June 29, 2012

The Gift of a Picture

Help Portrait photo shoot at Diepsloot Combined School,
Johannesburg, South Africa, June 2012
When you’re moving to South Africa, inevitably you will become involved in charity work. There is almost no way around it. In fact, you might already have plans to volunteer somewhere in one form or another, and I am working on an upcoming blog post outlining several options for you to get started.

However, the one thing you probably didn’t have in mind was volunteering your services as a photographer. Not giving food, or clothing, or books, or tutoring, but giving a picture. Giving it to people who might never in their lives had their picture taken before.

One could argue that the very last thing people need, especially in a country like South Africa where there is so much need wherever you turn to, is a picture of themselves. They need food, they need warm blankets, they need books, they need running water and electricity and firewood, they need a roof over their heads, a roof, preferably, that doesn’t leak and doesn’t have to be weighed down with heavy boulders lest it fly away. They need education, above all. They need a million things before they might need a portrait photograph of themselves to hang on the wall.

They might not even have wished to have a picture of themselves or ever given any thought to the idea. And yet this is precisely why Help Portrait and the gift of a picture is so special. It’s a little bit like playing Santa Clause. Giving the unexpected to someone who doesn’t expect much at all. The luxury of a gift so utterly useless.

Kids lining up at the Kliptown Youth Centre earlier this year
to pick out their portraits. (I did not participate in that photo
shoot - just went along for the handouts)

"“The greatest good you can do for another is not just to share your riches but to reveal to him his own.” I got this quote by Benjamin Disraeli off the Ubuntu Help Portrait website and it couldn't be any more fitting to what Help Portrait is about.

If you had any doubts whether shooting pictures with Help Portrait and then handing them out to the proud recipients is worth it, all you'd have to do is see the pure joy on the faces of these kids - and adults; perhaps even more so the adults - when they pick out their photos.


Kids in a classroom trying to get my attention



It's not just the joy of handing out the pictures that makes Help Portrait so rewarding. The actual shooting is a lot of fun too. Yes it's utterly exhausting. Yes your camera comes home so dusty that your  husband may complain about what the hell happened to it. Yes you may curse and shout when you have to process 800 pictures in one weekend. Especially if it turns out after just 200 of them that your hard drive is chock full and needs backing up first to make room, which is when you discover that your network drive is faulty, meaning the backing up project takes two extra days. All that is hard work, and yet your heart will warm at the beauty of these faces and the antics and jostling going on to pose for the best picture.


Diepsloot Combined School. A rather desolate place on a
chilly winter morning, but a cheery place nonetheless

Our "studio" in between two buildings

Kids patiently waiting for their photo shoot


Become a Help Portrait volunteer (you will find more information at the end of this post). If it's not for you, no harm done. You'll have had an interesting day to look back on. But perhaps you will find your calling. It will certainly make you into a better photographer, at the very least.

If you're not really a photographer, don't worry. If you have a decent camera, just tag along with someone who's done it before and you'll soon learn. I certainly learned a lot about photography in four long hours a few weeks ago, when I went to a photo shoot at Diepsloot Combined School organized by my friend Karen.  I learned to shoot several pictures of each person in case the one you think is perfect has some fatal flaw. I learned how to get the kids to relax and then capture the right moment. I learned to make sure to check the lens is on autofocus before taking the group picture, not after.


Last minute dress adjustments

Fellow photographer TP showing his pictures. I loved how
that girl spontaneously went and hugged him.

This, perhaps, is my favorite picture of the day. It shows all
the jostling and  jeering that went on in my last group of grade
11 students who made a big show of not wanting to seem too
keen. They were quite a bit of work, actually, with some of the
boys perfecting their gangster poses and doing their utmost
not to give in to my entreaties to smile at the camera.

And I learned not to leave my camera bag open. Not because anything might disappear, far from it. I rather went home with more than I brought, namely in the form of large deposits of dust.

This couple begged me to have their picture taken.
And then they begged me to make sure I kept it,
which I found very touching. I'm sure they'd be
happy to know it made it online.


