December 30, 2011

Looking Back on 2011

It is the last day of they year, a most wondrous year, and it is time to reflect. But instead of telling you about the highlights of the last twelve months, let me just pick my ten favorite posts of the year - a trick I admit I copied from fellow blogger (and excellent writer!) Marie at Rock the Kasbah. These are not necessarily the best suited to tell you what happened this year, but they are among the stories I enjoyed writing the most.

And what if you've already read them all, being a most diligent reader? Well, then you get a day off from Joburg Expat. Imagine that!

1. Africa: I'm happy with this one because it gave me a chance to show off my less-than-brilliant-but-very-much-improved-since-I-discovered-Photoshop photography, and because it best reflects my sentiments (on a day when I don't have to deal with Eskom) about Africa.

2. .My Shining Moment: This is such a typical expat story, plus a very redeeming one for me, because I got revenge (or at least satisfaction) for every injustice ever visited on foreign drivers here in South Africa.

3. In the Footsteps of Paul Kruger and the Voortrekkers: I'm proud of this post because quite a bit of research about South Africa's history went into it. (You should know that I do quite a bit of research about all my posts. I always start out with "this should be easy and quick" and then drive myself to distraction following up on the most obscure connections so that even a post about buying a fake Christmas tree is close to a dissertation by the time it's finished). But if you have no time for Michener's The Covenant, read this one for a brief overview.

4. Family Travels: I usually like those stories of mine best where I can make myself laugh when reading them later, and this one is no exception. If you have kids, maybe you'll see your own family reflected in this. Or not. I'm sure your kids are all perfect and logical.

5. Giving Hope at New Jerusalem: Every once in a while I  like to go back to my days writing for Kansas City Parent Magazine and do a piece of real life reporting. This post was such an article, interviews and all. It also reflects a little on what I have spent quite a bit of time with this year - charity work of some kind or another.

6. My Dark Secret: Here I reveal something of myself. I wasn't really keeping it from you. I just actually found out about it. I'm sure you have one of these lurking in your closet too!

7. Face to Face with a Great White Shark: I admit it. I selected this one because of the cool title. And because people tell me they live vicariously through my stories. Well, I really felt alive living this one!

8. When is the Best Time to be an Expat?: One of the reasons I write this blog is to help other expats moving to South Africa, and I think I asked some good questions and provided some answers in this one.

9. Cape Town with Kids: Robben Island: Another one on history, and I story that kept with me for a long time this year.

10. In Pursuit of the Buffalo: I had to include something about a safari, of course, as they always loom big in an African life. This was actually my first post of the year, and it is only fitting that we're spending the end of it the same way, on safari. More on that one in 2012.

I hope you also have good stories to look back upon in your year. In the end, telling and remembering stories is all we have.


December 28, 2011

African Photo Safari

Another year in Africa is coming to a close, and our family will end it in pretty much the same way it began last January (let's just hope without the emergency room): In the bush on a safari. This one will be in Kruger Park rather than Madikwe, and we're very excited to see this most eminent of national parks.

Going on a game drive in the African bush is one of the most rewarding experiences in life. And it's even better if you bring a decent camera and a good lens as your companions. If you weren't into photography before, you will be afterwards, trust me. The absolute best treat you can give yourself is going on a photo safari with an experienced photographer, like I did in October of 2010 with Colin Mead. If you live in Johannesburg, check out his stall at the Bryanston Organic Market on Thursday and Saturday mornings. The pictures I took on that trip to Madikwe still rank among my favorites, and I've taken a bazillion since then (hence the need for Christmas present number one, a new external hard drive!). See for yourself:

Madikwe Photo Safari 2010 Part I

[click on slideshows to enlarge]

Madikwe Photo Safari 2010 Part II

Colin's rates are very reasonable, but therefore the spots for his regular trips to Madikwe and Timbavati (and the occasional excursion to even more exotic locales like Uganda) go very quickly, so it pays to plan well in advance. Here is his schedule for 2012, followed by his contact details:

Timbavati (Kruger Park): 

  • March 4-7 
  • April 15-18,
  • May 6-9
  • June 3-6
  • July 22-25
  • August 26-29
  • October 7-10
  • November 4-7


  • March 25-28
  • May 20-23
  • June 17-20
  • August 12-15
  • September 16-19
  • October 21-24

Colin also offers photographic courses, consisting of four nights at two hours each held at his house on Ashley Ave in Bryanston. Please contact him at 082 456 2984 or, or visit his website at

December 27, 2011

On our Own Private Island for a Week

Island Water Villas near Memel in the Free State

One invaluable gift we’ve been blessed with in South Africa is good friends. Almost immediately upon arriving here, we were “adopted” by other families, invited over to braais, and generally shown the ways of this country.

One such set of friends are Mike and Jacky and their two children. They are veterans of the African bush, owning every conceivable gadget you could possibly need not only to survive in the wild but live quite nicely. They also possess that most important of all things, a wonderful sense of humor. If I ever was stranded on a desert island, I would want to have them along.

