November 28, 2011

My Shining Moment

It is hard to understand the workings of a South African traffic cop's mind. Or maybe it is not so hard and he/she  is always thinking about one thing and one thing only, and that is money. But why then are they so inconsistent?

I was driving out towards Diepsloot the other day. It was one of those hectic days with kids needing to go in three different directions and me scrambling to keep it all organized in my head, and therefore a little preoccupied. I was taking Sunshine to horse riding, and Impatience was supposed to follow later with a friend, but because I hadn't told her yet, she called me to find out what was going on. So I'm talking to her on the phone while driving, and since traffic is moving slowly due to some obstruction I can sort of see ahead, I make a move to pass the car stopped in front of me on the left. Well - the obstruction turns out to be a roadblock, and I almost run over the traffic cop who virtually shoots up out of the ground in front of me. Yikes! I can't believe this is happening to me!

November 26, 2011

South Africa's Hypocrisy

There is not much in this world that I find more detestable than hypocrisy, though we all fall victim to it once in a while until others remind us of it. But to plow through, despite public outcry, with an act that defies what you yourself have preached for years, an act that flies in the very face of what you've once touted as your most basic convictions, that is a crime.

Photo courtesy of CNN
I am of course speaking of the new "Protection of State Information Bill," also known as the "Secrecy Act" which was just passed by South Africa's National Assembly. It basically gives the ANC-led government much wider discretion in declaring state secrets, imposing jail terms on those who make them public. If this was just a matter of national security, it would be understandable, but the ongoing feud between the government and the Mail & Guardian, one of South Africa's most reputable newspapers, over the dealings, some say corrupt dealings, of Mac Maharaj, a senior government spokesman, shows that the government is willing to declare anything a state secret to avoid a possibly embarrassing disclosure of corruption within its ranks.

The Secrecy Act was passed this week by 229 to 107 votes, with all but two members of the ANC voting for it.
Just to be clear, this is the very same ANC fighting for civil rights during the apartheid years, decrying infringements on the freedom of the press during that era. In fact, over thirty years ago, on October 19th, 1977 and what was later dubbed "Black Wednesday," the apartheid regime banned two newspapers and detained its editors, the beginning of what became an increasingly harsh attempt to silence the press. One of the crimes of those two newspapers? Campaigning for the release of Nelson Mandela and other ANC members from their imprisonment on Robben Island. If you want to get a feel for the peril some editors put themselves in by refusing to abide by these harsh laws, watch the movie Cry Freedom.

This is why Nelson Mandela's silence regarding the Secrecy Act is particularly baffling. Sure, he is an old man, but you would think the keepers of his legacy might be more outspoken. I visited the "Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory" where I found a tribute to those courageous journalists who "sacrificed their freedom in their quest to inform the public about the realities of our country" in 1977. Twenty years later, at a commemorative event, Mr. Mandela said:

“Instrumental in keeping us in touch and informed, in the dissemination of both the good news and the bad, the sensational and the mundane, has been the media. I wish to pay tribute on this occasion to their unflinching, and often ill-appreciated, commitment to their task and their contribution to a more informed and hence a better world.”

I did find an "expression of concern" about the Secrecy Act on the same website, but that's the strongest wording you will find there. Maybe that is just in keeping with Mandela's moderation and conciliatory approach in his later life, but I was hoping for more. After all, he is the one his successors would most listen to.

The person who is indeed very outspoken about his opposition to this act is Desmond Tutu. It's always refreshing to listen to him rant and rave, much as he did during the recent spat over the Dalai Lama's visit (the South African government refused to issue him a visa, if you'll remember). All opposition parties were opposed as well, in addition to two members of the ANC itself, who are now facing harsh reprimands and perhaps worse to have defied their leaders.

The arguments against the bill and why anyone who ever fought for freedom of the press during apartheid should be vehemently opposed are well described here.To be sure, I didn't actually read the Secrecy Act and am aware that it might not be as draconian as it is painted by the South African press. I'm just repeating general opinions I have heard and read, which I admit is not the proper journalist path. So I welcome a discussion of the legislation and its pros and cons. But it is undeniable that the ANC, now in power, has compromised on some of its core principles from the time when it was fighting those in power. We can hope that the Constitutional Court, before which no doubt this piece of legislation will end up, is more uncompromising on the principles of democracy and freedom of expression.

Until then, maybe all of us will have to think twice before we hit "publish."

November 23, 2011

We Need Mexicans to Get on Boats

I really love going out to eat in South Africa, and the options are endless. With one exception: Mexican food. If you come from America, this leaves you with a big hole in your life. We have kids who can never agree on anything, let alone which restaurant to pick when we go out (which isn't often), but if I were to offer up "Mexican" as an option next time, I am convinced we'd experience instant agreement the likes of which we haven't seen since Zax was one year old.

I've heard talk about a Mexican restaurant somewhere in Joburg but I've forgotten where it is. I'm sure my readers will point it out to me, but I'm also sure it won't be authentic, though I'd love to stand corrected. The closest I've come to Mexican was a quesadilla at Mugg & Bean, but let's just say it was average, at best.

What's weird is that you can find the Old Paso brand taco mix and a variety of chips and salsa in the grocery stores here. So there must be some demand for Mexican food. It's just that the actual Mexicans haven't gotten the word yet. Which makes sense if you consider that they just have to walk across the border to get to the U.S., versus getting on a boat heading for South Africa. I guess if we were to look for a South African parallel we'd have to hope for a Zimbabwean equivalent to Mexican food, but I don't think that has been invented yet.