Fellow photographer Karen, who helped organize
the whole thing, hustling the kids along to the
right place

These two goofballs would not relent until I took
their picture in between sessions

Group pictures with friends were quite the rage, which I also
found very endearing

I hesitated a bit before writing this post. The idea, you see, is to go out and take people's pictures for the one and only purpose of then printing them and handing them back. Not to use them in any other way. Especially not selling them, of course, but even writing a blog post is a bit of a gray area in my mind. I discussed this with other Help Portrait volunteers, and the consensus was that while we should absolutely not post any of the actual portraits we've taken, writing about the project and showing some of the pictures documenting the exercise is actually beneficial, in that it promotes the idea and hopefully gets more people involved.


It's as if the dog was posing for his own portrait, seeing that
all the kids had gotten theirs (this picture is also from the
Kliptown Youth Centre photo shoot. The portraits for the
Diepsloot shoot have not been handed out yet)

To find out more about Help Portrait here in South Africa, visit http://www.ubuntuhelpportrait.org/ Or like Ubuntu Help Portrait on Facebook. Get involved right away and participate in the Happy Birthday Madiba event in honor of Nelson Mandela's 94th birthday coming up soon. Or register to participate in the next big shoot on December 8. Or read fellow-blogger Karen's post about the same photo shoot I described here (with the missing pictures of myself:-). 

Help Portrait is a world-wide organization, so it can be something for you even if you're not in South Africa. To find a local group of volunteers wherever you are, visit http://help-portrait.com/

Still not convinced? Watch this video to find out more about Help Portrait and why it is such a cool thing to participate in:


June 26, 2012

Mom, Where is My School Tie?

There aren't many sights here in South Africa that warm my heart more than a whole bunch of school kids assembled for some event, all dressed in school uniform. There is something about these uniforms that makes me feel wholesome. And a bit colonial. These uniforms do more than just dress your children. They lend an aura of respect, of politeness, and of leadership. They were the biggest hang-up our kids had about going to a South African school, if you'll remember, and I know one day seeing pictures of them will be the fondest reminder of our time in South Africa.




But there is also a dark, dark, side to them.

The side where, like today, my peaceful morning tea is interrupted with a piercing scream from upstairs, going something like "Moooooom, I can't find my tracksuit pants!" That one closely followed, just as I have made my way to Impatience's room to start looking, by "My tracksuit top is goooooooone!" from another direction. The side where I spend the next ten minutes rummaging through closets and laundry baskets. The side where I have to defend the at this time still absent housekeeper, who inevitably gets blamed for things not put in the right place. The side where the mere suggestion on my  part that the tracksuit pants might have been forgotten at school last week results in a barrage of verbal abuse the likes of which can only emit from one's own child. The side where throughout breakfast I am informed how it is really all just my fault. The side where I snap and tell my kids they can never ever have a playdate again until all lost stuff is found. The side where I later find the missing pants in my sewing basket, where I had put them with good intentions to fix a seam and promptly forgotten.

My choice this morning was sending one girl into the freezing cold with a jacket and short pants and the other with long pants but no jacket, or to send one fully clad and the other one more or less naked. Maybe that might have been a good natural consequence. They do say that natural consequences work best when raising children. I should know. I walked twenty miles to school each day, barefoot in the snow. What this was a natural consequence of I've forgotten. But I turned out alright, didn't I?

It's not like I don't anticipate our morning mayhem. Time and again I have reminded my kids - every single day of their lives, they will tell you - to put out all their stuff THE NIGHT BEFORE! Mind you, I don't like spending my evenings doing the run-around either, but at least then there'd be time to sort it all out. Mornings, not so much. Just making four boxed lunches runs on a very tight schedule. Have I told you that none of my kids like the same fruit? That two only eat peanut butter with jelly, one will have it only with sliced bananas, and the last doesn't eat any peanut butter at all?

Which goes to show that I was lying. About that tea. I never have a peaceful morning tea, at least not BEFORE the kids leave for school. Every morning is hectic. If it's not a missing uniform piece, it's surely something else, like a dog-eared form that has spent the better part of a week in Zax's backpack needing to be filled out with all sorts of data "absolutely, positively, today Mom, or I'll get in trouble." Or Sunshine sitting crying amidst a sea of socks, claiming that every single one "feels weird and doesn't fit." Or, my favorite, fifteen pictures to be printed out before school for some timeline project, which never fails to be the precise moment the ink cartridge has run out, the paper is jammed, or the spooler full.