Going on a trip with Mike and Jacky is always an adventure. About a year ago they organized a weekend getaway at a place called Prynnsberg, a diamond magnate’s house built in the 1880s and currently in the process of being restored by a private family. It came complete with a large staff of cooks and domestics who treated our group of over thirty people like royalty, serving every meal in a different venue, culminating in a cookout-cum-slumberparty under an overhanging rock. Except we never got to the slumberparty phase, because we accidentally set the bush on fire and had to spend the rest of the night and most of the next day fighting a huge wildfire. A corporate team building exercise couldn’t have provided a better bonding experience, though I suspect the owners of the house and surrounding farms didn’t quite see it in such a positive light.

Mike and Jacky are also owners of that other invaluable possession you should select your friends by, a power boat. Therefore, when asked if we wanted to come along for a week of waterskiing in the Free State, we enthusiastically said yes. That is how we recently found ourselves on a remote farm, living in a house in the middle of a private lake, surrounded by beautiful scenery, with no one but our two families to play in the water as we pleased (if you don't count all the cows and sheep keeping us company).

One of my goals in life has always been to learn how to surf. But as large waves are rather hard to come by in Johannesburg (and as the water is WAY too cold for me around the Cape where those waves COULD be found), I'm postponing the surfing project until such time as we become expats in Hawaii (yeah right!) and focusing my immediate energies on the more attainable target of getting air when jumping the wake on a wake board. This week was an ideal opportunity to perfect my jump.

Me with my head cut off getting ready for a jump 
I prefer the headless picture - jumping makes me pull the most horrible grimaces!
But see the air?

Everyone got to do plenty of skiing and boarding. Even Sunshine got up on the wake board, although all were skeptical that such a little person could steer such a big thing. It was the perfect lake for trying out new things, because we had the only boat in the entire lake, and because Mike was the most patient driver you could wish for.

Sunshine true to form with a big smile...
...all the way down

The boys found plenty of other outdoor activities that generally involved getting dirty or falling into the water, though Zax was rather put out that there was no internet connection so that his physical activity usually consisted of hiking up a nearby koppie in search of two bars on his cellphone. The scenery was beautiful, and I like to think that we also provided some excellent entertainment for the cows and sheep grazing around our lake.

Sunset over the mountains

Mountains all around us

See how the cows were staring at us? 

My favorite picture of the lake with a beautiful sky

And, even though there were no wildfires this time, we got a bit of excitement when the boat crashed into the pier on a windy day, and then into the car (!) when trying to put it on the trailer. You don't often hear of an accident between a boat and a car. Then both boat and car got stuck in the mud, and their un-sticking provided a great project for the boys and men for the rest of the day, while the women and girls found horses to ride and lambs to feed.

These guys and their siblings woke us up every morning with a baah-ing concert

There was more excitement when I neglected my motherly duties and briefly let go of the reins holding Sunshine's horse, because it kept head-butting me. Sensing its temporary freedom, the great beast bolted, with Sunshine firmly crouched on its back. For a minute or two she looked very sleek, like a jockey, but I neglected to take a picture because I was busy yelling "pull the reins" at the top of my lungs. She did, in the end, do just that, except she wasn't strong enough so that she rather pulled herself right off the horse. There she stood, when we finally came upon her, holding the horse with tears streaming down her cheeks but otherwise unharmed. She still tells me, two weeks later, that I owe her one, and I'm happy to oblige to soothe my guilty conscience.

I personally thought getting all our gear over the hanging bridge to the house upon arrival was enough excitement for the week. Walking across was a balancing act at the best of times, but when loaded with heavy bags of food, it was quite a challenge. Especially when your son has a habit of jumping up and down right behind you along the way. And when you're squeezing your eyes shut tight so as not to look too closely at the actual suspension of the bridge.

All our luggage had to be hand carried over the bridge
Trustworthy construction

All in all a great getaway for up to ten people. The lake isn't huge but plenty big enough for one boat. It's also very easy to get to (discounting the hanging/swinging bridge) in just under three hours from Johannesburg. For more information on Island Water Villas, click here.

December 24, 2011

Long Walk to Freedom

I finally did it. I finished Nelson Mandela's Long Walk to Freedom. It wasn't a short hop for me either.

I'd be lying if I said it was an easy read. I usually fall in love with books readily and am also not typically discouraged by very thick specimen, but this one did test my willpower. It's not that I have anything against Nelson Mandela. On the contrary, after reading his personal account I admire him all the more for what he has accomplished and how he kept his dignity throughout his long ordeal. And the story is fascinating. It's just that the writing itself didn’t captivate me as much as that of other authors. His is a more or less mechanical writing style, the sentences aren't always flowing that well, and there are a ton of details in there that felt like road blocks keeping me from getting on with the story.

Maybe I haven't read enough autobiographies, maybe they all are very self-centered, just by their very nature, and maybe this is one of the better ones. I have to admit that I'm a much bigger fan of memoirs, since I care less about absolute accuracy and more about a good story, giving you a feeling for the times and places they are set in. What the book does do very well is highlight the roles of all the different people who Nelson Mandela came in contact with over the years. If you were part of the "struggle," you would of course love to find your name mentioned in these pages, and it feels like Mandela was very careful to give everyone his due.

