May 31, 2012

Michael's Dream

Important Update: Michael's Dream had to be postponed this year because the provincial team decided not to attend the Tuscany Series. If you still wish to donate to Michael's dream, we will keep the money in a special account until next year. Donations to Alexandra Baseball in general are also always welcome.

Perhaps it will strike you as ironic that just a few days ago I was pleading for African women who are carrying a heavy load, both physically and figuratively, and now the person I am asking you to help is not a woman.

He’s not quite a man, either, but rather a boy. He is an incredibly talented baseball player, growing up in the hardscrabble township of Alexandra and playing for the club I’ve told you about before. He played in the recent Inter-Regional Tournament or IRT held here in Johannesburg, and based on his excellent pitching performance has now been selected to represent our province of Gauteng at the Tuscany Series Games in Italy this August.

To represent his country, South Africa, by leaving it for the first time in his life and playing the game he loves, is Michael Lebepe’s dream.

Unfortunately, the Gauteng Baseball Federation receives little funding from baseball’s governing bodies in Africa or the United States, so that the funds for this trip (approximately ZAR 18,000 or US$2,400) must be raised entirely by the players themselves.

Two thousand four hundred dollars.

All of it money Michael and his family don’t have. I’ve got about $200 left from my previous fundraising drive for Alexandra Baseball and am able to pitch in a few hundred more, but that still leaves us almost $2,000 short.

Which is why I’m asking you for help. Something I do not take on lightly, because I hate asking for money. But I figure if the Obama campaign can send me several emails each week asking for contributions, I can at least ask for money once each year without getting on your nerves.

If everybody visiting this blog pitches in $10 or $20 over the next couple of weeks, this will be covered in no time. And if you’ve been enjoying my writings on Joburg Expat, consider it as your contribution to keep me going.

What you get in return is to know that you’ve made one boy’s dream come true, and probably changed his life.

Please help Michael by donating $10 now. Please don't click away from this page. It's so easy to put in your details, it won't take more than two minutes. Even if it's just a few dollars, it will make a difference. 

Do it now!

[If you live in South Africa and prefer a bank transfer, please contact me here and I will send you the bank details].

Michael leading his teammates during warm-ups with a beautiful view of Alexandra as backdrop

Michael is the boy in the red shirt on the right. He is a very talented baseball player but
wouldn't have made it this far without the support of his coaches, teammates, and community.

To learn more about Alexandra Baseball and my previous donation drives to source equipment, check out the following articles:

Baseball in the Heart of a Vibrant Township
Story of Bing: Help the Alexandra Boys
An Update on the Alexandra Baseball Project
From the Slums of Alexandra to the Corporate Glitz of Sandton
Driving through Alexandra

May 30, 2012

Giving Birth in South Africa

Before you put yourself in a frenzy and start congratulating me, let me point out that this post is not about me. I just happened to interview a friend some time back about her experience when I was writing an article for the website Expatica. I thought it might be a good idea to re-post it here for those among you who might find it relevant. I HAVE given birth abroad, so I know the feeling. It's just that two of my babies have since turned into teenagers, meaning I am not so keen to add any more to the teenage pipeline.

I do know that when you’re an expat, one of the things you most worry about is the prospect of giving birth abroad. But it can also be one of the best experiences of your life. Below, Lydie Buwalda tells her story of giving birth (several times over!) in South Africa.

It started fourteen years ago when we got transferred from New York City to Johannesburg. One of the first pieces of advice I heard was to get in touch with a gynecologist for my annual checkup. Really? I never had that done in Holland, where I’m originally from and where they believe in home birth and midwives. It was a good thing I did, because less than a year later I fell pregnant, and Dr Cameron at the Morningside Clinic was the perfect address for me. What a pleasant man! He gave me the idea that I was the only patient he had. He always took time to talk to me and my husband Mark, who came with me to almost all the check ups, about all sorts of things besides the baby.

When I explained that I would like to give birth naturally - South Africans seem to love caesarian sections – that was fine with him.