In the absence of any globetrotting Mexicans, I'm left to making my own chili. Which gets me to the point of this blog post - telling you where to find Mexican chili powder. Or rather, to get one of my readers to tell us, after I've claimed that it can't be found. That usually works like a charm, like with my hunt for chocolate chips. But so far I haven't had such luck with chili powder. Mention it to a South African, and he'll invariably send you to an Indian store. But that's not the right kind of chili powder, you see. I don't want ground up chilies, I want the spice that goes into a Mexican chili, ground beef, tomatoes, beans and all.

My new batch of Mexican chili powder

So who should come to the rescue tonight, as I was making chili and it just wouldn't taste Mexican? A fellow blogger of course. Cooking with Corey is where I learned that you can make chili powder from stuff you typically have in your spice rack. It took me two minutes, the chili turned out great, and I now have a little container full of more chili powder for next time. No more hunting for chili powder for this cook, if it's that easy to make. Even Zax, who always hovers over the pot when I cook chili and begs, I mean BEGS, if he can add some more Gunpowder or Insanity sauce to it, was quite happy this time. Thank you Corey!

Here is the recipe:
Mexican Chili Powder Mix

4 Tbsp. ground cumin3 Tbsp. paprika (Use a very mild variety!)
¼ tsp. ground cayenne pepper
¼ tsp. red chili pepper flakes (1 crushed chile de arbol)
1 Tbsp. dried oregano
2 tsp. garlic powder
2 tsp. salt

Interesting that the biggest parts of this mix are cumin and paprika. No wonder the Indian chili powder didn't work. Oh, and here is my pot of chili:

When I see a picture like this, I automatically have to think of The Office, I think it's Season 6, where Kevin brings a pot of chili to work. Have you seen that one? Where he drops the whole thing and then tries to rake the chili all back into the pot? If you have, you may no longer be in the mood for chili, but just in case I've included the recipe at the end of this post.

As luck would have it, a day after I wrote this post I received a gift from a newly arrived American expat (or, I should say, not so newly arrived, it was just their container which was newly arrived about three months after them) and what should I find in the gift bag next to an enormous bag of Starbucks beans? Two just as enormous spice jars, one with taco seasoning and the other with chili powder! Thank you Paige!

I think we're now covered in the chili powder department for the remainder of our stay in South Africa. I just LOVE when people are reading my blog. Please excuse me while I go write a post about the unavailability of MacBook Pros in South Africa...

Mexican Chili con Carne

  • 1 or 2 onions, minced
  • a few Tbsp olive oil
  • some other minced vegetables, like red pepper or zucchini - I am quite generous here and use up whatever veggie needs to be used up (until I go too far one day and my kids chastise me for throwing everything and the kitchen sink into my chili, so the next time I'll go back to just onions)
  • 1 kg lean ground beef (South Africans call it mince - Woolies' is the best)
  • 1 minced chili pepper 
  • a few cloves minced garlic, especially if you didn't have any garlic powder for your chili powder
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 2-3 Tbsp Mexican chili powder
  • 2 cans kidney beans, rinsed
  • 2 cans butter or baked beans (South African baked beans are nothing like American baked beans; they are just beans in a tomato sauce, which works well when you just add the whole thing to chili, no rinsing necessary)
  • 2 large cans peeled tomatoes (and/or perhaps a good helping of tomato puree if you like  strong tomato taste but not the actual tomatoes)
  • Grated cheddar cheese, sour cream, and cilantro leaves to garnish 
  1. Heat olive oil in a large pot (your largest) and saute the onions over low heat until soft. If you've got other vegetables, add them soon thereafter and saute together. 
  2. Turn up the heat and add mince, breaking up any lumps as it browns. 
  3. Add all the rest of the ingredients except for the beans, bring to boil, then turn down the heat and let simmer over low heat for about 20 minutes to half an hour. If it looks too dry, add some water. I like my chili quite soupy. I usually cut up the canned tomatoes with a scissors after dumping them in the pot, so that they come apart and don't offend the members of my families who don't like tomatoes (i.e. kids). 
  4. Add the beans, simmer and stir for another 10 minutes or so, and that's it. Serve with plenty of cheddar cheese and sour cream.


November 22, 2011

Back in the Operating Theatre

No, we haven’t experienced any new emergencies. This one is a scheduled operation to remove the plates and screws from Jabulani’s forearm, which if you remember he broke back in May. We have since then switched hospitals, as the last one was too far away, plus we weren’t overly impressed with the doctor, who it turns out might have been a bit too quick with the knife. But what’s done is done and it is now time to brave this last hurdle, and hopefully improve on that angry scar in the process.

These are the plates and screws that needed to come out!

Everything about this day has been routine – starting with a breakfast I tell Jabulani he can’t eat, following doctor’s pre-op instructions. He goes to school like every day, suffering through two breaks where his friends devour their lunches, and by the time I pick him up he is already more than slightly crabby. We arrive at Life Fourways Hospitals right at 1:30 in the afternoon, as planned, and the checking-in procedure begins. The usual forms, disclaimers, signatures, and of course a rather large credit card payment. We get led into a room where the obligatory wait begins.

I, for once, have come prepared. I have brought my Kindle and my book, an extra battery for the phone, as well as my computer (which came in handy when I had to find the email with the cost estimate, as it was nowhere to be found in the hospital’s records), so I settle, almost happily, in a chair to read. But unfortunately Jabulani has other plans. Almost immediately, he begins to complain about the wait, the noise of the A/C, and why do we have to have this operation in the first place? When the nurse comes with a gown to put on, and worse, a pair of sterile puffy hospital underwear, he just about loses it and pitches a huge fit, flat out refusing to wear anything of the sort.

