June 30, 2010

South African Schools

Now that we’ve been here for a while and gained a better understanding of our school, I’d like to share my opinions. After all, if you’re faced with relocating your family here, your number one concern (after security) will be the quality of your kids’ schooling.

Many expats automatically send their children to an international school, just because it makes for an easier transition, and companies typically pay the tuition.

The international schools in Johannesburg are (I don’t claim to have an exhaustive list): The American International School of Johannesburg with two campuses – one at the Northern end of Greater Johannesburg (680 students, pre-K to 12) and one in Pretoria (120 students, pre-K to 6 – a very international student body (over 40%), English instruction, and the International Baccalaureate on offer in its High School; The French International School or Lycée français Jules Verne in Sandton with 800 students,  a 55% non-French student body and bilingual instruction; and the German International School or Deutsche Internationale Schule Johannesburg, one of the  oldest local schools (founded it 1890), with 970 students from 27 different countries and bilingual instruction.

Then there is the myriad of South African private schools – single sex, co-ed, boarding, you name it, some with very strong traditions and family ties going back several generations. There are, of course, public schools as well, and some of them have excellent reputations, but as it is unlikely for expats to send their kids to a public South African school I won’t go into further detail.

The private school we chose for our kids is Dainfern College, a pre-K to 12 South African private school of about 1000 students, nestled between three large security estates in the Northern suburbs of Johannesburg. A comparable co-ed school with several campuses sprinkled across Johannesburg is Crawford. Since our choice was between the American International School and Dainfern College, I will now focus on those two while discussing the factors you should consider:

