is something to be said for going in winter as well: First off, it is the dry season, giving you several advantages. Because it's dry, the animals tend to congregate around water holes, so it's a tad easier to find them. Also, the bush is less dense as there is less foliage, so again, it's easier to see the animals. If you are planning to go to Kruger Park, winter is also a better option because there won't be any threat of malaria (it's not a very high-risk malaria area, but you do have to reckon with it in summer). Also, it might be cheaper to travel than during the Christmas holidays, which is high season and also school holiday break for South African schools.

If you're interested in any other locations besides South Africa, also consider this: The great migration in Tanzania (Serengeti) occurs in June and July. Those are also the best months for the Okavango Delta as it is at its highest flooding then, stretching from June and July all the way to October.

Flooding of the Okavango Delta (this picture taken in April before the peak of the flooding)

Some other factors to consider

There are other months that have a lot going for them in terms of visiting South Africa: March is the best month to view the Cosmos flowering in Mpumalanga province, September is great for Kruger Park (not too hot, no malaria, no crowds) as well as the Namaqualand wildflower bloom, October marks the beginning of jacaranda season in Johannesburg and Pretoria (once you've see the purple explosion of jacaranda season, you'll be pining for your very own jacaranda tree, trust me) as well as prime time for whale watching in Hermanus.

Jacarandas in Rosebank, a Johannesburg suburb, in October/November

As you can see, any time of year has its attractions for South Africa-bound visitors.  Your best bet is probably to go look for some good deals on flights. December/January is high season and therefore the most expensive. I think March is generally a very cheap month to fly, as is November before the start of summer break.

I can promise you this: You will fall in love with Africa, no matter when you come to visit, and your first time most likely won't be the last.

A more in-depth version of this article, including a handy chart listing pros and cons for every month of the year, can be found on SA People.

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Happy Mother's Day!

May 8, 2016

Aaaah, Mother's Day. It's such a great idea, but it always has the potential to break your heart.

In theory, this is the day of paying tribute to all that we've done for our offspring over the course of an entire year. Like held back their hair when they vomited into the toilet, driven to school to drop off their calculator for an important exam (which we've reminded them the night before they should pack their calculator for RIGHT NOW), or - the ultimate sacrifice - helped them with their science cell project made from a styrofoam ball that had to be purchased at Michaels.

In truth, we should all know not to expect all that much from Mother's Day.

The nicest thing that can be said for Mother's Day is that it's the one day we're not in charge. We're not supposed to be planning anything. The bliss!

But that's exactly it. Leave the planning to other people, and it's bound to go wrong. Planning anything is usually the realm of the mother, and when she isn't doing it, no one is.

I can't tell you how many years, come 5 pm on Mother's Day, we have all looked at each other expectantly, wanting to know what our dinner plans are. There never are any. No one has thought to cook a meal, and no one has thought to make a reservation at a restaurant.

In all fairness, it typically starts out with much more promise. In years past, I was the recipient of many breakfast trays laden with lukewarm tea and toast and jam, carried to my bed by eager little hands. Nowadays, this doesn't happen anymore. Mainly because years of motherhood have resulted in a wake-up time for me that is closer to the time my kids go to bed than when they wake up in the early afternoon. I've had people ask me at 4 p.m., in all earnestness, if they could have breakfast now.

But I don't mind. In fact, I relish the quiet morning with the paper and my cup of tea, even if I have to make it myself. Eventually, people wake up and come up to me and bring me the cards they labored over for days. Or, in some cases, just minutes. It's the thought that counts.

This one is the kind labored over for days, I could tell.

All I ask, really, is that I don't have to do a lot of cooking or dishwasher unloading on Mother's Day.

An a hot shower would be nice too.

But alas, it wasn't to be, not this year. Our hot water heater is a bit finicky, you see. Every once in a while it just goes off, poof. This leaves a whole bunch of hot water in it for those who have the good fortune of tapping into it first. Not me, since one of my Sunday perks is reading the paper and staying in my pajamas all morning.

So everybody took their shower and also took note that it was mostly a cold one, by the end of it. My husband's shower, so he reported later, was entirely cold. But did anybody think to go to the basement and relight the flame? Nope. Because, you see, that's what Mom usually does.

I went to my Mother's Day dinner unshowered, my unwashed hair in a bun.

But other than that it was a fabulous day.

Happy Mother's Day to all you lovely moms out there!

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Ordering From Amazon in South Africa, Take Two

May 2, 2016

My 2012 blog post Ordering from Amazon in South Africa is in 4th place among most read stories on Joburg Expat. Because so many people seem to rely on it, and because it's already four years old, it needs a makeover to reflect changes since then.

The thing that's not changed, just to get that out of the way: There is still no Amazon.co.za.

However, ordering from Amazon.com (or Amazon.co.uk, for that matter, but for reasons of simplicity I will stick to Amazon USA) is now easier than ever before, even in such far-flung and postal-service-challenged places as South Africa.

How to order from Amazon in South Africa

The way it works is through a service called AmazonGlobal, and here is what Amazon says about it on its own website: "Amazon.com ships products internationally with AmazonGlobal. Available product lines, shipping rates and fees vary depending on the delivery address for your order."

To see a listing of countries under the AmazonGlobal umbrella, click here. As stated, not all items are eligible, but many of them are.

To place your Amazon order from South Africa, simply go to Amazon.com and add the desired items to your shopping cart, then go to checkout and enter your address. At this point you should see if any items in your cart don't qualify. Once you proceed, Amazon adds in all your fees and import duties up front and delivers your package via courier (Aramex), bypassing the slow and wildly unreliable South African Postal Service (SAPO).