At around 3:00 pm we get a visit from the doctor’s assistant, who informs us that the anesthesiologist is delayed for some unknown reason so that every procedure on the calendar today has had to be pushed back. She can sense Jabulani’s wrath building like a tsunami, I think, because she quickly signals me 5:00 with her hands and then flees. But at least this encounter has woken up the roommate in the bed opposite, who cheerfully tells us that he also didn’t have any food for 24 hours the previous day. While we wait, he tells us his story, which once again reminds me that it is not crime you need to fear most in South Africa, but road safety (or, rather, the lack thereof).

Through no fault of his own this guy, in his mid-thirties, is here to have reconstructive surgery on his elbow and a total knee replacement. He was a passenger in a car on the highway not far from Joburg, when an oncoming vehicle smashed into them. The driver of that car, who had been drunk and fallen asleep, was killed instantly, making it look like this roommate was actually lucky, if you look at it that way. But he was not so lucky in that he didn’t carry any ID with him that day, nor any medical aid (health insurance) information, so by default he was rushed to Joburg General, a government hospital – not where you want to be if you’re looking for the best medical care. When he came out of surgery, his kneecap was sewed on backwards, which is how he has ended up at Life Fourways with us today, getting his knee replacement. What, upside down, I ask? No, on the back of the leg, he says. I find this somewhat hard to believe but why should he lie to me? Oh, and he was actually supposed to go to Union for this particular surgery, but a terrible virus has taken hold of that hospital, which is why he was transferred once again. 

I find all this talk a bit disconcerting, but Jabulani doesn't seem to mind. In fact, he – the roommate – creates another diversion distracting Jabulani from his rumbling stomach, in that he wants to smoke a cigarette. I’m quite sure that this is against all manner of hospital policy, but obviously he has done this before, because somehow he summons three nurses and gets them to wheel him out through a sliding glass door into a courtyard I haven’t noticed until now, chatting and joking with them incessantly all the way out. Jabulani is clearly taken with such feistiness and, as I can see from the triumphant look he shoots in my direction, resolves right then to double down on the “no changing underwear” stance he has taken.

It is already past 6:00 pm when our moment has come and we are wheeled to the OP which here is called Theatre. Or rather, Jabulani is wheeled, and I am struggling to keep up, what with all the stuff I’m carrying. Having brought the computer and books now seems less wise than it did earlier, as in addition to my things I’m now also having to lug extra clothes and shoes, plus the lunch bag with the carrot cake I had to promise to pack for Jabulani this morning. Here is a tip for you: If you find yourself in a South African hospital, bring a trolley to wheel about your possessions. Leaving your purse or even clothes somewhere in the ward is out of the question. When checking in, you have to sign all sorts of forms that you've secured your possessions, which is always one of the signs that stealing is going on. Same as when you're getting your car serviced.  

By now I am actually quite hungry myself and longingly consider the lunch bag and its contents. But I might as well resign my motherly duties and go into witness protection if I so much as touch that carrot cake. Jabulani has already directed all his wrath at me, as he usually does when frustrated, and finding out from the assistant earlier that he actually could have eaten breakfast, just nothing after 7:00 this morning, didn’t exactly make him any happier with me. Oops! I guess I didn’t listen to the instructions very carefully.

My ridiculous overshoes; I was not permitted to photograph the ridiculous underwear

Luckily, I get a chance to redeem myself, in the form of the rather humiliating hospital gown and cap I have to don, so as to be allowed into theatre with him. He snaps away at me happily with his Blackberry, sending the picture to God knows who, and by the time several nurses come to introduce themselves to him, he greets them with his usual broad smile. As is so often the case, however, it is as if all the fear that so recently held him in its grip has now jumped over to me, needing to inhabit some other being in the vicinity. While he is now joking with the nurses I feel a huge lump growing in my throat, as I begin to realize that I will have to watch him fall asleep. I almost faint at the prospect (I have been known to faint in hospitals before) but somehow manage a crooked smile while kissing him goodbye. Tears are streaming down my cheeks while I watch his eyes droop as he slips into his sleep. I can't believe it works so fast! This is all the anesthesiologist has to do? This 5-minute job is what has delayed us today for over three hours? I find comfort in feeling a sliver of annoyance pushing into the space that was only filled with sadness moments ago. I wipe the tears away and make my way back to the waiting area where I'm now inspired to write it all down.

PS: The operation lasted about 90  minutes and everything went well, except Jabulani is now back in cast for the next two weeks.  

November 21, 2011

When a Crocodile Eats the Sun

So your husband travels for an entire week, meaning no one ever so gently reminds you when it's time to sleep. And you find yourself stuck in a hospital waiting room for almost an entire day. And you just happen to have received a large stack of interesting books from a friend.

What does all that make? Ample time to read a book and write another book review!

When a Crocodile Eats the Sun picks up where Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa, another Peter Godwin book, had left off: Whereas Mukiwa is a memoir of Peter's childhood and coming of age in the Rhodesian armed forces during the early years of the civil war, this second book describes what happened in what was now called Zimbabwe after independence up until the present day.

What happened (and still happens) there was not pretty, to put it mildly. But while we all sort of know what has been going on, it's another entire matter to be given all the grisly details - of a large-scale genocide early on in Matabeleland, where the newly-minted governing party (ZANU-PF, still to this day under Robert Mugabe's leadership) suspected spies around every corner, of the eviction and brutal murders of the white land owners, of the equally brutal repression of the budding opposition party MDC, of hyperinflation and gross mismanagement and cronyism in government circles, of the totally unnecessary decline and collapse of Zimbabwe's economy, which until the early 1980s had been one of Africa's strongest...