One thing I loved about this book is the humble tone it is written in. For all that he has been through, Nelson Mandela could very well come across as preachy or grandiose, but you will find nothing of the sort in these pages. He writes without self-pity, without embellishment, he freely admits mistakes he has made, and he never gloats. What you do learn from these pages is that he saw himself as a leader of his people from an early age, and constantly worked on improving his leadership skills, even during those long years on Robben Island. He also thought of himself as a pragmatist, always looking for ways how the struggle for freedom could be advanced, even if it meant abandoning a purist principle, like non-violence.

Most of all he always was a team player, putting the interests of what he calls his people first and foremost, and insisting on consulting the ANC leadership in vital matters, even when he was close to being released from prison and in secret talks with the government. It goes to his great credit that he saw as his people all South Africans, black, white, and everything in between.

All in all, Long Walk to Freedom is a very revealing book, so if you have the stamina and are a fast reader, you should give it a try. I'm really glad I read this one as I consider Nelson Mandela one of the truly great people that have walked this Earth. 

December 22, 2011

Healthcare in South Africa

If you’re considering an expat assignment in South Africa, you’ll probably have three main areas of concern: Safety, education, and healthcare. I’ve previously touched on both schools and safety, but a comprehensive post on healthcare is way overdue.

Even though we’ve since sampled several hospitals, just so I can give you a first-hand account in the healthcare department, I don’t think I ever told you of my first emergency room experience. I went ahead and contracted tick bite fever not more than one month into our move. It turns out tick bite fever is very common around here if you do any kind of hiking, especially in the rainy season. That is exactly what we did over Easter weekend 2010, when we went on our first safari at Yellow Wood Game Lodge in the Waterberg (a mountain range about 2 hours to the Northeast of Joburg). Technically it was supposed to be the dry season (“It has NEVER rained here in April!”) but in a twist very typical for our family (we should be called the Murphy’s), all records were broken when WE were there, and it rained and rained and rained, prompting the lodge owner to be worried about leaks in the beautiful thatch roof, which he swore he’d never had to deal with before. So I’m not surprised that ticks were roaming freely. If someone had warned me about it, I might have worn long pants and checked for ticks, but when planning our trip I had dedicated long hours of research into the question of malaria (just FYI, the Waterberg is a Malaria free area), NOT tick bite fever.

Our trip was beautiful, despite rain, but about a week after we came back (incubation 7-10 days) I started feeling very sluggish and feverish (a kind of low-grade fever with chills and a dull backache) and also noticed that one of my lymph nodes was painful and swollen. Priding myself in my knack for self-diagnosis I proceeded straight to Google, and determined that I either had a hernia (I learned that women can and do get them!) or some type of infection, both of which required a doctor’s visit. This, of course, produced more Google sessions and several phone calls, trying to figure out where one might go with such a thing and if it mattered to our insurance. My plan had been to research doctors later, once we were settled, but of course nothing ever goes according to plan. The good thing about being on a global assignment is the fact that our insurance has no network, so there is also no need to research which doctors are in it. You are stuck with an upfront payment, regardless.

I determined that an emergency room visit at Life Fourways, a private hospital nearby, was my best option, as I would be seen right away. I was, and the setting was very professional. I was whisked in to see a doctor after only about five minutes in the waiting room, and she told me that most likely I had tick bite fever, which, if it made me feel any better, she’d already diagnosed in 17 other people that day. At this point I would have been quite happy to go home with some antibiotics, but instead, I was subjected to “some tests, just to make sure.” I suppose South Africa is no I different from other Western countries in that regard. Yes, it is nice “to be sure,” but in light of rising healthcare costs, there will eventually have to be a balance between certainty on one side and cost on the other.

At any rate, I didn’t mind this particular time, as it gave me more insight into the workings of a South African hospital. First, my blood was taken, by a one-woman sort of mobile lab, right where I was sitting, so that was kind of cool. I briefly wondered about needles and safe blood and such, but then just went ahead with it. I’m a sucker in the face of authority, and the doctor had ordered a blood test, so I obeyed. Then I had to go pay separately for the lab costs. When I came back, I waited. After a while, the doctor poked in her head and wondered why I was still sitting there. “Haven’t they taken you to the ultrasound yet?” I assured her that no, they hadn’t, so she reprimanded some idle nurses to take me there ASAP. I had my ultrasound, which confirmed the swollen lymph node due to an infection, then paid again separately in the radiology department – in case you were wondering, it was all very reasonable, on the order of R300-R400 for each of those, which is about $45, not imaginable at a U.S. hospital – and was sent back again to wait. Once again, the doctor poked in her head after quite some more waiting on my part, and was irate that no one had moved me along in the process. It seems like the nurses here, while very friendly, need quite a bit of prodding.

My visit ended with the doctor confirming her initial diagnosis, handing me a few business cards for GPs and Pediatricians of her recommendation, and sending me to the pharmacy, where I bought – quite cheaply – my antibiotics and also some iron tablets, which apparently I also needed. All in all, not a bad experience. I felt much better the next day, and have learned to beware of ticks.