How long will it take for my Amazon order to be shipped to South Africa?

I've interviewed several South African readers and they've all confirmed that the average delivery time with AmazonGlobal is 8 days.

8 days, people! This is mind-boggling to anyone who's ever used SAPO for any mail going to South Africa. The standards are so low that you'd be happy to know it arrived there AT ALL. Some of you might remember my experiment with Christmas cards - nothing valuable in them - which confirmed that South Africa is dead last when it comes to international mail delivery.

The fast delivery time is possible because sending the goods via courier and paying the fees and duties upfront ensures that your package will not be held up in customs. Neither will it be held up in one of SAPO's holding centers. I've seen pictures of one of those and it's not a pretty sight, especially at Christmastime. It reminded me of our school's lost-and-found bins, only a few thousand times as big (although, I'll grant them that, perhaps a bit less smelly).

How much does it cost to ship Amazon orders to South Africa?

Given that there was a time when Amazon refused to deliver any packages to South Africa at all, due to the fact that a large number just disappeared, this is a HUGE betterment for South African Amazon customers. The only downside is that of course it isn't free*. If you've been spoiled by years of Amazon Prime will living in the U.S. or Europe and are now moving to South Africa and expecting the same, you better undergo a reality check. It won't be cheap. However, it will be vastly better than having no Amazon at all and having to source all your hard-to-find items from Johannesburg street vendors. And AmazonGlobal prices are actually lower than what I would be willing to pay, given the alternative. For instance, an acquaintance recently ordered a household good for $25 and paid shipping of $14 on it. That's a pretty good bargain for secure and fast delivery.

The other piece of good news about ordering from Amazon in South Africa is that you can use your South African credit card for payment, which wasn't possible in the past. Even if you choose to have your goods delivered to a U.S. address with a friend bringing it over when they visit, you can still use your SA-based credit card instead of having to use dollar-based funds.

All in all, placing your Amazon orders from South Africa is as easy and convenient as it's never been before. If you're moving to South Africa, this is one item not to worry about.

*AmazonGlobal actually does offer free delivery to a few select countries; currently, those are Singapore (orders over $125) and Mexico (orders over $65). South Africa, as of the writing of this article, isn't one of them.


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My son in England - birthday - Please can I order Nespresso coffee capsules for him soonest

April 25, 2016

Please excuse the rather strange headline, but I thought I'd come right out with what this blog post is about: A collection of the most outlandish questions and requests I get through the Contact Me page on Joburg Expat. Pour yourself a cup of coffee and sit down - this one is going to be fun!
Seriously? THAT is your question?

Don't get me wrong - I get a ton of lovely comments from people all over the world, thanking me for the helpful info and asking more in-depth questions about their pending move, which I'm all too happy to answer. I also get many comments from South Africans who love how I view and write about the country they love. This blog post is not about those. It's about the "other" comments and questions I get, and you wouldn't believe how many of them there are. This is just a small sample.

Let's start with the not so far-fetched. If any readers think I'm a travel agent, I'm actually flattered a little bit. Travel writing is what I take pride in, and I do respond to most travel-related inquiries:
we intend to go to cape town next year as a group of 15.
can qoute us please
But a large number of visitors seem to think that I'm an online store. The fact that my site doesn't list any products and has no buttons to add items to shopping carts doesn't seem to detract them. They figure they can just type up their order and I'll gladly do the rest. What I love about the inquiry from the headline is the insertion of personal details, presumably to make me more sympathetic in my quest to jump to the rescue:

My son in England - birthday - Please can I order Nespresso coffee capsules for him soonest
Of course! I wouldn't have, normally, but knowing it's your SON, and Oh My Gosh it's his BIRTHDAY, of course I'll gladly oblige and get the Nespresso capsules to him posthaste!

Some requests frankly freak me out a little bit, like this one:

How do I go about ordering the following:
Lysine Powder,
L-Proline Powder, 

L-Arginine Powder, 

L-Citruline Powder and 

Pycnogel Powder.

I have no idea what all these powders might do - for all I know they're bomb making ingredients.

Mostly, however, it's books I'm asked to supply:

Please provide quotations for the following books:
1. Microeconomics Theory: Basic Principles & Theory (2008) by Snyder & Nicholson 10th edition
2. Intermediate Microeconomics: A Modern Approach (2006) 7th edition by Varian H.R
3. The Structure of Economics: A Mathematical Approach by Silderberg (2000) 3rd edition.
4. Microeconomics (2005) by Pyndyck & Rubinfield 6th edition
5. Fundamental Methods of Mathematical Economics (2005) 4th by Chiang.
6. Statistics for Business & Economics (2004) 6th edition by Newbold & Carlson

How very thorough a list! I was really torn by this one. I'd hate to kill what promises to be a brilliant corporate career before it even takes off by not providing the requisite reading material to this budding business student. Such potential - the writer certainly has what it takes to reach upper management in terms of his or her ability to delegate tasks to minions!

There seem to be other items of interest on my website:
Swatch Lekker SUOP102
To whom it may concern:

Kindly advice if you have the above watch and how much is it.
Kind regards,

To which I want to respond: Dear Lizzie, I know how important timely delivery must be to you, seeing as you have such a keen eye for a good timepiece. Which is why I'll respond to you with more information JUST NOW!

Some tempt me just because I'd like to figure out what exactly it is people want to purchase:


I picture an ancient lady dictating this, telegram-style, to a hunched-over employee in suspenders and cap tapping away in morse code. All it needs is a few "STOPs" in between sentences, which would also make it more readable. Like, is her last name Coffin, or does she want to purchase a coffin? Or a coffin chair or chair yoga, whatever those might be? I almost responded, just because the curiosity was killing me!