But nothing quite irks me like lost stuff. I'm an anal German, okay? This shouldn't be happening! I shouldn't have to waltz into McCullagh&Bothwell every other week to replace clothes that have gone missing. It's bad enough keeping up with popped-off blazer buttons (and no, the dental floss recommended to us at the doctor's office, of all places, didn't fare any better; I'm willing to give the bent paper clip method a try). I shouldn't have to argue with my kids over who had what last and how it must have just mysteriously disappeared out of their room. And I sure as hell shouldn't have to go to lost and found at school to try and find a missing item.

This is just the sanitized non-smelly at-home version of the school lost and found bin

I mean, have you seen that place? It's positively scary. Huge bins line the walls, labeled "track suit tops," "lunch boxes," "scarves&hats," "track suit pants," "towels" etc. Good idea right? But do you know what? Just like in the girls' rooms here at our house, instead of each bin containing only items of that label, each bin contains everything. Including smelly socks and wet towels. Going through every one of them and checking all the tags nearly kills you, it's so disgusting. It's not like you can just glance over it. Uniforms all look the same, remember? You absolutely positively have to take out each piece of clothing so you can check the label. While trying to hold your breath so that the smell doesn't bring you to an untimely end. It all of a sudden makes the uniform shop seem like the place you really want to be, screw the cost. "I think Impatience has almost outgrown these pants anyway," is typically my thinking. The temptation to just do a pick-and-run, i.e. take a pair of pants that looks about the right size and isn't labeled, is overwhelming. Except my anal German side usually keeps me from doing that. The right pants have to be SOMEWHERE is  always my final thought before I faint.

Sometimes these things do show up again on their own. Just as mysteriously as they have disappeared. And typically right AFTER I've gone out and bought a replacement. And sometimes I actually do find them, triumphantly. I cannot tell you how much pleasure it gives me to find something that my kids lost. I saw a joke on Facebook the other day along the lines of  "It's only ever really lost if your mom can't find it," and it's so very true. (Although I never actually spend any time on Facebook, in case Noisette asks you.)

What I'm actually dreaming of is a special kind of scanner. Sort of like an airport scanner. My kids would have to walk through every morning and it would record everything they are taking with them. Upon returning home, they'd have to walk through it again and would only be let into the house if everything matched. Otherwise, they'd have to return to school right away to go search for whatever is missing. Or at least acknowledge, for ONCE, that it was THEM who lost it. Mom, you were right and I was wrong.

Maybe someone will take this up as the next great idea for an iPhone app. Except not me. I'm busy. Excuse me while I now go search for Jabulani's rugby shirt.

Epilogue: Weeks later Impatience's missing track suit pants reappeared. I saw Zax, who is 15, walking out of the house with them. The fact that they barely reached below his knees gave them away. But do you think he would have noticed something was amiss? 

Further reading: School Uniforms Revisited - Pros and Cons

June 25, 2012

New: Google Live Traffic Updates in SA

When I read in last week's Business Day that "Google has launched its live traffic coverage service in SA, an addition to Google maps which allows users to check the current traffic conditions in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Pretoria" I was ecstatic. Considering it is only available in 25 countries around the world, having South Africa (though for now only those three metropolitan areas) be one of them is pretty huge. And what better place to have live traffic info than Joburg, where there is never a shortage of traffic?

So when I had to take Zax to the orthodontist the very next day at 8:00 in the morning, the possibly worst time to have to be anywhere in Joburg, I decided to give it a try.

Anyone living in the Fourways area of Joburg will know that the debate, when trying to get to Rivonia, is always "Witkoppen or the highway." Whenever I'm stuck on the highway and see cars whizzing by to the left of me I berate myself for not having taken Witkoppen. But on the days I take Witkoppen I'll be sure as hell snaking along at one mile per hour when the highway traffic next to me is flowing ever so nicely.

