December 27, 2010

Weaver Bird Nests (How Men Can Never Get it Right)

This is already least the third weaver bird nest dangling from the acacia tree in our yard:

Weaver bird nest in Johannesburg, South Africa

Or I should say, it was dangling from the tree until today, when it disappeared, like all its predecessors this year. This has always been a mystery to me - did they fall off during a storm, but then why wasn't there a nest on the ground?

Weaver birds (Ploceidae is their scientific name and they are related to finches), are  found pretty much everywhere in sub-Saharan Africa. As the name suggests, they are excellent weavers, as can be seen in their intricately woven nests - some of them entire colonies stuck together. They are fast builders, too, with a nest like the one in this picture going up in a single day.

But I was always baffled as to why the nests in our tree kept vanishing into thin air. Only recently was I enlightened: The male weaver bird is the one building the nest, all on his own, and when he is done he proudly presents it to the female of his choice. Alas, she is often not very happy with his shoddy workmanship, in which case she rejects the nest (about 4-5 times on average, I was told). And she doesn't just discreetly reject it, no, she has to come and actually destroy the whole thing, for all the world to see, which is what I had the privilege to observe just now. One minute the nest was there, and as I sat there taking pleasure in looking at it, a weaver bird came flying at it for what I thought were further enhancements, but instead the entire thing burst into a cloud of hay and was gone, poof! Even the little handle by which it was attached to the branch.

So for the poor male weaver bird, there is nothing much left to do but starting all over again.

This picture of a weaver bird starting a new nest was taken in Madikwe Game Reserve

As Noisette would say: Typical woman! A guy just doesn't stand a chance...

One of the previous weaver bird nests in our yard
Weaver bird nests in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe
Weaver bird nests in Madikwe Game Reserve, South Africa

More on Wildlife in Southern Africa here.

December 19, 2010

A Typical Day in Africa

Today was a very ordinary day, nothing special, and yet in a way it was typical of life here in Africa.

First, I had coffee with another expat friend. I find myself often having coffee with friends. There is less rushing, and people seem to have more time for coffee breaks. We traded expat stories, and as always it left me feeling much better about my lot, because she really is in a pickle.

Somehow the Department of Home Affairs has been sitting on her family’s permanent visas, and, as I’ve said earlier on this blog, NOTHING happens in South Africa without your permanent visa. You cannot open a bank account, you cannot get the infamous traffic register number which you need to buy and register a car, and you cannot get a cell phone. Just imagine for a second if they took away your money, your car, and your phone – that’s right, life comes to a standstill. Which may not be altogether bad, but a hassle nonetheless. Her husband has undertaken several trips to said department, standing in line for hours, only to be sent home again each time to produce yet another important document. Not a list of documents, mind you, just one, until such time as you return with the requested piece of paper, only to be chased away again because something else is missing. That’s why I suppose there are places here where you can just go and buy such documents for a “fee.”

I left the café very energized due to my caffeine intake and the knowledge that we DID have our visas, and set out to the pool supply store. What was typical Africa about this errand was the fact that although we have a pool service, our pool has been completely green three weekends in a row, only because the people who service it don’t show up when promised. I call, they swear they will come, and nothing happens. Yes, yes, I can hear your snide remarks about this particular complaint – she has a POOL, for crying out loud, and she manages to gripe about that? It’s true, and I do enjoy it, but no one wants to swim in a green pool, so I just decided that I’ve had enough of waiting around for other people and that I should be able to do this myself, with the help of a bucket of chlorine and Google for questions. I left, weighed down with many bags of sachets, bottles, and tablets, and briefly wondered if having to spend a fortune on chemicals will save me any money, but we shall see. At least now I feel like I’m doing something.

Then I had to go to the bank. Noisette had brought some Euros from his last Germany trip, and wanted them in the bank. I had been nervous all morning carrying this stack of bills with me (where to put it? In my purse? Leave it in the car? I had settled on my pants pocket, making for an uncomfortable and quite unlady-like bulge while sipping my coffee), so I was very happy to safely arrive at the bank. But as soon as a stepped out of the car, it hit me with force: I didn’t bring my passport! By now I should know these things – nothing happens at any kind of official place in South Africa, especially when money is involved, without a passport (including Visa!), and perhaps even 30 pages of your lease agreement. But the bank is not exactly around the corner, so there was no going back. Instead of the teller, I went straight to the lady who’d been anointed our “private banker,” due to which honor we’re not quite sure. She accompanied me to the teller, and sure enough, a passport was what was required, but given her vouching for us, our passport copies deposited with the bank would suffice. Although there were some probing questions about where so much money came from and how it arrived in the country, and at some point I began to see my chances of success dwindle, let alone maybe being arrested for illegal money trafficking. But in the end it was agreed for the passport copies to be produced, and my banker dutifully climbed all the way back upstairs to her posh office and retrieved said copies. No such thing as looking anything up on the system. This took about 30 minutes (and I was beating myself up because I had committed another cardinal sin – left the house without my Kindle!) during which time the foreign exchange teller was typing away furiously at her keyboard and stamped at least three different forms with authority.