This one is along similar lines:

Hi would like to buy beast/big gaint fist (cooler)from amazin, can you hep me im in SA Cape Town

But my all-time favorite request is this one:

I have a wall deviding my yard from my neighbour and in their side they have a huge tree with diversed roots,which has caused a mess on my side.I would kindly want to know who to contact and which Insurance is liable of such damage.I will greately appreciate your advise as soon as possible if you can.Thanking you Regards Vickey

Holy cow, how in the world did Vickey end up at Joburg Expat and then somehow divine that I could help her on insurance questions regarding a neighbor's dispute? Perhaps I should pair her up with this contractor who thought it important to advise me on his no doubt capable services, which might very well include tree removal:

nkulani management do tennis court repair,painting,electrical,paving,renovation and other related project.for quote contact Willies @ 0827401521
I am helpfully including these phone numbers - who knows, somebody with a cracked tennis court might read this and be grateful not to have to do further research.

If you think the insurance question came from left field, then scratch your head with this one:

I was involved in an accident last night another car road into me and I think my car is a write off , I have no insurance as well as the guy that road into me
I'm still deciding whether this is a plea for help or a very bad attempt at landing a pun - twice. Get it?

Having written about Amazon in South Africa - or, rather, the lack thereof - I get why some people think I'm their extended customer service:

I have 2nd. Generation Kindle Model D00701.
The devise is frozen.I have tried re-booting, no luck!
Can you help?
This next one I actually responded to, because I liked the writing style, I could commiserate with the guy - it IS, in fact, not easy to contact Amazon directly - and I loved the respectful tone. I mean, who doesn't like being called "Mr. Expat?"

Hi Mr Expat. I am an American but have lived and worked here for the past 20 years. Perhap I should have known better, but that's a story for another day.Here's the problem. I signed up for Amazon Prime free trial. Shortly after that I was billed - and paid by my soccer crazy bank - R1000.00! = $99. Horrified, I am now trying to establish if that is for a yearly membership, as I read it, or monthly. It is not easy to contact Amazon directly, then I found you. I sure as hell cannot pay R1000.00 every month! Checking my account i see it appears to be monthly! How do I stop it now?

Something tells me this guy, the coffin lady and the "gaint fist (cooler) from amazin" guy might find common ground:

Hi am john
west Johannesburg 
I wanted to buy greenhouse plastic polyethylene
so please give me information
thank you 
kind regards john

I kind of like John. He deserves bonus points for proper spelling. And he seems to like plants.

This is what I want to do when I get too many stupid questions.

What baffles me is how little time people seem to spend on my blog, yet determine with absolute certainty they know what it is I am offering and hence what I can therefore help with. For example, don't you think you should notice, as a reader, what language the blog is written in? See this Afrikaans lady needing help:

Hi middag ek is rerig dringend opsoek na die CD van Gail Seymour met die die van Just Relax Kan ek dit by julle bestel of kan julle vir my cod aanstuur Laat weet my asseblief Belinda

The funny thing is, I could understand all of what Belinda wants, without the help of Google Translate. I much prefer being addressed in written Afrikaans over spoken Afrikaans. When I go to my "Friends of South Africa" Tannies Teas here in Nashville, invariably I'm accosted by one of the lovely ladies who spills a torrent of Afrikaans on me without taking note of my confused face. I always have to gently tug at their sleeves and let them know I don't speak any Afrikaans. Other than Lekker and Kak. I must somehow look Afrikaans. Good Germanic stock, I suppose.

Martin here sounds kind of sweet:

good morning I will like to be one of your customer but you are far away from south Africa.i wish one day you can think of bringing your business to south Africa.and I will be the first customer or I can even work for you.hope u find this well.

Well, thank you Martin! I hope so too, and you'll be the first person I'll look up when I do return to Africa, my prosperous business in tow.

And here, my pet peeve, people who want to contribute to my blog:

Dear blogger,
I sent you a proposal of collaboration a few days ago, I have no received response from you yet, so I think you have not received the previous mail, that’s why I am contacting you again:
My name is Tatiana Amin and I work for an online marketing company in Spain called SMARTUP, nice to meet you 
I am writing you on behalf of a client who would like to appear in your blog by means of an advertorial. Your task would be to write and publish a post in exchange for an economic reward.
If you are interested, please write me back and I will tell you more about the project.
Best regards,
Tatiana A.
Don't hold your breath, Tatiana, I' not going to respond. You lost me at "Your task would be..." No thank you, I have enough tasks on my plate. At least she's offering an "economic reward," whatever that may be. I can't tell you how many would-be writers offer me free content for my blog, as if I'm sitting around twiddling my thumbs going "Dang, I got this great blog, if only I could think of something to write on it... Oh, goody, here is somebody willing to write something for me! Whew! What would I do without these people?"

I should also add that such offers of "great content" are typically written in really bad English.

Others turn to me for their last-minute homework assignments:

I am in urgent need for input for my Master Thesis research.  I am writing it about successful travel blogs and I tried to focus on german and arabic travel bloggers but I am not getting the response I had hoped for, so I am extending the scope now (very last minute!!) to include all travel bloggers.
If you could just spare 30 mins of your time to answer this questionnaire {link} for me, I will be very very grateful.
Thank you very much in advance, I appreciate it!

Sorry, dude, about your Master Thesis, but honestly: I have enough procrastinators JUST like you in my very own house (read: teenagers). And you have the gall to tell me I'm actually not even your first choice?