The sad thing is, it could have been very different. Most Rhodesians, black and white alike, were very optimistic and enthusiastic about their new country, and the new black leadership initially struck a conciliatory tone, much like Nelson Mandela would model later in South Africa. Except it didn't last. Paranoia set in, the civil war veterans (called wovits) were demanding compensation when they realized that their lives were now no better than before, scapegoats were sought, and the country descended into anarchy or rather was held in the grip of a brutal dictatorship whose elite was only intent on enriching itself. Every single ANC leader in South Africa should read this very book and take it as a warning tale of what can happen if people like Julius Malema, the ANC Youth League leader (who thankfully was recently reprimanded and suspended from the party, pending appeal), amass too much power and are allowed to spew their hatred.

Having grown up in Germany with a fascination of anything Third Reich and my parents' and grandparents' part in it, I cannot help but see the parallels to Robert Mugabe's dictatorship in Zimbabwe. The start with more or less free elections, the slow erosion of civil rights, the mounting vilification of one particular racial group, the random brutality, the grip of extreme fear making widespread protests almost impossible. You look at white Zimbabweans from the outside and you say to yourself, why didn't they leave much earlier, when there was still time, much like the Jews in Germany?

Well, I think that's easy to say from my modern-day expat perspective. I will always have another country to flee to. But the whites in Zimbabwe never saw themselves as expats. It was the country of their birth, a country they loved above all, and a country they wanted to make work for everyone. And I think most people there just couldn't believe that the government would go as far, because they still held on to a belief in civic principles, even when it was obvious that those principles were violated at every turn.

What I love about When a Crocodile Eats the Sun is how it merges historic events with the very personal tale of the author's family. Much of Zimbabwe's decline can be observed by the increasing plight of Godwin's parents, who at first refuse to acknowledge that anything is amiss, and then refuse to leave even as they start living in fear. The story is written in an effortless prose and yet some sentences seem as if they took hours to craft, they are so poetic.

I can highly recommend this book not only for a better understanding of Zimbabwe but Southern Africa in general. Incidentally, the friend I borrowed the book from grew up and lived in Zimbabwe herself before emigrating to South Africa, and confirms that much of the story reflects bits and pieces of her own life. I can't wait to hear more about that over another two cups of coffee!

November 19, 2011

My Case for Skipping Christmas

Yikes, is it this time of year again?

The stores have put up their Christmas trees, the kids are practicing carols on their instruments, and I have that nagging feeling that it's high time to get to work on that list of presents once again. Yet something is very wrong. It is freaking 36 degrees (Celsius, which is somewhere in the 90s in Fahrenheit) outside, so that even I, the biggest chicken when it comes to cold water, have been romping in our pool. If you've been brought up in the Northern Hemisphere, Christmas and sunny weather just don't go together. Even North Carolina, which does have four seasons (in the right order), was borderline, so that we'd sometimes make a roaring fire on Christmas Eve while running the A/C so as not to wilt from the heat.

Tyical Christmas season scene from Joburg

Last year, I made a sort of half-assed effort at Christmas, because it was our first in Joburg and I just felt bound by tradition. See the sad tree I was able to round up here. But this year I have no yearnings for anything Christmas-like at all. In fact, I quite resent the very idea. Back in July, when we were out of gas and I was freezing my butt off in my kitchen, I could have felt the Christmas spirit and in fact I did bake some cookies then, just to warm up the kitchen (which was not an easy feat, because the butter wouldn't soften enough and stuck to the side of the bowl instead of becoming creamy). But  now? No thanks. Can we please just skip Christmas?

I've already reduced my Christmas to-do list to the bare bones. Lighting up the house with chains of lights? No one does it here. Shopping for overseas presents? They never get there. Sending out Christmas cards? ditto. Striking that one off my list made me a bit sad (if you have known me for a while, you will know that my annual Christmas card is a source of pride) but I have to say it freed up an immense amount of time - no more researching printing costs, having the card and a picture printed, buying stamps and envelopes, stuffing everything and separating by country, licking stamps...

But try as I might, I can't cull the "presents" category from my list. All I can do is try to make it easier and more painless to get my hands on them, which is why I was happy to find out about this new Amazon site called MYHABIT.

It's something Amazon has started fairly recently, a new site offering up to 60% off hand-picked selections from fashion designer and boutique brands, including men's women's and children's apparel, accessories, shoes, jewelry and watches, as well as home decor and toys. I admit I'm actually not the type to get excited about the mention of shopping, boutique brands not withstanding, but I thought I'd share it with those of you who are. If you've been frustrated about not finding certain things here in South Africa, this might be an alternative. I checked out their shipping policy and they offer a flat rate of $15 on international shipping, and - you have to make sure of these things - South Africa is on the list. The only caveat is that there might be an additional customs fees deposit depending on what you're buying, but that is not to be avoided unless you can buy in the U.S. and have visitors smuggle in the item as their token of appreciation for being pampered at your house, in which case shipping is free.

Enjoy your shopping while I'm off to convince my kids that we really don't need a Christmas tree this year...

November 18, 2011

I've Been Interviewed

As you know, I love telling people about the beauty of South Africa, and I especially love dispelling myths that circulate around the internet. I tried to do just that in a recent interview I gave on, called From Kansas to Johannesburg.

If  you get a chance, go check it out. In fact, they have a whole series of "From...To" type interviews written by expats going to the most interesting places, some of which I found very amusing. Who knows, maybe you'll find another blog to follow - as long as you stay tuned to mine!

November 16, 2011

Living as an Expat in South Africa

As most of you know, I created this blog to help out fellow expats who are as desperate for information about South Africa as I was before we first came here. So a lot of my stories inform about life in South Africa, what's different here from my previous life, and how it is different from what I expected. I've spent a lot of time debunking some myths and praising this country, to the extent that I sometimes feel like I might overdo it.