My due date came and went and Daniel did not decide to come and face this world. There was a Friday the 13th in February that year, and boy, let me tell you I was up the whole day and prayed that my baby would not pick that particular date to make his appearance. He didn’t, and thankfully also skipped Valentine’s Day, but on the 15th the first signs appeared. After eight hours of contractions and only 8 cm dilation, the doctor opted for a C-section anyway, because the umbilical cord was around our boy’s neck. That gave me a jolt of panic but all went well. After an emergency C-section, our first son Daniel was born that evening just before 6pm, weighing in at 4.1 kg and 53 cm long. I was very impressed with all the attention we got and how carefully I was monitored the entire time. Everyone at the hospital made me feel like I was the Queen. I’m convinced I never would have gotten that type of attention in Holland.

I had a room to myself and stayed for three nights, receiving visitors and presents during the day. Even though this was my first experience at this, I thought my “loot” was a bit meager. It turns out that friends and colleagues of Mark’s had flowers delivered to “Mrs. Buwalda,” but since I (not really thinking, but who can actually think when they’re arriving at the hospital in labor) had checked in under my maiden name, there was no Mrs. Buwalda to be found and all the flowers were sent back. It made for some very confused people phoning my husband and wondering what was going on.
My mother arrived from Holland that day. We had agreed that she would come a week or so after Daniel was born. Anyone from Holland will know that new mothers there receive “kraamhulp,” where someone comes to your house for a week to help with the baby and show you the basics of childcare. Besides that she also helps with household chores, cooking, and even the guests that arrive! None of that happens in South Africa, of course, so I was grateful that my mother decided to come and lend a hand.  

With our next baby we decided upfront to go for a C-section because it was also going to be a big one. I’m a bit of a freak with dates, so it was wonderful to be able to choose a birth date for Julius - the 7th of the 7h in the year 2000. Good or what? He was born early in the morning and after I got my epidural, it felt like a piece of cake, other than the normal discomfort the first day after a C-section, when every cough and sneeze feels like a cramp. This time I was a bit more experienced and knew what to do with a baby. But all of a sudden I had to learn to manage my time because there were two children to look after, which was quite a shock.
Since I come from a family of girls, I couldn't understand why I was only having boys. I wanted a girl! So I took up my cause with Dr. Cameron, explaining my dilemma. We wanted another child but could we have a girl please. 

”No problem,” he said to me, “sit down so we can talk and I will give you the recipe.” (For those of you who want to learn his secret, let me know.) I was so worried throughout this pregnancy about having another boy that during all the check-ups I refused to be told the sex of the baby. I had convinced myself that it would indeed be a boy and was flabbergasted when our daughter Sophie was born on the 1st of February 2003. Concerning that date: I had requested it (another nice one: 1-2-3) but was told by the secretary that Dr. Cameron would be busy that day playing in a golf tournament. I was dejected, but when he heard about my request, he immediately said that of course he would do it. “Just come in at 6:00 am and we’ll get it done early, then you’ll get your day, and I’ll get mine.” 

I think this can only happen in Africa.

All in all I had a great experience giving birth in South Africa. If you want to pick the sexes and birth dates of your children, maybe you should consider it too!

The original of this article appeared on Expatica on June 27, 2011.

May 28, 2012

Strong Women of Africa

When you live in Africa, you cannot help but note the women around you, every day, carrying what seem to be impossible loads on their heads. It never looks like it’s something made to be carried on your head. Not that I would know, mind you, which items are or aren't suited to be carried on your head. But still – a water bucket? A suitcase? Or a cage of chickens?

I can only imagine what a fool I'd make of myself trying to replicate this feat, even with the smallest of bags, and yet there is something in me that makes me want to try. Maybe I will. If other expat bloggers can walk around in a burka all day, it seems I should be man - or, rather, woman - enough to carry a load on my head. 

But I'm a chicken when it comes to these things, even though I never cease to prod my kids to be daring enough to do the unconventional. I didn't even use the minibus taxi the other day when I REALLY could have used one, what with my car in the shop and pressing appointments all around and no "reputable" taxi available for hours.

Anyway, I see these women doing their graceful balancing act every day, and every day I want to stop and take a picture. But since I’m usually in my car driving by, this is not very practical. Plus I would feel bad photographing someone else’s plight like that. As a result, my "women carrying stuff on their heads" picture folder is very meager and this blog post only existed in my head until now. 

Pemba, Mozambique. A rather small load, comparatively!

Another feat fascinating me to no end is the artful way African women tie their babies to their
backs, using cloths or towels in a way that never seems to slip. Who needs money for a Baby
Bjorn with such an ingenious system?