I must say, I did help a boy with a similar request the other day, just because he was the same age as my son and asked very nicely. I thought that there must be a mother behind him somewhere who'll be thankful for my cooperation. He was writing about life in South Africa and needed quotes for an interview, which I helpfully supplied. Of course I never heard back, not so much as a thank you. That makes me want to strangle the mother for not teaching better manners.

My blog post about volunteering in Johannesburg also spawns quite a few inquiries from people wanting - or perhaps more accurately "needing" - to volunteer, and can I please fix them up with an outfit:

Hi, I'd like to know if you can contact me on my email or my cell phone number - 076 323 2199. Myself and three other friends age from 16-18 are involved in the presidents award. We want to get involved in volenteering work as soon as possible. So would you please contact me with more detilas on how we go about it and when can we start. Thanks

Ah, the President's Award! (I took the liberty of improving your spelling.) What world-moving work you're about to do! Of course, I'd love to jump in and help you volunteer (there, I did it again) - your, whom I don't know from Adam - to receive this prestigious award! I'm going to list your phone number on my blog so hopefully many other people can call you too and help you on your very important quest! I'm so excited I can't stop with the exclamation points!

Seriously, what irks me abut these requests in particular:

a) my blog post is very clear on what volunteer projects I recommend, why one might like to do them, and WHO TO CONTACT if interested. To then send me a note requesting more details is so strange - didn't I just give you all the details you need, with links to the appropriate websites?

b) volunteering, by definition, means giving your time to a cause. To then turn around and ask someone else to use THEIR time to come up with the perfect package so that you might not have to work too hard yourself flies in the face of any notion of what charitable work should accomplish.

I hope this excursion into the strange workings of some people's minds has been entertaining to you. If you're a fellow blogger, you're probably nodding your head so hard that you're starting to get dizzy.

If you're NOT a blogger but rather a reader who might feel compelled to ask me a question, don't be discouraged by my tirade. I won't rip your head off.

I'm quite tame if you don't ask me lazy questions.
That is, not if you take the few steps I ask you to take before you pen that tempting request to me:

a) Read my blog. And by that I mean not just the latest post. I've put quite a bit of time and effort into designing a menu across the top that features the most popular topics, and there is also a "Browse Joburg Expat" box in the right sidebar. I can spot a lazy reader from a mile away, so if you ask me "My new job will be in Rosebank, where should we look for a school" then I know you haven't done your part yet. If you had, you'd have seen my awesome color-coded map in Private Schools in Johannesburg and figured it out on your own.

b) Use the comments section. It's much quicker for me to answer a comment than draft an email, so I'm more likely to do it. It also shows me that you've already read up on the topic at hand and have an additional question. If there are already comments under a post, you're more likely to get advice from one of the other readers too.

c) Like my Facebook page. I discuss a lot of expat topics with other like-minded people on my Facebook page, and more often than not someone there can answer your question better than I can.

Okay, end of rant. Now ask away:-)
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Top 5 Joburg Expat Stories

April 18, 2016

Like every blogger, I like to look at my blog stats. Not nearly as much as I used to when - ironically - there weren't many stats to look at, but I still glance at them occasionally. This is how I discovered that last month Joburg Expat surpassed 1.5 million pageviews.

But that's not what I was actually looking for. I'm more interested in what brings people to my blog, which countries they hail from, and what they like to read the most. In this blog post, I decided to list my Top Five most-read blog posts for you, and then take a look at some other Top Five stats.

Top Five Blog Posts

To be sure, these are not my Top Five blog posts in terms of quality of writing by any means. And they seem to be the most boring of all in terms of uninspired headlines. But precisely because of that, and with the help of my friend Google, these are the most SEO-friendly blog posts I've written, meaning they match up with what people search for the most, which helps them rise to prominence in the Google rankings, that oh-so-important metric in the world of Internet.

  1. Private Schools in Johannesburg -
    Going to private school in South Africa
    recently edited with many updates and additions, including a really sexy hand-drawn Joburg suburbs map, if I say so myself. I've written much more about schools as that is a perennial topic of concern to expats, but the private schools list is by far the most widely read.

  2. Tips on Buying a Car in South Africa - one of my first blog posts ever, and for the longest time the most popular. Not sure if that's because I give some good advice as to how to first buy and then register your car in South Africa, or because my readers love to witness my two-step-forward one-step-back tango with the car registration authorities. Or was it one-step-forward two-steps-back?

  3. Six Things to Know about Renewing Your Vehicle License Disk -
    Car-related questions are always hot
    topics on Joburg Expat
    also recently updated to accommodate one irate reader who claimed I ruined his life by stating a 30-day grace period instead of a (correct) 21-day grace period. Note to future readers, especially those of the procrastinating kind: Do not take my writing for the gold standard. Do not gamble all your wealth and children and grandchildren on any statements in my blog, even if I speak with a most convincing and charming voice. (If you DO want to stake your fortune on my blog, I have a donate button somewhere).

  4. Ordering from Amazon in South Africa - which, good news, is entirely possible, except this top blog post of mine doesn't explain it. Things have changed. Amazon does deliver to South Africa, and quite quickly too, bypassing the dreaded postal service. You just have to be prepared to pay for shipping. What is really needed is an Amazo.co.za. Wake up, Amazon! Take an example from Starbucks - they have taken the plunge and recently made their grand entrance into the SA market. I'm sure it was my blog post about how to find Starbucks coffee in South Africa (which at #6 barely missed this list) that prompted it!