Which is why it's always nice to hear someone else's perspective. So I'm going to be very lazy today and just point you to the blog post of a fellow expat (and good friend), who summed up her one year of living in Joburg so masterfully I was wondering why I hadn't thought of writing it myself:-). Seriously, she put into words the sentiments all of us expats have had, from before we moved here throughout the first one or two years. I might not have been quite as scared upon arrival, as I am just not easily scared (I only removed the Violin Spider from above our bed on Noisette's insistence the other day, and learned later that it is the same as a Brown Recluse with a very venomous bite, so sometimes it helps to be scared of things), but still I've gone through the same metamorphosis from apprehension, at the very least, to comfort and love of this country.

Please click here for Living as an Expatriate in Johannesburg - One Year Later.

November 14, 2011

The Pitfalls of Another Language, Even If it is English

Throughout all our moves, we've always been lucky that the posting was to an English speaking country. (Although navigating the intricacies of Singlish is a whole different story. Lah.) I can only imagine how hard it must be to have to learn another language on top of all the other stuff you have to do for an international move, and I have great admiration for those people. Well, technically I guess I'm also one of those people if I count our original move from Germany to the U.S., but that feels like it was about a hundred years ago.

But learning a new language is what also makes an international move more fun, in the long run. Noisette might disagree, but I love the challenge of languages and how they help you better understand a culture. In fact, I am convinced you can only understand (and love) a culture if you speak the language. I love France and anything French, for instance, precisely because I speak the language (or did speak the language, also about a hundred years ago). People who don't speak French don't usually love the French, if we're completely honest.

Also, if you're a blogger, you get a lot more writing material if you throw language into the mix. I recently came across this story about how the mispronunciation of a single vowel made for a rather embarrassing admission.

Which brings me to the point of today's story. I really thought, mistakenly it turns out, that I had South Africanisms down pat. In fact, I had written several blog posts about them, like From Babbalas to Yebo,  We Will Give you a Tinkle, and "Just Now" or "Now Now"? (my favorite).  Babbalas, by the way, means hangover, so you would think that if I know the word for that, I should also know what causes it.

But I didn't. I was made aware, ever so politely, that the title of a blog post last week could be severely misconstrued. Instead of conveying how angry I am at South African bureaucracy by shouting I'm REALLY pissed!, capital letters and all, I apparently told the world (or, rather, the South African-English-speaking world) that I was very drunk. Oh well, there goes my reputation. Just make sure you take everything I say with a grain of salt. ~Hic!~

November 12, 2011

Power Talk

When I opened the kitchen garbage this morning, I came across this scene:

No, I'm not going off on some weird artistic tangent with my photography. I just wanted to use this opportunity to chat to you about electricity. If you're a man, you may disregard this post, as Noisette tells me, somewhat condescendingly, that all men know this kind of thing. More power - no pun intended - to you!

After chronicling my findings for you by taking the above picture (prompting ridicule from my family for photographing the trash) I set out to investigate. What had transpired is this: 9-year old Sunshine, having bought a new CD for herself, wanted to listen to it in her room. Faced with the plethora of plugs and adapter-studded outlets typical for our entire house, she pushed the power supply for the CD player into the socket it seemed to fit in best. It did fit, but nothing happened, and so she complained to Noisette. Actually, she first complained to me but I sent her to Noisette, claiming "technical things" are his domain. (I'm aware that I'm perpetuating the typical image of a technically challenged woman but when there is a chance to get out of at least one to-do, I'm unashamedly seizing it!). Noisette, surveying the situation, chastised her for frying the power supply by using the wrong voltage, then threw it away.

I will now pause briefly for you to contemplate the time you fried one of your appliances after moving countries.

In fact, for all of his bristling about men and their supposed knowledge, I should disclose here that Noisette did the exact same thing to our CD player (not just the power supply, but the entire thing, which was much more expensive than Sunshine's faux pas, I might add) when we moved here.

If you're still reading this, I take it you won't be offended if I now repeat the voltage lesson we gave to Sunshine:

Your power supply should look similar.This one here is only good for 120V.
  1. If you live in the United States or Canada (or I think perhaps also Japan and Taiwan) the electricity coming out of your wall socket will have a voltage of 110V (or, lest someone correct me, between 100V and 127V, but I think we can all agree that 110V is good enough).
  2. In any other place on Earth the voltage will be 220V to 240V (again, let's just stick with 220V). Let me just interject here that I think I can safely speak for all expats that this is incredibly stupid. Our lives would be so much easier if there was just one standard.
  3. By now, some manufacturers have figured out that people do occasionally want to move and so they've built their devices with dual voltage (a tiny switch on the back, which is what Noisette failed to notice on the above occasion) or a voltage range from 100V-240V. Most computers, e-readers, electric toothbrushes, cell phones, and some DVD players fall into this category. So, when you move, check all your devices (or rather not the device itself, which is often running at a step-down voltage, but the power supply for the device) to see if voltage is going to be a problem. 
  4. For those appliances where it is, you now have the option of either a) buying all new ones once you get to the new country or b) buying a transformer to make the old ones work.
  5. This is where the lesson for Sunshine was necessary: An adapter plug is NOT a transformer! Just because a plug fits into a socket doesn't mean the socket has the right voltage. I.e., your cell phone, if you're coming from the U.S., will not fit into a South African outlet, but using a simple adapter plug such as these ones we bought will make it work, because your cell phone will accommodate both voltages. But things that only run on 120V should only ever be plugged into an actual transformer, which is a big heavy humming box you can't miss. However, when you buy a transformer, you're still not home free. You need to make sure whatever it is you want to plug in doesn't use too much power. The more power you need, the bigger (and heavier and more expensive) the transformer gets, so it really only makes sense for low-power appliances. A toaster is borderline, and a hairdryer will probably be too much. Those things you should buy new. It's easy to check power usage by looking at your appliance and checking the number before W (for Watts). Then find out up to which wattage your transformer will work, and try to stay safely below that.
  6. The outlet thing wouldn't be so confusing if South Africa didn't add to the complication by insisting on a type of power outlet that hardly fits anything you can buy, even here in South Africa. So, you will go to the store and buy a vacuum cleaner, and come home to find out the plug doesn't fit, because it is a Euro plug. Therefore, you have to use an adapter plug, which is where our handy dandy universal adapter plugs come in. But since we use the same adapter plugs for our U.S.-based appliances, we've created the situation in our house where the same looking outlet supplies two different voltages, one directly from the wall, the other behind a transformer. If you get what I mean.
  7. By the way, another thing that won't work with a transformer is a radio alarm. This is because electronic clocks are often calibrated around the frequency, and that also varies between countries (i.e. 50 Hertz vs 60 Hertz). Running your American alarm clock on a transformer here in South Africa will make it go too slow. As I've mentioned elsewhere, you best buy a battery operated alarm, or use your cell phone.
  8. And just if I haven't managed to be confusing enough, TV standards are yet another Pandora's box. There is NTSC in North America, and PAL elsewhere, and a TV running on NTSC will not function here in South Africa, unless of course it is a multi-system TV, as all TVs should be, but sadly aren't. So even if you figure out the whole power thing, your TV (and DVD player) might still not work here. Since TVs are so much cheaper in the U.S. than here, it is well worth your while to acquire a multi-system one before moving here, which you should then be able to use when you move back.
Typical power outlet situation in our house