Now for some general healthcare information and tips for prospective expats:

Doctors: South Africans tend to primarily see a general practitioner, adults and kids alike. I was confused at first by the apparent lack of pediatricians. They exist, but mainly in association with hospitals, and you would use them for emergencies or special cases. For checkups and minor problems such as colds, most people tend to see their family physician. I’ve found the doctors at Intercare (very conveniently located at Fourways – find your nearest location here) quite knowledgeable. Intercare centers provide medical and dental services and are also an excellent place to brush up on your immunizations and travel-related issues such as malaria prophylaxis. In comparison to the U.S., doctors here will take much more time for a consultation, and charge you less. We still visit Intercare every once in a while, but have now settled on another practice as our family doctor: Dr. Moray Shirley, Broadacres Shopping Centre, 011 467 1432.

Immunizations: If you’re coming from the U.S. and are up-to-date on your immunizations (mainly Hepatitis B, diphtheria, tetanus, measles, mumps, rubella and polio), you won’t need any additional ones for South Africa. But you should visit a local doctor and see what he/she recommends, even if it is not required. When I took Zax, who was 13 at the time, for a HEP-A booster here, the doctor recommended to have everyone get HEP-A shots, even the younger kids, with the argument that this is an excellent immunization to receive, not just in South Africa but worldwide. If you’re planning to travel to other African countries (like Angola, Tanzania, Congo, Kenya) you might require a Yellow Fever immunization. In fact, after having traveled to a Yellow Fever country, South African immigration will require a Yellow Fever certificate from you. Our experience with this has been that no, no one wanted to see the Yellow Fever certificate at all, neither here nor in Tanzania, but I would say you still should get the vaccine before going into a Yellow Fever area.

Diseases: I’ve already told you about my run-in with tick bite fever, which is very common in South Africa, especially during the rainy months. However, it is also easily curable with antibiotics and in that respect much more pleasant than Lyme disease. (Just as an aside, your pets can get it too, so flea/tick treatments are very important). There are several other diseases you should be aware of. Typhoid Fever and Cholera (transmitted via contaminated food/water) are both endemic in Africa, but you won’t have to worry about it in South Africa. If you’re going to spend much time in rural areas, you should be aware of the risk of Rabies, but again, this won’t be an issue as an expat in Johannesburg. HIV/Aids, of course, is a huge problem in South Africa, coupled with the high incidence of Tuberculosis. Sadly, the South African government has only recently started to acknowledge – and battle against – the high rate of AIDS, which puts South Africa much behind even other, less developed, African countries. But I will venture to say that as an expat in South Africa, you are not much at risk, assuming, of course, that you’re sensible. Educating your kids is a must. One concern I did initially have was the quality of South Africa’s blood supply, but I was assured, by everybody I asked, that it is very safe, although I have to admit that I didn’t do any kind of exhaustive research and was quite happy to accept what I was told. You could, I suppose, have your own blood drawn and stored at a hospital of your choice, but I haven’t heard of anyone who’s actually done that.

Malaria: A discussion of diseases in Africa naturally wouldn’t be complete without a mention of Malaria. As I’ve already said elsewhere, there is no Malaria in the Greater Johannesburg Area, or even anywhere in Gauteng Province and most of the rest of the country (specifically, the Malaria free provinces are:  North West, Northern Cape, Western Cape, Eastern Cape, Free State, Gauteng). Kruger Park and parts of Kwa-Zulu Natal (but not Durban) are low-to-intermediate risk areas, and you’ll have to decide if it’s worth taking the prophylaxis (the one recommended by our doctor is called Malanil by Glaxo Smith-Kline, also called Malarone in the U.S. – to be taken daily starting a day before your trip, through your trip, and 7 days after your trip). It is worth noting that the medicine is not 100% effective, and that other preventive methods such as mosquito nets and long sleeves and pants after sunset go quite a long way as well. Most local friends seem not to be overly worried about Malaria. It is just a part of living in Africa. In the end, you must do what you think is right. We have gone both ways, foregoing the malaria prophylaxis in Sodwana Bay, which in winter is a very low risk area, and in Victoria Falls, where we were without kids and just for a weekend, but taking it on trips to Mozambique and Zanzibar. We didn’t find the pills overly invasive, with the exception of Impatience who almost became hysterical from trying to swallow her first pill ever.

Private Hospitals: Life Fourways, Sunninghill, and Olivedale hospitals, as well as Sandton and Morningside Medi-Clinic all have excellent reputations and offer world-class care. They are all part of the Netcare, Life, and Mediclinic groups that together cover most of South Africa in a comprehensive network. As an expat, you will most likely have to pay out of pocket at the completion of your visit (or, like me, several times at one visit!) and then send your receipts to your insurance company to be reimbursed. For any major operations, you might need to check ahead of time to make sure it will be approved. So far, we haven’t had any trouble with anything, maybe owing to the fact that the cost of care here is much more reasonable than at a U.S. hospital.