  5. 10 Tips on How to Write a Good Blog Post - this one baffles me, since surely there are a bazillion other bloggers out there offering advice on how to write blog posts. I'd actually like to know if anyone ever reads the entire post. My guess is people check out after three lines when they realize that it's not just a simple list to check off.

Now that we've established the top posts, here are some more statistics:

Top Five Countries

  1. South Africa - barely, but proudly, edging out #2

  2. United States - together with #1 makes up about a million of those 1.5 million pageviews

  3. United Kingdom - since I don't know a soul in the UK, this one gives me particular pleasure; it also makes sense, because of a) language, and b) every other UK citizen wanting to emigrate to South Africa*

  4. Ukraine - I find this one extremely curious. Ukraine, of all the countries that could have been #4, edging out France, China, Russia, and Canada? Then again, maybe there is a big contingent of Ukrainians looking for a better  place to live. And South Africa, compared to Ukraine, might very well look like paradise, warts, corrupt politicians, and all. Heck, it looks like paradise to all of us!

  5. Germany - I always attributed Germany's early success to my relatives who are all loyal readers. But at 41,000+ pageviews, I can no longer assume that all of those are relatives. Only in the sense that we are all descendants of Charlemagne, one way or another.

And finally, the search terms people most often use to find Joburg Expat:

Top Five Search Keywords

Joburg Expat - the prime (if
unlikely) source of advice 
on weaver bird matters
  1. amazon south africa

  2. best schools in johannesburg

  3. weaver bird nests

  4. starbucks south africa

  5. "now" vs "just now" vs "now now"

The last one makes total sense to anyone who has ever lived - and waited for someone or something - in South Africa.

Nothing exciting or even entertaining in any of this, I'm sorry to say. But stay tuned - I've got greatly amusing stuff in an upcoming blog post about Joburg Expat reader inquiries. Stay tuned!

* ...and half of those who don't want to emigrate to South Africa only staying in England because they are former South Africans who don't want to admit that they, too, on second thought, might rather live in South Africa.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly claimed you could not order from Amazon from South Africa. Amazon does deliver to South Africa, however there is no Amazon.co.za.

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Culture Shock, Take 63: Our American Fear of Germs

April 11, 2016

A recent article by an American expat in Spain about how she learned to battle her germophobia  by living in a country with a more relaxed lifestyle sparked my interest, and reminded me that I had a similar story to tell:

Chaperone without Wet Wipes

It was a few months into our expat assignment in Johannesburg. The kids had settled in at school, I had finally gotten most services installed at our house, and I was very excited to go on my first South African field trip as a chaperone.

In a bus packed with 2nd graders, all in their pretty school uniforms, we rode first through the awful early morning Joburg traffic, onto the N1, past the Soweto mine dumps (which, it is said, look so yellow because they still hold an enormous amount of the tiniest grains of gold dust), and onto winding country roads, all the way to where Boswell Wilkie, a traveling circus, had taken up camp.

Much like on any school trip the world over, my job was to see that the boys didn't pull the girls' hair or scream too loudly on the bus ride, and to make sure the same number of kids returned home as left that morning.

It was also my job, just because as an American mom I'd been conditioned that way, to make sure that all the kids washed their hands after the bathroom break and before the picnic lunch.

There was only one rudimentary tap of cold water - no soap, no paper towels, no disinfectant. Some kids washed their hands by rubbing diligently, some kids were more interested in splashing each other than washing, and some didn't touch the water at all. When I saw that none of the other chaperones or teachers seemed to care one way or another, I relaxed and enjoyed watching the kids run around wildly and generally have a grand old time.

It was the nicest field trip I've ever been on, not least because there was such little fuss about everything. I couldn't help but think how amazing it was that no one had thought to bring any wipes or hand sanitizer, which on the equivalent American field trip would have been hauled out by the case.

Many Americans, in my experience much more so than other nationalities, are afraid of germs or anything "unclean." We go out of our way to spray our kitchen counters and lather our hands with so much antibacterial soap that its effect has become questionable. We shower at least every day if not twice a day. resulting in water use double or triple that of other countries. We are often disgusted by anything even remotely associated with bathrooms.

In a book I read the other day, the author was using the fact that he washed his visitor's underwear together with his own in the same load as a token of how close they'd grown, meaning it was out of the question to do such a thing with a stranger. The author seriously meant to convey that having your underwear touch someone else's in a load of laundry was absolutely gross.

Big packets of Clorox wipes are often the first thing school kids are asked to contribute to the classroom so that all surfaces can be kept germ-free throughout the day.

And yet I don't think Americans are any healthier because of this. Perhaps even the contrary. Nowhere else, for instance, do there seem to exist quite so many allergies to all sorts of substances.

Of course basic sanitation saves lives, without debate. We need clean water and sanitary slaughterhouses, for instance, or we'd die like flies. The U.S. has pretty good regulations in place that safeguard the basic safety of our food and drugs and all sorts of other things that impact our daily lives.

But to me, the fear of germs is way overblown. While I've embraced many quirks of American culture with the acquisition of my citizenship six years ago, germophobia isn't one of them. My German upbringing was very different, even though - or perhaps precisely because - my mother was a pediatrician. I can't remember ever being told to wash my hands before a meal. We grew up using cloth tissues to blow our noses, safely stowing them away after use in our pockets until needed the next time. Germs were considered a normal part of life and nothing to be feared. Sometimes they were even welcomed. When the measles were making the rounds in my mother's practice, she'd make me sit and read my book in her waiting room amongst the other kids, so that I might catch them too and get it over with. "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger" was definitely a motto in our lives.