Whew! I'm glad we had our little power talk. I might have discouraged you from moving to South Africa, ever.

November 10, 2011

How Many Cattle does your Household Own?

As I was recently filling out our South African Census 2011 forms - these tasks at the bottom of our family's motivational pyramid inevitably land on my pile - I couldn't help but laugh. You would not find animal dung as a heating material choice on an American census form.

I especially loved the admonition that "wood, coal, and animal dung cannot be used for lighting" whereas "candles cannot be used for heating or cooking." Who would have known?

Also, I felt a bit disappointed that I couldn't come up with anything for the livestock section, not even one goat, when there was such a multitude of boxes to check.

One thing that I loved about this survey was that there was plenty of space to enter all our kids. Lines and lines of empty space long after I was done. In American forms, I often have to squeeze the last child between lines because there is only room for three, and in Europe you might as well wear a big sticker on your forehead screaming "weirdo" when you show up anywhere with four kids. "What, these are all your own? Are you out of your mind?"

I knew right away that I'd have fun with this survey when my gaze drifted down the "what is your home built of" box beyond brick. Wood and corrugated zinc/iron seemed fair enough, but plastic, cardboard, mud and cement mix, thatch/grass, asbestos (yikes), and, get this, wattle and daub? What the hell is that? Is it whatever is holding this house together?

A Transkei home. Photo courtesy of Jacky du Plessis
You wonder if the concept of using a level might have made a difference?

So I guess those census questions are there for a reason. The sad truth is that too many people in this country live in mere hovels, cobbled together using whatever materials can be found. Or maybe I should say "found" in quotes, because I don't think the guy who built this house just happened to come across a pile of these building materials laying around without a use:

Photo: Anonymous email

November 8, 2011

Purple Explosion

Jacaranda trees in Rosebank, Johannesburg at the end of October

I recently visited Pretoria for the first time since we moved here, partly with the idea of taking pictures of the beautiful jacaranda trees that are currently in bloom. But it turns out Johannesburg has plenty of jacarandas as well, equally stunning. In fact, things have conspired so that I just happen to have gotten an excellent Photoshop tutorial by my friend and fellow blogger Bing, and I've applied a little bit of what she taught me to the pictures in this post. So now you'll think the Joburg jacarandas are much more beautiful than the ones in Pretoria.

I love everything about these trees: The purple canopy, the gnarly limbs, and the
carpet of purple they spread on the street after a storm

To shoot these pictures, I joined the Joburg Photowalkers for the very first time, and we took a stroll around Rosebank. The Photowalkers are a great way to explore Joburg, especially if you're a bit apprehensive about some areas of town and want to tag along with people who know their way. And they'll also share the odd photography tip with you!

When everyone started taking pictures of reflections, I found this puddle. I love the result!

An interesting tidbit: did you know that jacarandas are not indigenous to South Africa? They were imported from South America in the 1880s but through their sheer numbers have become a South African icon. In an attempt to limit invasive species, the South African government has banned certain plants, and the jacaranda sadly is on that list. But at least it's not forcefully removed, as some other species (I think if anyone ever tried to remove jacarandas from our beautiful cities there would probably be serious civil unrest). You are simply not permitted to plant any new ones. Sigh - one of these would look beautiful in our yard!

I love how these blossoms were crowded on a little puddle, thanks to an earlier rain
Lucky timing - a blossom had just fallen in; we were throwing lots of blossoms from
then on but none of my pictures came out as nice as this first one

Looking back at these pictures, I must admit Photoshop (I got the student version, much cheaper) makes a huge difference. I've only just scratched the surface of all the amazing things you can do with it, but I'm also a bit reluctant to delve into it any deeper because I can sense a new passion taking over my life! Where to take the time? 

BEFORE: This is a jacaranda picture from my Pretoria post; the lighting wasn't great

AFTER: I didn't think a few tricks in Photoshop would make such a difference!

My friend Bing will probably smile at these because I either didn't do enough (can't figure out how to nudge that lamp post out of the picture), or, more likely, too much (so that on her Macbook - another thing I've now got my eye on - the colors will be screaming). Anyway, if you're interested in learning any tricks of your own, visit her blog here. And here is where you can get Photoshop, if you're willing to see the next 1000 hours be sucked away from your life:

Self-portrait of our Photowalkers group

November 7, 2011

I'm REALLY pissed!