-          Cost: not much of a factor if your company pays the school fees, but you still might want to find out what exactly they pay and don’t pay (like uniforms, extracurricular courses, bus service etc.). If you are paying yourself, you should give the local private schools a close look, as they are about half the price of the American School.
-          Location: this is something you should research diligently, together with the place you choose to live relative to your place of work; just because something looks close on the map doesn’t mean you’ll get there quickly during rush hour – as explained elsewhere, Joburg traffic is horrific, so the closer you can be to anything, the better. The American School is located out in the country and has a bus service (for a steep extra fee), with traffic not quite so bad as you’re going somewhat against the flow, but nevertheless it will add to your kids’ school day. Pickup is as early as 6:00 am and dropoff after 4:00 pm, whereas our kids (who walk to school) leave shortly after 7:00 am and come home between 1:15 pm and 2:30 pm (without extracurricular activities; for an excellent write-up of Dainfern College and how it is so conveniently located read this article).
-          School year: the South African school year, much like that of Australia, is aligned with the Southern Hemisphere’s flow of seasons and therefore opposite to that of U.S. and European schools – it begins in mid-January and ends in early December, with two 3-or-so-week breaks and a number of holidays in between. The huge disadvantage of that is that your kids will likely go back a half a grade, because most local schools insist on pairing kids with their age group, regardless of their academic standing or history. The international schools, however, typically follow their country’s school year, so if losing that half-year is a concern to you, you are better off with an international school. However, that brings another challenge: International schools also follow the home country’s holidays, so you could end up with your kids off for Labor Day weekend while you have to work, while your office is closed for Freedom Day in April, but your kids are at school. If you want to take advantage of living here by doing some extensive travelling, the South African school calendar will be more friendly towards your vacation planning.
-          Academics: This is the issue we grappled with the most, and I’m still not sure that I know enough to write about this without doing someone injustice. But here are my initial observations: South African schools are academically behind U.S. schools. Our headmaster didn’t like the term “behind” at all when we discussed our kids with him, but acknowledged that kids coming from the U.S. and also the U.K. are typically ahead about a year (a year and a half if you count the half-year school calendar difference). This was very apparent from the start, particularly in the boys’ math classes and also Sunshine’s reading class. South African children don’t learn how to read until age 6-7, which makes the difference even more pronounced in the early grades. I’m actually not judging this at all – there are studies that will tell you early reading and writing can crowd out important other learning experiences for preschool and Kindergarten kids – but here we were, with Sunshine having read chapter books for years and her classmates struggling to sound out words. Any pleading and cajoling to advance our kids to the next grade fell onto deaf ears. This is not unusual, I’ve since learned, as South African school administrators love nothing more than age-appropriate grouping and have big fears that “social integration” might suffer if kids are too young for their grade. The fact that our kids are all small for their age was introduced as further evidence in favor of the status quo. This line of reasoning practically shut down our request – we knew that if we did insist on the kids being advanced, every problem in the future would be reduced to “see, we told you they weren’t ready.” Our worry is not at all that the kids might be bored – they’re not - but that upon our eventual return they will have fallen behind. I’m sure they’ll catch up quickly enough, but the grade the boys had skipped in math will likely be lost. Therefore, if it is important to you that your kids continue the same curriculum as before, the American School is probably a safer bet (although I have no first-hand knowledge of their academic level; we only visited once and I have to say that we weren’t overly impressed with it all, which was one reason we decided to investigate Dainfern College, but I lack any sort of tangible evidence. As for Dainfern College, they consistently score at the top in national and international examinations, a fact that has prompted me to be a little less concerned about any purely academic discrepancies).
-          Subject Advancement/gifted education: Dainfern College, our school, offers none of that. Smart kids are “extended” in class by their teacher as is deemed necessary. My guess is that the American School is more flexible with that and would have honored any existing subject advancements.
-          Length of stay: If you know you’re only here for a year, it might be easiest to stay with what you know and send your kids to the American School. They’ll quickly make friends, continue their learning where it was left off, and everything will be familiar. If you’re here for the long haul, switching to the South African school year won’t make a big difference in the grand scheme of things.
-          Turnover: International schools have a significantly higher turnover than local ones, with new kids arriving and others leaving at a fast clip. I have wondered if that doesn’t affect the academic level somehow, but I’m sure those schools would vehemently dispute that.
-          Friends: If your children need stability and lasting friendships, a local school will offer more of that. They might take longer to make new friends, though. South Africans, while friendly in general, are not as outgoing as Americans. There were quite a few days at the beginning when I’d drop off my kids at school, only to see them standing around shyly with everyone else ignoring them. But that’s a thing of the past and by now they’ve all found nice friends (and a good portion of self-confidence at having mastered a “scary” transition). No doubt will it be easier to make new friends (for your kids, but perhaps even more so for you) at the American School, with everybody in the same boat and eager to meet new people, but making local friends and getting to know the country you’re living in will give you great satisfaction in the long run.
-          Extracurricular activities/sports: This was somewhat a factor for us. The American School offers all the American sports, but only for the higher grades, and with what I assume must be somewhat limited competition, as it must be restricted to other international schools. Dainfern College offers after-school sports from the earliest grades, including competition with other schools. The convenience of our kids participating in whatever the school offers, free of additional charge, without any after-school driving around on my part, was a powerful argument for this school. However, we’ve since found out that there are some holes in that argument, for instance that girls aren’t allowed to participate in all sports, which I will elaborate on later in a special sports section.
-          Life skills: I can’t speak for all South African private schools, but Dainfern College places a huge premium on the overall development of the child, not just his or her academic achievements. There are some subjects you simply won’t find at a U.S. school, and you won’t find any “teaching to the test” mentality. One detail I love is that there are practically no multiple-choice tests. Maybe I’m old fashioned and biased as a writer, but the idea that my kids have to write actual prose in all subjects is very comforting to me. There are numerous outreach projects into the surrounding communities, and “entrepreneur days” to further integrate learning.
-          Discipline: Our kids’ biggest hangup about Dainfern College was having to wear school uniforms for the first time in their lives. You wouldn’t believe what an earful we got about that in the weeks leading up to our move. Funny enough, those complaints all but disappeared after the first week. I’ve written about school uniforms elsewhere, but just want to say here that I do feel they convey a certain level of discipline in and of themselves. In addition, the school makes a big effort for kids to be polite and respectful, so when you walk around campus on any given day, you will be greeted with “good afternoon ma’m” or “good afternoon sir” numerous times. The school also employs an extensive merit system (thoughts of the Gryffindor Hour Glass are never far from my mind, in fact one of their houses is Griffin) which some of our kids have become very competitive about.