After just one more errand I was glad to be on my way home. Sputtering along William Nicol, having to stop at every single one of the twenty-seven red lights, or robots, rather. Despite the fancy name, South African traffic lights are at the bottom of the totem pole as far as traffic lights go. No synchronization whatsoever, no priority for main thoroughfares, God forbid no adjustment for peak traffic hours, and no waterproofing. Yes, that’s right, they leak. When it rains, many of them go out (along with the telephone lines, it seems), but this gives rise to a miracle: Everybody comes to a perfect stop and politely waits his turn, in a very orderly fashion. A black taxi might have barreled along the shoulder and squeezed by ten cars seconds earlier, but now it is standing there like everyone else. There is absolutely no cheating at the broken robot.

As I was low on gas – petrol – I decided to stop at the gas station – garage – on the way home, and buy biltong at the adjacent butchery while filling up. I don’t know if I’ve told you yet, but getting gas, normally a hated activity for me, is a pleasure in South Africa. You never have to leave your car, everything is done for you, much like it was in Europe or the U.S. about a hundred years ago. Your tank is filled, your windscreen wiped, your oil and tire pressure checked, all for a small tip (I usually give R5). You pay by handing the attendant your garage card – a specific card only to be used at gas stations, which you must apply for when you open your bank account – and he comes back with a slip to sign. Except this time it didn’t quite work out that way. Upon pulling up at the pump, I was regretfully informed that there was no more Diesel. It had in fact been out for the last three days. Nothing for me to do but limp home on an empty tank and try again another day.

That was it. Like I said, nothing fancy, but typical for Africa, where such things take three times as long as they should, and where you never quite complete what you set out to do. 

December 16, 2010

Christmas in Joburg and Where to Find a Tree

I’m a bit slow getting geared up for Christmas this year. It’s hard to think about the festive season when you are woken up by birdsong every morning, another day of 80 degrees of sunshine stretching ahead of you. There is just not much of a Christmas atmosphere in Johannesburg, which people have fled in droves to spend their summer breaks somewhere else, partying on a nice beach, most likely. We ourselves have just come back from a fabulous week in Mauritius, which is one of the most beautiful places on Earth. So for once I’m not feeling very stressed about my Christmas to-do list, even though daunting questions beckon, like how can you get all those presents without Amazon, will your Christmas lights work with 220 volts, and where on Earth do you find a Christmas tree in Johannesburg?

Maybe I’ve embraced The African Way more than I realize. I’ve cursed the exhausting and frustrating “Welcome to Africa” side of it, which those of you reading this blog will have heard plenty about. But there is also a very relaxing and beautiful side to the African mentality. It is the idea of living the day, of taking time to smile, of stopping what you’re doing to have a chat or to play a game, of helping others even if that delays your plans, the spirit of Ubuntu or togetherness. It teaches you that most things we’re so worried about aren’t really that important, that in fact we ourselves aren’t that important. I’ve just finished a book called “A Life of Being, Having, and Doing Enough” by Wayne Muller, and while not at all about Africa, it essentially has the same message. I can highly recommend it.

So, I’ve decided life will probably go on even if I strike about half of the items off my Christmas list. As for the tree, my first plan was to just wait for it to magically appear at the Fourways intersection, where so many useful (and more often useless!) things are hawked by enterprising street vendors. But then a friend gave me a cell phone number and a name, and lo and behold, we came home with a real tree today! Well, let me qualify that a little bit. Coming from Durban, which apparently is the place for suitable Christmas trees, it is a Japanese Cedar.

If you’ve ever seen one, it is a bit on the spindly side with a thin trunk and floppy branches (which had the bonus of making it fit very easily into our car). I’m trying to picture all our ornaments on it, and it does not seem feasible to accomplish that without the whole thing keeling over. It’s trying hard enough to stand on its own without any additional weight. Still, it is a real tree, which not many people in Joburg have, so I’m happy we’ve got one.

Here is the place we got it from, if you’re interested:

Japanese Cedar Trees, while stocks last:

-          1.5 m: R280
-          1.8 m: R320
-          2.1 m: R360

16 Cambridge Avenue, Craighall Park, call Kathy at 083 600 9622

December 3, 2010

Our First South African School Year is Coming to a Close

Today is the last day of school, and I am of two minds about it. On the one hand, I can’t believe that these kids are going to be home now and it is only the beginning of December, with a million things for me left to do before Christmas, preferably away from curious eyes. On the other hand, it is time for us to bid grades 8, 6, 4, and 2 our final farewells. It doesn’t just seem like we’ve hung around them forever, we actually have! Leaving the U.S. in March of this year, we had almost completed the school year, only to start here almost from the beginning of the same grades. I’m now more glad than ever that I took the kids out early back home and traveled the country for a month.