Just about a week ago, when musing about our upcoming South African visa renewals, I was joking - JOKING! - that maybe the Department of Home Affairs would make us go through the whole circus of police clearances and medical certificates again. But of course I was very secure in  my assumption that of course a mere RENEWAL would not require the same steps as the ORIGINAL visa.

However, it now turns out that they do indeed want the same exact crap again, at least that is what our consultant tells us. Which  means that we will have to get fingerprinted, again, and send that off with pages upon pages of forms to THREE DIFFERENT COUNTRIES, accompanied by three different money orders, and I will have to drag everyone in  my family to the doctor again to be assured, black on white, that we are not crazy (not kidding!) plus have all our chests x-rayed. Or, in other words, I'm going to have to once again sacrifice another few weeks of my life for stupid paperwork and run-around.

I'm majorly pissed. Please someone tell me there is another way! Please? Anybody?

November 6, 2011

To Buy or not to Buy Fake Chinese Stuff?

So I'm practically parked at the intersection the other day, with only one or two cars moving through the robot each phase. Since I’ve got time, I’m idly glancing at the street vendors and their wares. One of them is toting rugby shirts. Aha, I think, Sunshine has been pestering me about one of those for “proudly South African Fridays” at school (just when you thought you’d finally bought all the school uniforms, they come along with that and you’re out shopping again!).

Without anything better to do I roll down my window and ask how much they are, not even thinking he’ll have one her size. But lo and behold, he whips out a children’s size 10 and wants R180, which I negotiate down to R150, and we have a deal. He doesn’t even pretend to have no change, so business must be hopping. He’s toting a big bag full of these shirts.

Happy with my find at such a decent price (original South African rugby shirts are R500 or something outrageous at Sportsman’s Warehouse, and even the cheaper knock-off ones are still R300 or so) I get home and discover that this shirt is not of the cheap knock-off type quality one usually gets from street vendors. It’s either a very very good Chinese fake with all the embroidered logos and tags, even down to the price tag with the suggested retail price of R599, or, as it slowly begins to dawn on me, it actually is an original, but of course a stolen one, or otherwise that price would not be possible.

The culprit of my tradings in questionable merchandise

I have since seen these same shirts on every street corner, so I tend to think they can't all be stolen on such a large scale and rather are very good knock-offs. But is there much of a difference? Isn't the fake shirt a type of theft as well? A theft of trademark, to be sure, even if the price for the real trademark is terribly overpriced.

But even if it was stolen, like when they guy passes you with a large tray of identical-looking soap. Who in the world would think people buy soap, of all things, at the traffic light? Unless you just happen to have had easy access to a warehouse aisle of soap, of course. But if this is so, is the guy selling it on the street corner the actual thief? Or did he just buy it cheap from someone else and is now making a living off of reselling it, probably feeding an entire family of eight with the proceeds? So if you’re now buying these things, are you encouraging theft, in the same way I’ve been chastising the people who consume shark fin soup? That would be wrong. Or am I helping someone on the street who’d otherwise have no job at all? But if I'm honest, you could make that argument about the guy who trades in shark fins as well. Surely he also has a family to feed. It's just that I feel very sure about the one, having no appetite for shark fin soup myself, and more or less unsure about the other, where I have a personal interest (getting a good deal on a shirt).

Arguing with myself in this fashion, I think buying these things is probably wrong. It's just slightly difficult to make a quick call between two changing lights.

November 3, 2011

Joburg Expat's Book Recommendations

Like every writer, I'm first and foremost a reader, although my driver, cheerleader, house tidier, school clothes shopper, food shopper, lost and found checker, button re-attacher, cook, scheduler, pool cleaner, gardener, account manager, fixer-of-anything-broken, and social planner duties seem to eternally prevent me from really reading as much as I'd like. I can barely keep up with the news, and actual books seem to fade farther and farther away from the list of things I get to on a daily basis. When I do read, it's often other blogs!

However, I've been trying to read the occasional book with an Africa theme, because I find it fascinating and because there is still so much to learn. And because I'm always more motivated to do things that I can then share with you! So, even though it is far from perfect and still growing, I've started a list of books for you - Joburg Expat's picks - which you will find below. I'd love to hear your feedback and additional recommendations.

You can always find this list again - and please do check back occasionally for new additions - by clicking on the "Books" Tab at the top of the page. I've also added an Amazon widget on the right which you can't miss, as it is the only thing that "moves" on my blog. Please use those links, since (full disclosure) I am earning (teensy tiny) commissions if my links lead to any purchases, and I'm hoping that one day they'll pay for a bit more than the occasional cappuccino to get me through my midnight blogging sessions. In fact, I would be eternally grateful if you used my links to go to Amazon for anything you buy, whether I recommend it or not:-).You should also know that I only recommend something if I personally believe in it. So if you're ready to smack that Mandela-book, all 700+ pages of it, at the wall in frustration, you can totally blame me.

Cry The Beloved Country by Alan Paton

A must-read for anyone with an interest in South Africa, its history, and its race relations. Set in a time before apartheid was conceived, it is about the culture clash between rural blacks and their counterparts in the cities, about the conflicts stemming from a lost way of life that cannot be replaced and the inevitable tragedy this loss of values brings about. What I most love about this book is the almost poetic style of the prose, incorporating the essence of the Zulu language very well even though it is written in English.

Kindle version: Cry, the Beloved Country 
(Oprah's Classics Book Club Selections)

West With The Night by Beryl Markham

This memoir is set in 1930s British East Africa (today's Kenya). I love this book for so many reasons. It's beautifully written, for one, and it describes Africa so accurately, even though it was written such a long time ago. A timeless classic. Read more...