Too many of my American friends and acquaintances are of the opinion that "if only every kid was taught to wash their hands properly," colds and other viruses would finally and forever be vanquished. Quite the contrary, the way I see it: The more that kids are slobs and spread germs around (within reason), the more those germs have a chance to infect everyone so that everyone can build valuable immunity. Keeping your kids away from germs is not a way to keep them safe but to put them at risk - the risk of being vulnerable at an older age. Building immunity by catching the common cold (and yes, the dreaded stomach flu) is an important part of childhood - the more of them you catch early, the sooner you're done with it all.

When I traveled to Turkey for the first time, and later to Mexico, I was ever so careful to avoid drinking any tap water or eating fruit that might have been washed in it. To no avail - I caught the dreaded Montezuma's Revenge. But I couldn't help notice that the locals didn't suffer from any of it. Why? Because their bodies were used to those germs and had built immunity.

I have four kids who when they were little brought every conceivable virus home from preschool and Kindergarten. And yet I haven't caught any of that for years. Perhaps I have special powers because of my germ-laden childhood. There was a time, I was told, that I used to scrape chewing gum off the sidewalk and stick it into my mouth. I don't remember this but it makes perfect sense to me, because my mother, being a frugal German, considered chewing gum an utterly decadent luxury that was not to be had in our house. I sort of applaud my younger self for those problem-solving skills. 

Living in South Africa reminded me that most cultures around the world are equally unconcerned about germs as I was as a child.

America is not the norm in this regard. And we're probably doing ourselves and our children a disservice by going overboard with obsessive cleanliness.

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Great Africa Reads: West With the Night or Circling the Sun?

April 7, 2016

I don't think you can review Circling the Sun, a historical novel about Beryl Markham - pioneering woman bush pilot, horse trainer, adventurer, scorned lover, a woman much ahead of her time but also a complete product of her time and place - without also reviewing the memoir Beryl Markham herself wrote about her life, so please forgive me if I end up talking about both.

A long time ago, shortly after arriving in Africa, I read and reviewed Beryl Markham's great classic, West with the Night. A book that anyone interested in Africa should read. Here is how I began my review:

Few books capture the spirit of Africa as well as West with the Night. I won’t try to summarize it here because I won’t do it justice, but there are tales of lions, courageous dogs, horse breeding, flying, and elephant hunts, all laced with a great deal of wisdom.
Even though it was written in the 1930s and is set in Kenya (or, as it was then called, British East Africa), it brings alive so many things I’ve come to cherish about South Africa during our brief stay here – the endless savannah, the adventure, the humility of its people. I can highly recommend it, whether you’re interested in Africa or not.

This picture was taken in Botswana in 2012, some 80 years after the events of West with the Night,
but it is not that different from how I imagine the flying scenes from the book, sans runway.

To read or not to read Circling the Sun after an already nearly perfect book that couldn't possibly be topped? That was the question.

I admit at first I was skeptical. I resisted reading it for quite some time. I loved West with the Night and didn't think any other writer would do Beryl Markham justice. Also, reading some Amazon reviews, I was worried that Circling the Sun would not much get into the flying part at all, and that Beryl didn't come across as very nice or even likeable.

I needn't have worried. While it's true that Paula McLain's retelling doesn't really cover the flying (unless you count the prologue and the very end), I still loved this version just as much as West with the Night. Or as an essential complement to it. The two should be read together - I'm now motivated to re-read West with the Night with this slightly new voice in mind, filling in the holes and marveling in the breathtaking scenery all over again.

The next picture is also from Botswana, the Okavango Delta from the air. There is a scene in West with the Night where Beryl is flying elephant hunters into remote areas of Kenya, and they end up finding lots of elephants but are cut off due to flooding. Or maybe she is called to come rescue them from the island they're stuck on without food, I can't quite remember. But this is how I imagine that scene:

I don't have any good pictures evoking Circling the Sun. If you want to totally immerse  yourself in that scenery, I suggest you watch Out of Africa again. Or just imagine Robert Redford in his younger years.

I "read" the audio version of the book* and perhaps that makes me biased in a positive way: it is read beautifully, just the right softened British accent one would associate with Colonial Kenya, and you can hear her sense of wonder and love for Africa in every sentence. Perhaps it would have been slightly less convincing in book form, I can't be sure, audio books often have that effect. But I know that I absolutely loved Beryl's story as imagined by McLain: how she grew up in Kenya, how her mother's leaving left a big hole in her heart, how her friendship with Kibii became such an important part of her life, how she started training horses and kept at it through all the failures and challenges, and yes, how she fell in love with the man she couldn't have and ended up marrying those she could have but didn't love. I don't remember the love triangle between Denys Finch Hatton and Karen Blixen being such an important part in West with the Night or whether it was mentioned at all, but I'm glad McLain chose this to be at the center of her story. It makes the book much more of a romance (without being cheesy) than Beryl's rather matter-of-fact style ever could. Don't get me wrong, West with the Night is a literary marvel with many passages you'll want to read again and again for their pure poetry, but it is not a love story.

Circling the Sun is (a love story), and quite a good one at that.

It should be at the very center of your Africa Bookshelf.

* I cannot tell you how much reading I nowadays get done via Audible (and Overdrive and OneClick Digital - Audible's free library-supplied cousins) while chopping vegetables, unloading the dishwasher, and, lately, spring-cleaning windows. In fact, living in a place like Johannesburg with its god-awful traffic, an Audible subscription is a thing you should not live without one second longer. 