Not that they didn’t get enough breaks here. Every time it felt like we had gotten into a routine, there was another break coming up, and Zax will tell you that I harp endlessly about the fact that there were three weeks (THREE!) practically off for high school exams. Twice this year. One and a half hours of exams each morning, then the rest of the day off. Which you were supposed to use for studying, but for kids who only study about 20 minutes per exam, that’s a whole lot of time off. But this year was also unusual due to the World Cup and the extra break that had to be squeezed in for it. Although the World Cup was great fun and we’re very grateful to have had the privilege to be here during this time, I am now looking forward to a new full school year with the regular three terms, starting after summer break on January 12, 2011.

All in all, we have been very happy with the experience at Dainfern College so far. There is a strong focus on academic achievement, a good sports program, and a whole lot of school spirit and music sprinkled into every day. It is definitely more formal than in the U.S., and I don’t just mean school uniforms. The recent academic awards assembly is a good example. All teachers were dressed in robes and their colors, and the students who received awards for academic excellence were called to the stage one by one to receive their certificates and be congratulated. This doesn’t take place in a gym but a large auditorium that resembles a posh theater. Quite often there are guest speakers telling inspirational stories. But it’s not always this serious. The Junior Prep (grade 0-3) teachers turned out an adapted production of Cinderella that was absolutely hilarious, the Grade 3 Nativity Story was wonderfully performed, and the choir is always excellent and entertaining.

If you’re an expat contemplating a move to the Johannesburg area, you should strongly consider Dainfern College for your kids. It will be very convenient, for one, because most expats stay in the Dainfern area, and you shouldn’t underestimate the convenience factor as a calming influence on your life. But it is also a very good school. Yes, I’m biased since that’s where we send our kids, but I truly think it will be an enrichment to your family. The academic level will likely strike you as lower from your home country, and that will put you off at first, but there is a whole lot more to school than just academics, and Dainfern College has all that extra. We’ve seen tremendous growth in our children as people over the last year and it can mostly be attributed to the new school and the friends they’ve made there.

I Might Have Spoken Too Soon: Fraud in the South African Postal Service

Just a humble suggestion to the South African Postal Service: Aspiring to be number 10 in the world does not sound all that ambitious, but you will never be even close to that if you cannot control rampant theft in your system!

So my little experiment of sending mail to the U.S. went well, the package was delivered, and quickly at that. However, no such success the other way.

If you remember, I told you our neighbor had warned us about having foreign bank correspondence sent to our PO box, and I did indeed make a half-hearted mental note to perhaps change that, but what with other pressing to-dos and the Christmas season approaching it didn’t get much attention. As luck would have it, I had recently been issued a new bank card by our German bank. The pin arrived, but not the card, and I had made another mental note to check why the card hadn’t gotten here yet. I’m glad our bank was more vigilant than I was – today I received a call to check if a recent request for a substantial money transfer from our account to a South African bank was legitimate. Of course it wasn’t, and so it was stopped, as was the card, which undoubtedly was stolen somewhere along the way before it reached our PO box. The scary part is that not only was our bank account number diverted, but somehow this thief also discovered and copied Noisette’s signature, we have no idea how (did he find out his office address and bribe someone to produce the signature? Or did he find out our home address and went through our garbage? Another mental note: must make a habit of using the shredder again, our old one of course not working due to the whole voltage issue). The accompanying letter was written in very bad German (I’m thinking Google Translator, very similar in style to the Nigerian get-rich-quick emails you’ve undoubtedly received before), which by itself would have sent a red flag to any bank employee. Nevertheless, all of a sudden the warning of our account being depleted within months doesn’t sound outlandish at all!

Therefore, to all aspiring or existing South African expats: Do NOT handle any financial transactions through your local postal address. Have your mail go to a friend’s or colleague’s address in your home country, and let them tell you if anything of import arrives, which they can then forward you via courier. You might also alert your bank to never accept any money orders without receiving your explicit o.k., which any respectable bank should already be doing when dealing with South Africa.

As for our fraud case, I was told to not even bother with the police, who will most likely laugh at you. I did forward the fraudulent letter to the bank that was used by the would-be thief, but I’m not holding my breath, as they have probably covered their tracks well.

Stealing, unfortunately, is not just limited to the postal service but to all areas of South African society. When you go shopping, you will soon learn to keep your receipt out when exiting any kind of store, even if you’ve only bought a package of mints, as there will be a security guard cross-checking the contents of your bag against the receipt. And when you take your car in to be serviced, you will be warned to take out all valuables, and you better do, because otherwise they will indeed be gone. I keep a few coins for the parking attendants in my glove compartment, nothing much at all, and still found that they were gone after my last car service. I’ve heard reports of entire CD collections to go missing. Noisette is dealing with theft on a staggering scale in his factories, from valuable raw materials to rolls of toilet paper. I’ve also heard reports of stolen purses, so it is wise to keep a close eye on yours when shopping or in a restaurant.

So we’ve at last discovered the uglier side of life in South Africa. But, as everybody will tell you here, be vigilant and sensible, and it won’t be half as bad. If you’ve ever lived in Europe, you’d never even dream of leaving your purse in your car, or leaving your keys in the ignition, even if you’ve parked in the garage, yet in the U.S. we’ve grown so accustomed to do these very things, because there is practically no theft (in most places). So it’s basically a matter of adjusting to your circumstances and taking the necessary precautions.