We’re very happy with our school choice. Our (admittedly biased) theory is that visiting a local school and “doing as the Romans do” will prove to be a positive experience for our children. It certainly is easier to go with the familiar, especially if you’re already uprooting them from their surroundings, but being plunged into a very different environment, having to observe different customs, and persevering through some adversity will benefit you in the long run. Dainfern College offers a nice balance of academics, music, and sports. The school hours are shorter than before and the homework less. The kids seem to be more balanced than in our previous hectic U.S. life. Maybe that’s because I’m the one who is more balanced, not having to drive around creation for fifteen different sports teams but instead having my kids walk home from school whenever they’re done with their sports there. They’re learning new things, like Zulu and Afrikaans, field hockey, cricket, and netball (ok – I could do without netball, I admit). Jabulani plays in the orchestra, Impatience has restarted her piano lessons – they have teachers who come to school to teach DURING school hours, another thing I don’t have to run around for after school. Zax has already participated in a leadership seminar and has access to a special class helping him be organized (not of his own choice, he will tell you) and has had time to take up diving, which the school supports with an extracurricular diving club. We believe that what the kids might lag behind in purely academic teachings they will more than make up with the cool new things they are learning here, through the school and life in general in an exciting new country.

One additional note if you’re an expat actually considering moving here – whatever you end up deciding regarding schools, make sure you investigate your options early and apply for a space for your child, so that you can be placed on a waitlist in case availability should be limited. Visit www.isasa.org or www.studysa.co.za for more information on South African education.

Also see Private Schools in Johannesburg for a school listing.

June 29, 2010

Dried Impala Poop Spitting Contest

Did I get you hooked with that topic?

I have to say, I was intrigued as well when first hearing about this. From our 9-year old daughter Impatience no less, who was invited by a friend's family to a long weekend getaway in the bush. She went happily, social butterfly that she is, and we didn’t hear much from her, other than everything was fine and she was having a great time.

I wouldn’t even have heard anything more if her younger sister Sunshine, who chatted with her on the phone at length, hadn’t mentioned that Impatience had gotten second place in a "dried impala poop spitting contest."

What? This is Impatience, after all, who is known to say things like “disgusting“ and “yuck” quite liberally, even at the sight of such benign things like tomatoes or cheese. But her competitive side must have gotten the better of her, and so she proceeded to place those M&M-sized pellets on the back of her tongue in order to propel them out as far as she could. Apparently, this was not just a spur-of-the-moment silly kind of game, but something one does in Africa when going to view game. Google “dried impala poop spitting” and you will find other stories.

Why impala poop, of all things,you might ask? The answer is obvious if you've ever been to the African bush: There are impalas, and consequently their poop, pretty much everywhere. Impalas are so everpresent that most safari-goers don't even bother taking pictures of them anymore. They are like the background noise of the savannah, there but not noticed, because they are so utterly "unspecial."

Before you are too grossed out about this, think about the word "dried." It makes all the difference. do you have any idea how utterly dry it gets in Southern Africa, particularly in the winter months? Not a drop of rain touches the parched earth from May to October, and even during the rest of the year, what gets wet dries so fast you'd be amazed. After our first few months I stopped using our clothes drier and we hung our laundry instead, because a) our domestic helper insisted on ironing everything anyway, and b) the laundry dried faster on a clothesline than in the drier. Our garage was once flooded 4 inches deep after a big rain, and just as I was starting to tear my hair out over what to do, I noticed that all the water had completely evaporated just a few hours later.

So when they say that that impala poop is dry, you can bank on it. It's practically fossilized. Or mummified. Whichever it is, there is no way any bacteria or other life form inhabits that space any longer.

I’m totally loving the fact that there are such things as dried impala poop spitting contests in our new life here in Africa. One more thing to add to my ever-growing list of future fond memories of our expat posting. In my mind, I’m trying to picture the typical American field trip mom, big bottle of hand sanitizer in hand, and I cannot imagine what she would do when faced with kids gathering antelope poop and putting it in their mouths.

This is an impala. Doesn't it look like it's about to poop?

Nope. It was about to jump. They're good at that too.

June 28, 2010

West With The Night

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. And don’t just take it from me. Beryl Markham wrote it so well, according to Ernest Hemingway – who is no small authority on Africa in his own right – that “I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer.”