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Finding New Feet for Outgrown Shoes

April 4, 2016

I can't tell you how excited I am to bring you this wonderful outreach story. As you know, I've written about volunteering and charity work before. I pondered the virtues and pitfalls of developmental aid in Africa, and I reviewed a list of volunteer organizations in Johannesburg to make it easier for newly arrived expats to find their calling. Incidentally, the latter is one of my most-read blog posts of all time. And, of course, I've written about Alexandra Baseball too many times to mention.

But this story about finding bare feet around the world to be paired - no pun intended - with outgrown but otherwise perfect shoes puts all my efforts to shame. It had me want to root through all our closets the minute I finished reading, so that I could hurry up and find new feet for all those extra shoes in our house. Read it, and you too will want to contribute to this movement, there is no other name for it, that is living proof that one person, with just a moment's inspiration, can change the world. One step - preferably not barefoot - at a time.*

Without further ado, here comes CJ's story:

Finding New Feet for Outgrown Shoes

by CJ Bowry

There’s something wonderful about watching a child take its first faltering steps; toddling barefoot, not cramped by shoes or socks. But then, as confidence grows, there are leaves to be kicked up and puddles to splash in. And so, to their first pair of shoes. Before long, their little feet will outgrow them; and the cycle of replacing barely-worn shoes begins.

Just over two years ago, when faced with a collection of my son Sal’s outgrown shoes, I sought out charities who could donate them to those most in need. Surprisingly, there wasn’t a single organisation that could tell me where Sal’s pre-loved shoes would actually end up walking again.

Sal's Shoes, Bantron Farm, Choma, Zambia
I decided to cut out the middle man. Having grown up in Africa, and with a network of family and friends scattered all over the world, I decided that if no-one was willing to tell me where exactly Sal’s shoes would end up walking again, I would arrange delivering them there myself. A parcel was sent to a friend overseas who distributed them on a children’s oncology ward in Zambia and sent back a photograph of a child wearing Sal’s first pair of shoes.

Sal’s pair of shoes had become another’s.

After collecting more outgrown children’s shoes from family and friends, and by subsequently harnessing social media for this good cause, word spread, and soon I was inundated with pairs of barely worn shoes.

‘Sal’s Shoes’ had been born.

Filling a need

There are an estimated 300 million children in the world for whom walking with shoes is a rarity. This makes them extremely vulnerable to infection by parasites, such as hookworm, while injuries to the feet and ankles can lead to ulcers and other conditions which are almost always left untreated. Without shoes, many children are not permitted to attend school, and thereby lose access to an often free education. It struck me recently, watching my own son thrive in the surroundings of his primary school, that it is not just the element of a formal education that he is benefiting from. Whilst there is a proven correlation between education and poverty, in that a lack of the first leads to an increase in the second, I don’t think this just applies to wealth in a material sense; an education received in a nurturing, stimulating environment can enrich the very well being of a child. Giving a pair of shoes a second life can give someone else a chance at a new beginning.

We are beginning to stamp our mark. In December 2014 we were featured in the Motherlode blog in The New York Times**  as a charity that inspires children. As a parent, I think we have a responsibility to teach those generations after us about sharing and generosity. As well as providing the redirection of something that would presumably otherwise end up in a landfill, we are hopefully teaching all those children who pass on their outgrown shoes to us about their peers in different cultures all over the world. I find it interesting that there seems to be a consensus that the beneficiaries of charitable work are the recipients. Assured by the handwritten notes that now more often than not accompany the shoes we receive from donors, I can't help but think the children who pass on their footwear are benefiting from their act as well. We can only understand others the more we learn about them, and seeing your shoes end up halfway around the world is bound to teach you something. I am so fortunate to have been able to have Sal accompany me to a couple of our shoe distributions in Cuba and South Africa.

How far we've come

The author's son Sal, helping to hand out shoes in an orphanage
 in Pienaar, South Africa

To date, 28 months on, we have collected over 40,000 pairs of pre-loved shoes and found them new feet in 28 countries around the world, including in the UK. For too many children around the world, owning a pair of shoes is an unattainable luxury. Sal's Shoes has got pre-loved shoes walking again in schools, orphanages and hospitals; in refugee, IDP (Internally Displaced Person) and migrant camps; and in rural areas and cities around the world. As such a young charity, the only real obstacle to what we can achieve is financial.

With your continued support we can get more shoes walking again.

  1. You can donate or create a fundraising page here:

  2. Visit www.salsshoes.com to learn more about us and find out how to send us your pre-loved shoes

  3. Follow us on social media:
    Twitter: @sals_shoes
    Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/salsshoes1


We launched Sal's Shoes in November 2013. The first place to host a Sal's Shoes collection was Sal's nursery school. One of the pairs of shoes donated at the school found themselves on the feet of Owen [blue t-shirt] in January 2014 on Bantron Farm in Zambia.

Two weeks ago, over two years on, we received a photograph of a more grown up Owen [on the left] wearing a pink pair of shoes (his choice) which he inherited from his sister (who received them at the same shoes distribution in 2014). Owen has passed on the first pair of trainers he received to Noah [pictured] who is just learning to walk . . .

And so the journey of the shoes continues!

* Title photo by Sal's Shoes in Ghana, 2015
** Note by editor: now called Well Family - I much preferred it as the quirkier Motherlode
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Hitting Rock Bottom in a McDonald's Bathroom

March 28, 2016

Writing my last blog post about expat depression reminded me of a time I felt like I'd reached the low point of my life.

It was in December of 2002. At that time we were living in Raleigh, North Carolina, and an ice storm had struck overnight. I woke up in the morning to this scenery:

As much as service delivery works in the U.S, the time it breaks down without fail is when natural disasters strike, especially in the form of hurricanes and ice storms that take down power lines. I don't know if you can see it in the picture, but the tree at the bottom of the driveway took out a transformer box. The entire neighborhood went dark and would stay so for four days.