The New Global Student by Maya Frost

This book has nothing to do with Africa per se but I consider it a must read for expats with children. It explores the virtues of an international education and diverging from the traditional or "old-school" path of learning. Read more...

Kindle version: The New Global Student: Skip the SAT, 
Save Thousands on Tuition, and 
Get a Truly International Education

The Power Of One by Bryce Courtenay

If you could only read one book about South Africa, then I would say read this one. It was also made into a movie with Morgan Freeman, but it’s not nearly as good as the book. It’s comparable to the Kite Runner, revealing key aspects of a country’s history and culture through a compelling story you won’t be able to put down until the end.

Movie: The Power of One

Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela

You have to be an ambitious reader to get through over 700 pages of this, but if you are, it is well worth the time to gain more insights into the anti-apartheid struggle and Nelson Mandela's life. I wonder if this would be a good book to get from the library as an audio book for your car.

Kaffir Boy by Mark Mathabane

This haunting memoir offers good insights about township life and what it was like for a black kid to grow up during the apartheid years. I feel a special connection to it because it is set in Alexandra and features a youth’s involvement in sports as the ticket to a better life.
Kindle version: Kaffir Boy: The True Story 
of a Black Youth's Coming of Age 
in Apartheid South Africa

Spud by John van de Ruit

I was made aware of this book by our two boys, who absolutely loved it. It’s actually a series of three books, all set in a South African boys’ boarding school shortly after the end of apartheid. It resembles the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, and, apart from its hilarity, makes you understand not only boarding school life but coming of age in this country. This is actually a rare instance where I think the movie (starring John Cleese) is at least as good or even better than the book, although it seems to be impossible to find in the U.S.

Kindle version: Spud

Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa by Peter Godwin

Another great read about growing up in Southern Africa. The setting for this excellent memoir is actually Rhodesia up until 1980, which of course is now Zimbabwe. But in those days Rhodesia and South Africa resembled each other in many ways and their history is intertwined. This book makes you sad about what was lost in Zimbabwe due to years of civil war and brutal crackdown, and hopeful that South Africa (so far, as some will fret) has chosen a different path.

Kindle version: Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa

Invictus: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation by John Carlin

I actually haven't read this book yet, but put it on my list after reading the reviews, which all agree that the book is much more powerful than the movie (which I did see and liked). The story of the Rugby World Cup is just a thread linking various characters in this account of how South Africa managed to emerge intact from the dangerous years after the end of apartheid to become what it is today. I imagine reading it will further enhance (if that is even possible) my enormous respect for Nelson Mandela and his power not only to forgive but to convince others to do the same and come together as one nation.

Kindle version: Invictus: Nelson Mandela and the 
Game That Made a Nation
Movie: Invictus

The Bang Bang Club by Greg Marinovich

Again a book I'm only recommending based on the excellent movie I've seen. There is no better way to understand what South Africa went through in the early 1990s after Nelson Mandela's release before elections were held. Where Invictus shows the "good" side of that process, this book shows the "bad" side of it, through the eyes of a group of photographers who chronicled the violence. It's a haunting story.

Kindle version: The Bang-Bang Club, movie tie-in: 
Snapshots From a Hidden War
Movie: The Bang Bang Club

The Native Commissioner by Shaun Johnson

Hauntingly beautiful, this story pretty much picks up where Cry the Beloved Country left off, when racial segregation is formalized into the policy of apartheid. It shows the struggle of someone who is trying to do good while working for an evil regime, becoming more and more conflicted about its morality and his own role in it. Read more...

November 1, 2011

Corruption or Culture?

Westerners are often appalled by the corruption and cronyism they encounter in Africa (and of course in many other places as well, but my blog is about Africa). The pattern is always the same: Somebody comes to power, acquires wealth, and then peddles his influence and shares his newfound riches freely with friends and relatives, without much regard as to how this might cheat the taxpayer. Corruption, right?

But I wonder if it doesn't depend on your point of view. If you come from a culture where the community stands above the individual, where there is a prevalent sense of  "we're in this together" (something they call "ubuntu" here), where one person unquestioningly helps another and feels responsible for everyone in his or her community, where "the village raises the child" - if all this is in your DNA, wouldn't NOT sharing be viewed as seriously corrupt instead of the other way around? Wouldn't it be expected from you, who made it in the world, to help your less fortunate family and friends by providing you with a job or a contract if it is in your power to do that? 

Don't get me wrong, I hate corruption, and, perhaps even more so, inefficient and uncaring public service. There are plenty of people here, just like everywhere else, who don't seem to care much about ubuntu once they've made it to a better station in life, living and enjoying the high life instead. And I know I might get chastised again for making excuses for black people while holding whites to a higher standard. But that is not my intention. I simply wonder if corruption isn't such a clear-cut thing as we make it out to be. Yes, a purely tribal way of life is pretty much a thing of the past and so we are likely destined, for better or for worse, to live in the modern society we've created. But I do think that culture is a powerful thing and as an expat (or really, any citizen of the world) you do well to try and understand it before making judgments.

Culture, or perhaps more accurately the loss of it, is a topic explored very thoroughly in Cry, the Beloved Country (Kindle edition), a book I highly recommend for anyone wanting to learn more about South Africa. It is just a great book, right up there with The Grapes of Wrath.

In fact, Alan Paton is often compared to John Steinbeck or rather modeled himself after him. The story is set in pre-apartheid South Africa, sometime in the 1940s, but the shadow of things to come is already looming. The mass migration of black laborers to the "Witwatersrand" following the discovery of gold there led to a loss of identity and belonging for many of these laborers who gave up their tribal culture in favor of life in the city. Without their families and ties to traditional values, their lives often veered towards tragedy, and this book highlights one such life and the efforts of a country preacher to bring it back on track and make sense of it all.