Here is just one excerpt which made me laugh out loud, because it is so very true for Africa even today (a fact we were reminded of just a few weeks back when we drove what on the map is labeled as a big highway from Sodwana Bay on the Elephant Coast back to Johannesburg but in reality is a winding pot-holed two-lane and more often than not one-lane road):
“There were roads, of course, leading in a dozen directions out of Nairobi. They started out boldly enough, but grew narrow and rough after a few miles and dwindled into the rock-studded hills, or lost themselves in a morass of red muram mud or black cotton soil, in the flat country and the valleys. On a map they look sturdy and incapable of deceit, but to have ventured from Nairobi south toward Machakos or Magadi in anything less formidable than a moderately powered John Deere tractor was optimistic to the point of sheer whimsy, and the road to the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, north and west through Naivasha, called ‘practicable’ in the dry season, had, when I last used it after a mild rain, an adhesive quality equal to that of the most prized black treacle.
This minor defect, coupled with the fact that thousands of miles of papyrus swamp and deep desert lie between Naivasha and Khartoum, had been almost flippantly overlooked by a Government road commission which had caused the erection, near Naivasha, of an impressive and beautiful signpost reading:
I have never known whether this questionable encouragement to the casual traveler was only the result of well-meant wishful thinking or whether some official cursed with a depraved and sadistic humour had found an outlet for it after years of repression in a muggy Nairobi office. In any case, there the sign stood, like a beacon, daring all and sundry to proceed (not even with caution) toward what was almost sure to be neither Khartoum nor Cairo, but a Slough of Despond more tangible than, but at least as hopeless as Mr. Bunyan’s.”

June 27, 2010

African Crafts

It is Sunday and I'm heading to the Rosebank Rooftop Market. It is a flea market par excellence where you'll find the gaudy and useless, but also a huge collection of African crafts. Stalls upon stalls of wares, some out in the open and some inside, all of it, as the name suggests, crammed onto the roof of Rosebank Mall. They simply sell everything: Wooden masks, drums, spears, paintings, clothing, incense, soap, spices, figurines made from beads, stone carvings, woven grass baskets, cheese, painted ostrich eggs, and, of course, vuvuzelas. Last time we were there I got suckered into acquiring an ironing board cover "your maid will love" by a fast talking salesman.

It's a great Sunday outing for the whole family where you'll enjoy the hustle and bustle of a vibrant market and good food. You might even catch a dancing performance as seen below.

And by the way, my domestic, who I didn't hire until after I originally wrote this post, does indeed love the ironing board cover.

This article is part of Joburg Expat's What To Do in Joburg series. 

June 22, 2010

Scenes of a Smash and Grab

I'm glad I have not yet found out what a typical Joburg Smash and Grab is like, but I think I've discovered what it  might lookk like the next morning. Notice the bricks and broken glass, and the plastic bags which no doubt contain more bricks:

World Cup Fever

Wherever you look in the streets of Johannesburg these days, you can't escape the World Cup Fever. Street vendors are selling flags, mirror covers, hats, and tons of other gadgets in team colors and they'll quite happily run and find what you're asking for if they don't have it on them, catching up with you down the road. There is always lots of room for bargaining!

There was lots of World Cup excitement at our school as well, culminating in this:

June 21, 2010

Saving Face - the African Way

I’ve found that whenever I ask for something, in a store, for instance, and they have no idea what I’m talking about, instead of admitting that they don’t know, they will pretend to look for it, and then apologetically inform me that they are sold out. “I’m sorry Ma’m, we don’t have that today,” is the standard answer. “We had it last week, but now it is gone.” This SO reminds me of our Singapore days, where “so sorry, cannot” was the reply to almost any request. Back then I was younger and it bugged the hell out of me, but now I can just smile and make a mental note to keep looking elsewhere. Sometimes all you have to do is walk down another aisle, and ask again. You might get lucky!

June 20, 2010

Finally - a New Trash Can!

Just a quick update on my trash odyssey: It took almost a week of waiting for our landlord to divulge our account number with the City of Johannesburg, but he did, and I faxed that to the Piki Tup people, and lo and behold, a few days afterwards, a new trash can sort of just appeared in my driveway. Or rather, not really a new one, but a very old and smelly one. But I was delighted all the same.