Come to think of it, filing through my pitiful picture collection, it is not only the women who seem to be carrying stuff, at least not everywhere. The above was taken in Mozambique, where apparently it is acceptable for men to help out. Maybe I should have called this blog post "Strong Women of the Zulu, Xhosa, Shona, (and probably a few more) Cultures." Because you sure as hell will not see a man carry much more than a backpack along the roads in these parts. In fact, I remember reading in Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa, how one of the ways to flush out terrorists aka freedom fighters disguised as women during the civil war in Rhodesia was to take a careful look at the ones not carrying anything on their heads. Because girls are trained from a young age to do this, men have almost no chance of learning that skill.

So a few weekends ago, as I was driving Jabulani to his rugby match and taking the shortcut past Diepsloot, I passed two women carrying even more than the typical load, each with a gigantic bundle of firewood perched on her head. I didn't have time to stop right away, but as soon as I had dropped off Jabulani I went back the same way. It was just one of those spur-of-the-moment decisions. I really just wanted to ask if I could take a picture, but as soon as I had formed that thought, I realized how ridiculous it was. Me stopping in my big 7-seater car, asking if I could take a picture and then driving off without a second thought? 

Diepsloot Township in the Northern Suburbs of Johannesburg

This is how I found myself carefully steering my car over pot-holed dirt roads teeming with children on a sunny Saturday morning, giving a ride to two beaming women and a carload full of firewood. It was actually a bit of an act to persuade those two to climb into my car. I'm not sure if they thought I wanted to steal their firewood. But I did prevail, and a nearby security guard, curious about the commotion and always grateful for a diversion, came to lend a hand. We pushed and we shoved and got it all in, and then rode into Diepsloot like royalty, with everybody stopping what they were doing to watch this strange procession.

The ride was far too long to contemplate anyone having to do it on foot with a heavy load. What would have taken several hours now didn't last more than 10 minutes. But I almost wished it had lasted much longer, I had so many questions.

"Where are the strong men to help you with this hard work?" was my first one.

I just got a mirthful laugh in response. Speak to an African woman about the men, and she will quickly display her disdain. 

In Africa, it is the women who have to be strong. 

Strong to walk on foot for hours to a job to help provide for her family. 

Strong to take on a relative's kids and raise them as her own when that relative gets killed in a car-crash or another senseless stabbing. 

Strong to take care of her ailing mother suffering from diabetes.

Strong to find the patience to wait at the health centre all day to receive medicine.

Strong to be separated from her small kids because her job, the only source of income for the family, keeps her away from them weeks at a time.

Strong to carry impossible loads of firewood.

As you can see it was still early morning
but these women had already walked miles
My car stuffed full of firewood

At this point a man showed up to help.
But where was he before?
The sweeping of my car afterwards. Trust
me, not a speck of dirt was left.

I did ask for my picture. Hefting the...
...load back on took two people.

We joked and chatted for some time while unloading (and cleaning, they insisted) the car. Everybody was in a jolly mood for having the job gotten over with so swiftly. I attracted some more laughs when trying to lift the bundle of firewood. Not on my head, mind you, just a few inches off the ground. As you can see, it takes two people to lift it onto somebody's head. Which I still didn't give a try, but I promise you I will, next time.

My final question, before driving off to catch a rugby match, was this:

"How long will this firewood last you?"

"Two days," was the immediate reply.

I drove off with "two days" ringing through my  head for a long time. It is impossible to imagine leading such a life, and yet millions of people do. While things have gotten better since the end of apartheid and many housing areas have since been electrified and supplied with water, there are still substantial portions of townships where residents are relegated to carrying water from far away and using paraffin or wood stoves for heating and cooking. The shortfall in this so-called service delivery continues to dog the government and there is still so much infrastructure to be built up, it is mind-boggling.

And who will pay for it all? Surely not people who walk for hours to the landfill for some free firewood because they can't afford to buy any. It would be a daunting task for the best of governments to plan and finance a lasting solution, so how can one have much hope for this one, where new scandals of government contracts given as favors surface almost daily?

And yet this country has come such a long way. Its people are indomitable, crafty, and strong.

Especially the women.

If you like this story, check out the corresponding article on CNN's iReport.
And read Strong Women of Africa: The Sequel.