Public healthcare: Even though as an expat you won’t be affected by it, this article wouldn’t be complete without a discussion of public healthcare in South Africa. From what I’ve glimpsed, it is in dismal shape. There are a number of public hospitals and clinics that, it is my understanding, essentially offer free care. But, as everywhere, you get what you pay for. Many public hospitals are nearly depleted of supplies and medicine, because everything of value is constantly stolen, and patients have to contend with whole-day waits to get a simple prescription filled at a clinic. Our domestic told us that you might have to get up at 4:00 am to even get a spot in line, only to be told by 4:00 pm that you should come back the next day. She had a friend who was once admitted to the hospital with a heart problem, and scared to death for the two weeks she was there, because she was neither looked after nor released. Only some pressure from her employer advanced her case so that she was diagnosed and allowed to return home. She was then put on a monthly treatment plan, which in all probability she could never have afforded at a private hospital, so one could argue that public healthcare saved her, though I don’t know what became of her in the end. The discrepancies are stark, and the majority of people seem to be resigned to the fact that their government is incompetent. Maybe South Africa’s successful hosting of the World Cup will eventually bring the long-awaited change in attitudes. The argument that it simply can’t be done will no longer hold now that everyone has seen that it actually could, where there was enough political will.

I hope I’ve cleared up some healthcare-related questions for you. I don’t think healthcare should be an area of concern when moving to South Africa, unless of course you have some serious or rare condition, in which case the United States is probably still the best (if also most expensive) place on Earth to be treated.

December 21, 2011

I've Got Music

One thing I particularly love about our school, Dainfern College, is its music department. There aren't enough words to describe how much energy and joy it has brought into our lives, thanks mainly to our indomitable and loving head of music, Patti van der Plog. If there is one teacher who can change your kids' lives, she is the one.

Music permeates everything going on at school, from singing the national anthem at morning assemblies to the hosting of national competitions such as the recently held Eistedfodd. For the most part, it has been the kids who were touched by all this - Impatience with her singing, piano, and flute, Sunshine with piano and voice as well as playing the marimbas, and Jabulani with the saxophone (in between arm operations, that is). By the way, I should mention here that the Dainfern College music department is very much open to the public for after-school lessons, as well as possibly an open choir and orchestra next year.

Grade 7 Showcase at Dainfern College

Starting young: The Dainfern College Grade Nought Choir on Founder's Day

Sometime this year, music started creeping into my life, too. Inspired by all the notes wafting through our house, I signed up for my very own piano lessons. The piano, you see, is what I always wanted to play. However, I grew up with an older brother who played the piano, so my mother, as mothers tend to do (I don't claim to be immune myself) deigned it best that I play the violin, so as to make for nice trio performances at rehearsals (together with my other brother, who played the cello).

Now that I'm grown up, I get to decide such matters all by myself. And I absolutely love playing the piano, uninhibited (or so I thought). Nothing quite matches how you can relax and feel energized at the same time after you've practiced, and the glorious feeling you get when you've mastered a piece that only weeks ago seemed absolutely impossible, because our hands don't naturally want to do two different things. It's your mind conquering your body, in a way.

There I was, totally enjoying myself with no one telling me when I needed to practice, the whole enterprise of my own volition, when what do you think reared its ugly head to ambush me out of the blue? A rehearsal! I cannot tell you how much I hated rehearsals as a kid. The mounting dread weeks ahead, the sweaty palms, the hated fancy clothes I had to don for the occasion, the chatter of the assembled guests before the performance, followed by a hushed silence, the jittery nerves prompting you to inevitably make a mistake, the praise afterwards by all the elderly (in my child's eye) ladies I was made to shake hands with by my mom.
I had vowed to never again in my life be bullied into a rehearsal. But what could I do when the piano teacher invited me to perform at the music festival? Tell my kids that yes, it is important to overcome our fears and perform in front of others, and then chicken out when it was my turn? Plus, I was led to believe it was a performance among just a few adult beginners. Oh what a clever way to lure me in. So I show up and find myself in a room full of high school students, all showing off their years of piano expertise with Chopin and Beethoven in front of a couple of judges. I would have bolted, had my well-meaning friends (who were there for their kids of course, not performing themselves) not already spotted me and waved me over to an open seat. I could do nothing but sit there and try to calm the butterflies in my stomach while everyone else had their turn. I was last, of course!

There I am playing my Oxford Rag; as you can see, I didn't get a chance to change out of
my tennis sweats from the morning - at least no hated fancy clothes! Photo: G McKay

Needless to say, I of course survived and as always it seemed much more benign in hindsight than beforehand. And what do you know? I received a rare double gold certificate for my efforts that day, which I can now proudly hang on the fridge.

And my mother, were she still alive, would be pleased to know that I've signed up for violin lessons next year, trying to pick up where I left off about 28 years ago. Now I just have to get me and my brothers together and her vision of us playing trios might yet survive, if just a tad late.

Viva la musica!

December 18, 2011

Do I Write or Do I Draw?

As you all know, my passion these days is writing, Hence this blog. Even though lately I've been a bit behind, running out of pre-scheduled posts (even though I have ideas and material for at least six months, I'm sure).

But one of my other interests is drawing and painting. In fact, Noisette claims I have more talent for that than writing, but seeing as he never reads my blog, I don't think he's qualified to say. I suspect it's just easier to look at a picture than actually reading a story!