But, alas, the story is not finished yet. The ultimate irony: Ever since we got our “new” trash can, our – and everyone else’s – trash hasn’t been picked up, because the municipal workers were on strike. We’ve already missed two pickups, and the pile is mounting…

June 8, 2010

Recycling in Joburg

I’m happy to report that I just got our recycling set up. Recycling is not very big here, and I almost got used to throwing everything in the trash over the past few months, but not quite. It turns out there is recycling, but not for free. I went with Mama She’s Waste Recyclers and pay R45 per month (about $6) for weekly pickup, with a R100 setup fee. In return, they pick up pretty much everything that’s recyclable and provide blue bags for you, no separating necessary. All in all, I think this is a very good price for giving me a better conscience, plus now I won’t have to bribe the trash collectors anymore when our trash can overflows.

For completeness' sake, the other local recycling outfit I found is Whole Earth but they are more expensive (R500 upfront for a bin - must be the mother of all bins! - plus R70 per month) and only pick up every other week.

June 6, 2010

The Dustbin Saga Continues...

I’m still not making any progress on our trash problem, but at least am learning something about the City of Johannesburg and its bureaucracy in the process. The problem is that I still don’t know our account number, and none of my calls to a) the owner’s daughter who promised we could call her anytime, which is easier than calling her father, who lives in Australia, b) our relocation company that’s supposed to be setting everything up for us so it goes smoothly – ha! - or c) the real estate agent representing the owner are being returned. So this morning I decided to call Piki Tup (that’s what they’re called) myself. Again, I was told that without an account number they couldn’t do anything. When I described our problem of just having moved here and renting from somebody else, I was given a new number to call, which I called, listened to the voice mail options, pressed ‘4’ for Pikitup, and promptly landed back where I was with my first call. No no, don’t press anything, they told me, just wait for the agent. So I called again and waited. While I waited I was idly squashing ants in my path, dozens of them. They’re just walking through our house at will. I made a mental note right then that I’d call pest control and order up whatever it was that’ll take care of our ants, extortionist prices notwithstanding. Yes I’ve put up traps and have drawn chalk marks all over the place, and bottles of ant killer are at the ready on every floor, but it is still a losing battle.

But I’m digressing. I was finally, small miracle, put through to a City of Johannesburg agent that seemed a little bit more knowledgeable. But even she couldn’t solve my problem and insisted that I had to go through the owner of our house, because he alone could order a new dustbin for us. As a renter, we just can’t. At least now I know. She even tried to find the owner’s account number, but then insisted that the name I gave her was no longer our owner, that instead our house was sold to Coca-Cola in 2008. There you have it.

I think my best course of action is to stake out the trash men every Tuesday and keep giving them R5 and some water to drink like I did last week, so they’ll continue to pick up our trash without it residing in the proper bin.

Do you want to hear about my Telkom phone story next?

June 1, 2010

More on Traffic - When You Get Pulled Over

Ha! I am gleefully reporting that I am NOT the first in our family to receive a traffic ticket here in Joburg. This is definitely going against the trend established during our previous moves, where I was (unfairly!) singled out for the most obscure traffic violations. This is Noisette’s story from the other night:

It was a Friday (duh!, he was later told by friends, Fridays are ALWAYS the days the cops are out, as they’re looking for a quick buck before the weekend) and as always traffic was backed up coming from the office. In an effort to get on the highway quicker, Noisette did what he (and on other days the other drivers) always does, and tried to sneak by all the backed-up cars on the emergency lane. That joyride ended quickly, as a police car emerged in front of him and he was waved to a stop. His dutifully presented International Driver’s License produced immediate frowns and the threat of being taken to some central Johannesburg police station to pay a fine. After all, he might just leave the country if issued a regular ticket, so payment that very night was necessary, he was told. Fine, he shrugged, take me there. But this is when it became apparent that the friendly officer really had no intention of taking him there. That would mean giving up his lucrative spot right there on the exit lane and being stuck in traffic himself. Did he not rather pay right here, Noisette was asked? Well, how much is it, he replied. How much do you have, the policeman wanted to know and proceeded to lean far into the window in an effort to supervise the money counting. Together they counted off five R100 bills, plus a fifty. Not one to give up easily, the officer then asked for his coins, so Noisette proceeded to pour those out as well. And wouldn’t you know, the ticket came to precisely R557.68!

I am making a mental note never to carry more than about R500 in my purse since the rule of the game seems to be that you will be relieved of whatever you have. Then again, maybe I should play dumb and just insist on being taken to the police station. At the very least, it will make for another interesting story for my blog!