May 25, 2012

Colorful Durban

As I mentioned in my last post, we finally made it to Durban more than two years after arriving in South Africa. I've always been intrigued to get to know it, but never intrigued enough to actually visit it, what with Cape Town and Mauritius and the ever amazing bush competing for Noisette's precious vacation days.

Durban skyline, as seen from Umhlanga Rocks

Durban beachfront

Random house in Durban

Random street scene in Durban

And when we finally did set foot in Durban, it became immediately evident why we had wisely avoided it so far. Because our kids apparently are hellbent on checking out every aquarium slash marine park on the planet, and of course we should have known it wouldn't take long for them to find out that Durban is home to uShaka Marine World.

Aquarium at uShaka Marine World in Durban

Photo credit: Sunshine

Don't get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with water-parks and aquariums. As long as I don't have to hike through them. I mean, how many more colorful fish and sharks and turtles circling a large tank can I possibly look at? They are all the same! And I know you'll now be saying, "how many more pictures of colorful fish and sharks and turtles circling a large tank can I possibly look at on Joburg Expat?"

And you are right. If there are way too many pictures in this post, I apologize. (They are colorful though, aren't they?)

It's just that when I'm in a place I don't actually like, I take a lot of pictures. To pass the time.

The water-park part of uShaka was actually not so bad. My only beef with water-parks in Africa is that they are always freezing. Like I said, I still haven't found warm water anywhere in Africa. When I do, one day, it'll probably be infested with crocodiles. Or those terrifying parasites invading your body and slowly killing you I heard about that are found only in East-flowing rivers, not West-flowing ones. Or the other way around, I actually have no idea. Clearly, a topic for another blog post.

I only went as far as the right one
That's Jabulani, on the right.

The good news is, almost no pictures here in the water-park, because you don't take a camera with you when your kids talk you once again into conquering your fear of heights and queuing all the way to the top of one of those towers. Why is it always the high ones I'm asked to do again and again?

The dolphin show at uShaka was probably the highlight of the day, even if for a split second I thought we'd be attacked by terrorists as the stadium was filling.

As promised, lots and lots of dolphins, and very much like its sister performance at Sea World, with the exception of the orca, which is probably just as well because I hear he's been eating his trainers. A spectator even got chosen to pet the dolphins, but of course it was none of us. We never get chosen for stuff, even though Sunshine was dancing her heart out to catch the camera's attention.

Maybe if she had worn a grass skirt and knocked a loin-clothed Noisette over in a mock fight to the beating of drums while doing the splits in mid-air? Oh, wait, there were other people doing that.

My favorite experience in Durban was the one that could be had for absolutely free. And, trust me, it was the most colorful of all, much more colorful than all those pretty fishes in the aquarium. All we had to do was take a stroll along the beach promenade, and watch.

My favorite sand-art among all the Durban sand-art. Don't you love those thighs?

None of our kids wanted to sit in the VIP chair so the sand-artist himself humored us

The girls went to town taking pictures of all the sand-art in sight, until we informed them
that every time they felt obliged to press the shutter, we felt obliged to pay the artist, and
our cash was running out. Except then they pointed to all the other people taking pictures
without paying. A great teaching moment about honesty and fairness.

I don't blame you if you haven't actually gotten this far, with all these pictures. The upshot is that I wrote far less than I usually do, so you might have actually caught a bit of a break here.

This is it, folks. We really didn't see much of Durban beyond uShaka and the beach promenade, which my family practically wanted to flee as soon as we set foot on it. The same people who had dragged me through water-parks and aquariums for hours and hours just earlier to see colorful marine life were positively overwhelmed with a bit of colorful human life.

I guess one person's colorful is another person's agony.

May 23, 2012

Umhlanga Rocks and the Oyster Box Hotel

If it seems like we've been constantly traveling these past few months, it is because we've been constantly traveling these past few months.

Before you turn green with envy, you should know that I typically approach the prospect of another trip with rather a big sigh: Places to research, rates to compare, bookings to make - with the added stress of five pairs of eyes scrutinizing every aspect of the outcome and giving me the evil stare if it's anything less than stellar - and, god forbid, suitcases to pack.