The reason I have been behind on my writing is that I've taken out the charcoal and paper again. It's Christmastime, you see, and I'm in need of a present for Noisette, who like all husbands is hard to shop for, so I decided to make a drawing. We have this wall in our bedroom that needs some large pictures filling it, and I recently had the inspiration of making a trilogy from the zebra drawing I made some time ago:

The plan is to add a giraffe and an elephant, the giraffe looking straight ahead, and the elephant looking in from the right. Thankfully, I have plenty of material from all our safaris. In fact, this is one of the reasons I've picked up photography as another hobby, even though it is incredibly time consuming, because that way I always  have material for my drawings and paintings without infringing on anybody's copyright, just in case I ever wanted to sell any of my work.

I simply can't keep up with photography, writing, and painting, let alone all those pesky housewife duties that keep poking up their annoying heads. So please forgive  me if there are fewer stories forthcoming until Christmas. Or perhaps not, because I just can't help myself when it comes to this blog.

Anyway, since Noisette won't be reading this, I can safely share the progress I've made so far (fishing for your encouragement to get the elephant done as well, which - yikes - will need to be drawn and framed in just 6 days:-):

December 17, 2011

Better Parents Needed

I'm going to hijack this blog away from my typical expat theme this once to write about a topic dear to my heart - parenting. Well, I guess I can write about whatever the hell I want, this being my blog and all. And parenting and being an expat is not necessarily mutually exclusive. On the contrary.

This article caught my eye the other day: How About Better Parents? by Thomas Friedman in the New York Times. It basically states that you can beat up on teachers all you want and decry the state of American (and other) public schools till the cows come home, but that it is really up to the parents to ensure that their kids do well in school. And it's not even particularly difficult. Just reading with your elementary school kids on a daily basis will go a long way.

My first reaction to reading this was DUH! Doesn't everybody know this? I mean, wherever you have parents who CARE about education, whose highest goal in life is education and lifelong learning, there is NO DOUBT that their kids are doing well in school and beyond. That is why you'll find so many Asian kids who are top students, and you'll also find them learning instruments and excelling at them at a disproportionate level. Education is of central importance in most Asian cultures, and therefore the kids strive for it too.

What I like about Friedman's column is that he shows the research that is behind this assumption. The Program for International Student Assessment (also called PISA) has added surveys to their regular testing program of children in OECD countries, conducting extensive interviews to find out how parents raise their children. And without fail, children of parents who are more involved in their kids' education, whether it is by reading to them when they're little or even simply asking them how their school day went and overseeing their homework, far outperform the other students on the PISA tests.

I've often said that I believe it almost doesn't matter where your children go to school, because at the end of the day you, the parents, determine their later success in life. Not by being a drill seargant beating the times table into them, but by being role models who value learning and display a thirst for knowledge coupled with discipline from the day they are born. That doesn't mean I don't love the school our children go to and they learn a great number of life skills there, but the real key to your kids' accomplishments lies with you and you alone.

Which sort of ties this back in with being an expat. Most expats I've spoken with spend an inordinate amount of time fretting over their kids' schooling and whether they've made the right decision moving them across an entire continent or hemisphere into a completely different school system with possibly a new language involved as well. And school choice is often the one thing holding a family back from making any bolder moves like going to an even more exotic country or extending their stay beyond the agreed-upon two years. But if you think about it not in purely academic terms but through the lens of lifelong learning, the question of the right school is really not so important as the values you as a family project. Your kids will learn a ton of things from an international move, useful, important, even life-changing things, provided education and learning and open-mindedness are at the heart of your parenting.

If you don't do anything, please find a way to read to your children every day. Some of the fondest memories from my childhood are the ones where my brothers and I would pile up on the bed while my mother read to us, transporting us into a magical world for away. And she didn't even have Harry Potter on her bookshelf - a series that makes it so much easier nowadays, because it's  hard to find a child that doesn't like Harry Potter, or an adult who doesn't enjoy reading it aloud, for that matter. If you need more suggestions, check out the Read-Aloud-Handbook by Jim Trelease.

What better time than Christmas to start gathering your family for regular reading sessions around the fireplace with a cup of hot cocoa? Or, if you're here in South Africa, lounging on the patio with a few cool drinks?

December 14, 2011

To Climb or Not to Climb Kili?

Ever since the subject of moving to South Africa came up, I've been harboring this secret idea of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro while we're here. Before I even looked at houses or schools or even the crime rate, I was googling the different ascent routes up this legendary (in my mind at least) mountain.

I figured it's the perfect mountain for me. I'm afraid of heights, so any vertical drops are out for me, and I'm almost as afraid of the cold, so a mountain that is situated in Africa has a certain appeal. Even though I've yet to find a really hot place in Africa, to be honest. I've been cold here more than anywhere else, so that last leg up to the summit wouldn't be very pleasant, given that you typically climb it at night, if I'd even make it, considering the altitude that has forced many a traveler back downhill. Which gets me to another reason of doing it while we live here: Joburg is at such an altitude that you might get a teensy benefit from being acclimated just a little bit, instead of starting from sea level. Let alone saving on the flight to get us to Africa in the first place.

Somehow up until now there have always been other travel destinations beckoning, ones that offered more comfort and less need of preparation, so Kilimanjaro was put on the backburner. However, the other day I realized with a bit of a shock that we're rapidly approaching our 2-year mark here in South Africa, and that if you assume the ever-so-common 2-to-3-year expat average, there won't be very much time left.