This was many years before we would move to South Africa. Before we would complain about yet another power outage wrought on us by Eskom.Yet in all the time living in South Africa, we never had a power outage last this long. As my mother famously said, even in World War II Germany when whole cities were reduced to rubble, the power outages didn't last as long as in modern-era North Carolina.

The driveway blocked by toppled trees was only one of our problems that day. Our kindly neighbor eventually appeared, chainsaw in hand, and cleared our driveway. This is what I love about Americans: There will always be a neighbor showing up with a chainsaw when you need one. 

But our plight was just beginning. Because even with a clear driveway, where would I go with four kids in tow, all under the age of six? And honestly, at first I thought I could make it. It was North Carolina after all, same latitude as Naples or something similar, and it would warm up in due time. I just had to tough it out until the next morning.

Except it didn't warm up. By next morning the house was freezing. All I had was one smoky fireplace that didn't heat didley squat, as a North Carolinian would say. I bundled my youngest into a snowsuit and held her tightly wrapped in a blanket in front of that fireplace, as she wasn't mobile yet and I was worried she'd get cold the quickest. I tried to keep the other kids occupied with games, balls, pushcarts, whatever I could find that would keep them moving.

It worked for a while, but it kept getting colder. The three days I spent in that house were the coldest I've ever been (with the exception of summit night on Mount Kilimanjaro). Noisette, of course, cheerfully left every morning for his perfectly climatized office. He might have even told me to "pull myself together" as he is wont to do.

By the third day, when the temperature dropped to 40 degrees F inside the house, I couldn't take it any longer. I was so desperate for some warmth that I decided I would move our household into my minivan. I had called all my friends, but everyone was either in the same boat or had already left town to live with relatives. My nearest relatives were my former host parents in Mississippi, and if some other option didn't come up that day, that's where I was headed.

But first I had to feed those kiddos. I drove down the road and through a winter wonderland that under different circumstances I would have found beautiful, looking for a store or restaurant that looked open. It took about 20 minutes for me to score: The McDonald's on Falls of the Neuse Road was open for business!

I cannot tell you how happy the sight of the golden arches made me that day. I was fully prepared to camp out till nightfall at that McDonald's and have the kids entertain themselves with Happy Meal toys until Noisette would be off of work. Then HE could figure out what to do next - I'd had enough.

To give you an approximate idea of the ages of our kids that fateful day: From left to right - 
Jabulani, Sunshine, Zax, and Impatience. This was not the day of the ice storm.

We hadn't even had a chance to order yet when Impatience needed to go to the bathroom. It's funny how soon you forget, once you have teenagers who annoy you to no end by staying in their rooms all day not wanting to talk to you. Do you know what teenagers are great at? Going to the bathroom BY THEMSELVES!

Back in 2002, my only option was to take everybody to the bathroom with me. We squeezed into a stall, the five of us in our bulky winter coats, so that Impatience could do her business. Or I should say the six of us. Not wanting to part with the love of her young life, Bibi the Teddy Bear, Impatience was clutching him to her chest instead of leaving him in the car like any reasonable person would have done. Only she wasn't clutching so well at that very moment, and - horrors! - Bibi fell into the toilet, right there in the McDonald's bathroom, landing with a big splash.

We all stood around the bowl, speechless. Everyone knew, even little Sunshine at barely six months old, that something momentous had happened. First there was silence es everyone pondered this development. Then came the scream.

Just to show you how inseparable Bibi and Impatience have always been, here is a picture from
a year later when she absolutely refused to go to ski school unless Bibi came with her.
That was the time I cursed the fact that Bibi happened to be white and not brown like any self-respecting Teddy Bear. I still consider it a miracle he wasn't lost forever in a slush pile in Whistler that winter.

I suppose that was the good news when he floated in that toilet bowl. At least he wasn't lost, and all I had to do was fish him out. I can't honestly recall if it was pre- or post-pee. It didn't really matter. No roof over my head, no place to go, four little people relying on me - all that I could take. But no washer and dryer? I almost lost it then. Life seemed to have become unbearably hard that very moment, conspiring against me one too many times. I remember standing there staring down, full of a self-pity I'd never until that point allowed myself to wallow in, and crying big, heaving sobs over the injustice in my life.

Mind you, it had nothing to do with depression. I had simply reached the end of my rope after a long and frustrating day, something that can happen to anybody, and certainly someone with little children. Heck, in those days, every day was a long day that left you utterly exhausted. 

I certainly don't want to make light of or misrepresent a serious medical condition. But in a way it was a perfect example of how, if enough things pile up, you can reach a point where you don't know what else to do, where you just want to sit down, even if it's next to a toilet surrounded by four little children, and cry. 

Fortunately for most of us, we bask in our moment of self-pity and then snap out of it again, wash our hands and walk away.

If only it were that simple for everyone.

Postscript: As so often happen, things picked up after hitting the low point. I tried calling some friends again and got an answering machine I hadn't gotten before, meaning they must have power restored. I reached them on their cell phone (back in the day when people were by no means glued to their cell phones like nowadays) and lo and behold, they were on their way back home with their own four kids. I moved in with them for the next couple of days, kids, sopping bear, and all, Noisette joined us there that night, and we had a blast, all twelve of us. I've always been particularly grateful for these friends of ours and their opening their doors to our rather large family without hesitation. 

To paraphrase what I remember as Scarlett's words from the end of Gone with the Wind, when all is lost: "I will try again tomorrow. Tomorrow will be a better day."
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