This is typically the point where Noisette tells me to get a grip and realize how cushy my life is, if all I can find to complain about is packing to hang out in what I admit here in Africa has been utter luxury. And yet. I do NOT like packing. Even though I've done it often enough. I'd much rather stay in our beautiful house, where everything is right where it should be within easy reach, without rummaging in a bag, and where I have time to do what I like best, which is write about stuff. Of course I'd never have anything to write about if I never went anywhere, so it's a good thing other people prod me to go on trips with them.

Like to the beach.

Our most recent trip, already almost a month back at the end of the kids' April term break, took us to Umhlanga Rocks, a lovely resort village near Durban on the Indian Ocean. You'll find it perhaps a bit weird that we've lived in South Africa for over two years and have never once made it to its third-largest city before. But that's Durban for you. What with Cape Town as a rival for quick weekend trips, it just doesn't get the attention.

And it's actually not exactly to Durban that we went, but rather Umhlanga Rocks. Because that's where the Oyster Box Hotel is, and we'd heard a lot about the Oyster Box Hotel. Old-world colonial charm, a lighthouse, and a beautiful beach probably best describe what the Oyster Box is all about. Compared to our recent stay at one of the world's largest hotels or so it seemed, the Marina Bay Sands in Singapore, the Oyster Box felt rather intimate, almost cramped. But that's precisely what we liked about it. Being greeted by the doorman who could have passed for David Livingstone himself (or, rather, my image of him), what with the khaki uniform and tropics helmet, finding the well-staffed reception desk right inside the revolving door, taking a few more steps through another set of doors to stand on the Ocean Terrace with its wonderful view of the lighthouse and beach was exactly how we liked it. There was no getting lost in the Oyster Box Hotel. Even my failure to triple-confirm our adjoining rooms request, resulting in the kids' room being located directly UNDER our room, not next to it, turned out not to be a problem, as they were practically connected via a stairway. And we could send knocking signals back and forth.

The weather was pleasant, when it wasn't windy, which according to the locals it is quite a lot. The water was of a lovely temperature, when compared to Cape Town, but nothing spectacular when one thinks of the Southeastern United States seaboard, and especially not when one thinks of the tropical Indian Ocean. What I mean to say is that the water was rather colder than I would have imagined. I have yet to find nice warm water anywhere in Africa. 

We did venture into Durban eventually and you'll have to wait for my next post for the story on that. Noisette and Jabulani meant to go diving (Zax was on a school trip to Fraenschhoek that weekend) but the trip was canceled due to bad visibility. And no one seemed interested in checking out the so-called Sharks Board, where you can observe how the shark nets (yes, they are there, spanning miles and miles of oceanfront) are monitored and repaired, perhaps including the dissection of a stranded shark, which I thought would be fascinating. And there was no kite surfing outfit in sight, something I still have on my bucket list.

So we mostly spent our three day beach trip on, well, the beach, as you can see below.

Jumping over the waves provided entertainment for hours

The surf was powerful and we were warned by life guards several times not to go in far

The pool deck at the Oyster Box Hotel. Doesn't it look like a drawing rather than the real thing?

View of Umhlanga lighthouse from Oyster Box Hotel, Umhlanga Rocks, KwaZulu-Natal

LighthouseThe rocksCaught by a local

My favorite picture of the lot!

Sunshine was always hit the hardest, and so were her bikini bottoms

Jabulani and Impatience getting ready...

...and then taking the leap.

It's hard to imagine a more scenic coastline than that

Some of those containers in the distance were parked out there the entire weekend. To think
that ours once sat out there too! For weeks and weeks, most likely.

Last, but not least, my personal highlight of the trip to Umhlanga Rocks was an opportunity to meet my recent penpal and fellow blogger Stephanie, a transplant to Umhlanga Rocks from the U.S. with a South African husband and three small children who had gone out of her way to email me advice on what to do in Umhlanga and where to stay. We sat down for a chat in the spectacular library of our hotel, a place I am embarrassed to admit I did not take a single picture of, I was so engrossed in our chat exchanging expat stories, parenting advice, and even tips for iPhone apps. We talked for two hours straight and then it was time to part ways again. I did not even think of taking a picture of the two of us to show you, but do go on and check out her blog, Elliott and his Sisters.

And if you'd like to read more about the Oyster Box Hotel, check out my review on Tripadvisor.