Hiking trail above Franschhoek

At least I've achieved clarity about one aspect. When I originally shared my dream with Noisette, he sounded pleased with the idea, if not overly excited. It would be a great bonding experience for us and Zax (the other kids are too young, or too prone to altitude sickness, or too prone, frankly, to incessant whining when confronted with the slightest incline to be conquered on foot). However, when Noisette and I recently took a hike – I’d rather call it a stroll – around Franschhoek Pass, he was soon complaining about the uneven path, strewn with rocks, making it hard to look anywhere but the ground ahead of you, while I got more and more excited bounding uphill. We shared stories about our childhood, and it turns out he liked the Sunday strolls his family took, on wide paved roads, flat as a pancake (there are no hills around Hannover, Germany), breathing in the fresh air. Whereas I absolutely hated such strolls, even if they just lasted an hour, leading me to whine about it without end (I hope my kids don’t read that). But if you gave me a day-long hike into the Swiss Alps, going up grueling slopes, crossing a glacier, stopping at a sparkling stream where dams could be built, I was in heaven (my brothers might now feel compelled to correct my rose-tinted vision and remind you that I was whining on those hikes as well). But the point is, I love a good challenge, while I hate walking just for the sake of walking. I mean, if there is a paved road, why not take a bike at least to get there faster?

So it was decided during our half-hour “hike” that if I want do climb Kilimanjaro, I’ll have to do it without Noisette. Maybe he’ll take the younger kikds on a diving trip instead, meeting up afterwards in Dar es Salaam. Zax, I think, will want to come, even if that means leaving the xBox behind for over a week. He hates to leave the house, but like me he’ll like the challenge. He once raced me up to the 21st floor of a hotel in New York, losing me after three flights of stairs and greeting me nonchalantly and with a big smile when I finally dragged myself after my tongue into the room. And I’ll promise right here that he will get a new blog name from me if we conquer Mount Kilimanjaro together.


Want the whole story? Buy the book:

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German edition: click here.

December 12, 2011

A Proper Fake Christmas Tree

So I did it!

I finally gave in and got a fake Christmas tree. This is quite a feat, mind you, for someone who's always, up until now, had a real Christmas tree, and who until the age of eighteen even had real candles on it - the kind you only lit on Christmas Eve and admired while the whole family stood around and sang Christmas carols.

So you know things must have been desperate for me to switch to a fake, Chinese-made tree. I had actually made it through our first year in Africa without caving, and found a place selling real trees. But look at the sad specimen we got, and you'll understand why I had to switch. The branches were thin and drooping so much that only the smallest ornaments could be put on them, and the needles looked odd. Fake, in fact. The only good part about it  was that it was so rubbery that it never shed any needles. Still, so my reasoning went this year, if the only real tree I could get in South Africa looked fake, I might as well get a proper fake tree.

But, as you know, acquiring stuff in South Africa always takes several tries, and it was no different this time. I set out, restless girls in tow, who'd been nagging for a haircut for weeks. After getting the hair done, we went to Checkers where I'd heard they were selling trees at a reasonable price. There were trees alright, but none of the ones displayed seemed to match the boxes stacked underneath them, and most of them were pink, purple or white. I wanted green! And I wanted reasonably tall. The only tall tree for sale in a huge box was not on display, so I now was torn, going back and forth loading it into my cart and unloading it again. The alternative was to wait and check at Game or another place first, but I hate shopping with a passion, as much as I hated the prospect maneuvering my car in and out of tight parking spaces once more, on a rare rainy day in Joburg, without the guarantee I'd be any luckier at the next store.

Such a huge box for such a spindly tree - a feat in itself!

So I bought the box, taped sides and all (which should have made me suspicious), hefted it into my trunk and headed home. I got a sarcastic look from Noisette when he saw the box - no doubt remembering all the times I had poo-pooed such a tree. Let alone the idea having to store yet another big thing in our garage, which these days is very crowded due to the soap box car Jabulani brought home from a school project. But I was undeterred and proceeded to the assembly part. Except, therein was the problem. Not that it was hard. Just three pieces and a stand, all stacked on top of each other, with branches that were on metal hinges pushed down and out. No matter how much I pushed out, though, the tree did not assume tree form. Each piece had approximately the same girth, so that my tree, when fully assembled, looked more like a tall thin barrel than a Christmas tree. In fact, it just sort of ended at the top without a real tip, just an empty metal pole sticking out.

Failed Fake Tree Attempt One - need I say more?

The sight of it made me long for the sad specimen from last year! My guess is that the wrong pieces were in the box. Which is probably why the first buyer had returned it and it was resold after taping the box again. Or maybe someone had cannibalized some of the better pieces, leaving the thin ones. The other thing that bugged me, though you can't see it in the picture, was that my floor was littered with needles. A fake tree shedding needles, on top of looking ugly? Leave it to me to successfully combine the worst of both worlds. Clearly, this was not going to work. Especially not for R800, which is over US$100. I put everything back in the box and taped it shut once again. One of my next errands will be trying to return it, which is always a special joy in South Africa.

But what to do about a tree? I was sorely tempted to do what a reader suggested on my last post, My Case for Skipping Christmas. In fact, getting a wire baobab sold along the roadside and putting African decorations on it was what I wanted to do all along, but I ran into stiff resistance from my family. "If we can't have any snow, we at least want a tree!" Just as I was packing the last pieces of Failed Fake Tree Attempt One back into the box, Jabulani came along with inspiration. Call our friend - let's call her Rosie - he said, she had such an amazing tree at her party, and ask her where she got it. And he was right. I had forgotten about that tree, which we had all admired the weekend before over an equally amazing dinner.

And wouldn't you know it? We now have her tree standing in our living room. Not just the same kind, which she says she got at Christmastree Specialists, a wholesaler in Bryanston, and I might still go there after Christmas and see if they've got any trees on sale. No, we actually have HER tree, which in typical South African generosity she offered for us to come and get that very afternoon, as they were leaving for a long vacation until January (also typical South African) and didn't need it anymore.

Me assembling Successful Fake Tree Attempt Two. Photo courtesy of Sunshine

Thanks, Rosie, for helping rescue our Christmas! The tree is indeed beautiful, exactly how I had envisioned it. And I could actually grow to love such a tree. It takes a bit of time to assemble - each color-coded branch has to be put in separately - but the huge advantage is that you can bend every twig exactly where you want it, making decorating it a breeze. And no more heavy stands to lug and keep filled with water, no chainsaw for stubborn branch removal, and no mess of getting rid of the tree once you want it out of your house come January.

Sipping a glass of wine and admiring my tree, I am finally starting to feel the first stirrings of the Christmas spirit that has eluded me for so long. To Christmas in Africa!

December 10, 2011

Twenty Chickens for a Saddle

“It was too exhausting to sustain this fear.”

I’m currently reading another “Africa” book one of my lovely readers let me borrow, and this line stood out for me. Twenty Chickens for a Saddle by Robyn Scott describes the author’s childhood in rural Botswana during the 1980s and 90s. This particular chapter was about the growing AIDS epidemic emerging in Botswana in those years, much like in other parts of Africa. Robyn, whose father was running flying doctor clinics throughout the countryside, noticed one day how he was putting plasters on every little cut and scrape on his body before going to work, and his explanation led to a whole new fear in her life. She went on to fret for several weeks, but then realized it was just too exhausting to keep it up, what with other more important events consuming her attention.

The reason I found this line memorable is that it can be applied to expat life in South Africa as much as a childhood in Botswana. Before moving here, we are often inundated with horror stories about assault and murder happening on a regular basis, and for a good while after moving here we often exhaust ourselves with an all-consuming fear, bordering on panic. But then the more mundane hassles take over your life, like getting a traffic register number and seeing the dentist, and perhaps you’re also discovering the beauty of this continent, so that bit by bit you give up indulging your worst fears. 
You may not altogether forget them, and it’s probably a good thing to stay vigilant, but you just cannot spend your days holed up with a wall around you. The fact is, something bad could always happen to you, here or anywhere else, but beyond taking the most basic precautions you would waste your life being driven by the thought of it.

But Twenty Chickens for a Saddle is about much more than AIDS, of course. It is a charming story of an unconventional childhood, not just because of its setting but rather because of the quirks and eccentricities of this particular family. Robyn’s mother is a staunch believer in home schooling, because “a syllabus stifles creativity” and “children learn best in unstructured situations,” and she cheerily proceeds to impose a rather haphazard schooling regime, as much driven by daily events and the life around them in the bush as any adherence to a formal curriculum. This is how Robyn and her younger brother and sister spend their childhood learning how to dissect snakes, repairing motorcycles, and raising the chickens alluded to in the title in order to buy the long-coveted saddle.

Having just finished two books about Zimbabwe, I couldn’t help but draw comparisons. Twenty Chickens for a Saddle has nothing of the drama and excitement of colonial and post-colonial Zimbabwe, no horrors, torture, genocide. But that in itself serves well in describing the character of Botswana, which is one of the biggest success stories in Africa. It managed to gain independence without bloodshed, without retributions, without much of the racial strife evident elsewhere, while slowly acquiring a prosperity much envied by the surrounding countries.

The trials and tribulations of this unconventional family (there is also an even more eccentric grandpa who is a Botswana legend in his own right, having emigrated from South Africa to become a bush pilot and later starting one ill-fated business venture after the other) will at turns have you laughing out loud and marvel at the parents’ courage in defying conventions, and then cringe with pity for the children who, as all children do, so much long for a more “normal” family. Above all, it is another great book with unforgettable insights about life in Africa. 

If you read it you'll see why so many who've had the privilege of living in Africa will always hold a very special place for it in our hearts.

December 8, 2011

If Tom Sawyer Had Had a Pool...

If Mark Twain had installed Tom Sawyer in the 21st century, he might have had him clean the pool instead of painting the fence, and this is what the scene might have looked like:

Scrubbing the pool wall is hard...

...because you keep floating away.

But boy it looks like so much fun!

Can I PUHLEEEASE do it too?

Okay, you can have a turn, but only for a little while.

Wait! Give us back the brush!

The kids are now out of school for their summer break until the middle of January, and as you can see I'm trying hard to find jobs for them!