Consulting Google Maps, it looked like Witkoppen was the way to go. Nothing red anywhere. It later occurred to me that there was nothing green anywhere either, and that this should have been a concern to me, but of course after shoving three kids and their collective lunch boxes out of the house, plus rousing another one from sleep and egging him on through his shower every five minutes and then being informed, when finally in the car, that he needed his house shirt for an outreach thing at school today and did I have any idea where it was, and then running upstairs again to find the shirt, let's just say that I wasn't in top form by the time I was looking at Google's new live Joburg traffic coverage.

Johannesburg traffic map using Google Maps

When we were finally enroute, we spent the first 10 minutes with me berating Zax for being 20 minutes late. Zax has a morning routine of leaving the house at the last possible second to still make it to school in time and of course trying to change his routine just once is as futile as getting any of my kids to put out their school uniform THE NIGHT BEFORE (more in THAT topic in my next post). Then we spent the next 10 minutes with Zax berating me for not having told him the night before that we needed to leave by seven. And you wonder why I call him Zax (Dr. Seuss will tell you why if you don't already know). It was positively a good thing we were almost immediately stuck in heavy traffic on Witkoppen, just so we'd have time for all our arguments.

Witkoppen was clearly NOT the way to go that day. I was practically parked for half an hour not making any progress, when I finally had enough and turned around. Google maps showed some heavy traffic on the highway but I could SEE the highway right next to me and it looked just fine.

The problem, however, was making it TO the highway. Getting back all the way where I had come from was no problem, but then I started all over again at the spot I had been at half an our earlier. Let's just say that when I finally rolled into the orthodontists parking lot at 8:30 I was ready to punch someone.

In theory the Google traffic thing is really nifty. It takes all the location data it receives from people who are using Google Maps on their phones and measures the speed they're progressing at. If it's slow, then the traffic info reflects that with a big red line.

But in practice it doesn't work so well. When you go online and look at the Joburg map, you will see that many roads are neither red nor green, meaning there probably isn't enough data to supply Google with reliable info. So, people, please make sure you turn on Google Maps on your phones if you have it!

The other problem is this: So you check Google Maps and see that the route to work is jammed. But what now? Where are you going to go? Because sure as hell whatever alternate route you can think up will also be jammed. Your only salvation lies in doing it like the minibus taxis and passing illegally on the left. Or in not leaving the house at all.

So, for those of you moving to Johannesburg, I hate to disappoint, but traffic, well, sucks. There is no other way to put it. Just think of it as the one price you pay for living in a beautiful place. You can manage it by not scheduling your orthodontist appointments at 8:00 in the morning, or, better yet, by picking an orthodontist close to your home (as well as choosing your home in an area of Johannesburg close to school and work). Perhaps I can be forgiven for not going with the orthodontist in Fourways Mall, ever so conveniently close to our house, when after our first consultation she sent Jabulani to the dentist to have some teeth extracted, and the dentist regretfully informed us that those teeth she had specified were no longer in his mouth.

Although now I"m not so sure. Traffic versus teeth? At the thought of repeating this ordeal every three weeks or so, I'm perfectly willing to throw in a couple of my kids' teeth in return for clear roads.

Note: A new orthodontist has since taken residence in Fourways Mall and I do not wish to discredit him in any way. For more information on dentists and orthodontists, read At Home in a New Country: The Dentist Test.

June 22, 2012

Employing Domestic Help: A Cautionary Tale

The following is a guest post by Barbara Bruhwiler.

There were a number of things I was looking forward to prior to our move to Johannesburg, but at the top of the list was probably this one: Employing a housekeeper. I mean, think about it: Clean and ironed shirts delivered directly to my wardrobe! Someone else mopping my child’s cornflakes off the floor before they all dry up and become as hard as concrete! No more fights discussions with my husband about the question whether golf shoes should or should not be taken off before walking into the kitchen!

Hiring domestic help could not have been any easier. We “took over” the domestic from another expat family that was about to leave the country, and I couldn’t believe my luck. Clara was an experienced maid who immediately took my new household into her capable hands. I was immensely grateful because I had more than enough on my plate, like organizing telephone and internet and all those other settling-in tasks that everyone knows take a bit longer in South Africa than elsewhere.

But unfortunately the careless days with Clara ended rather suddenly after only a couple of weeks, when early one morning, she asked if she could leave and visit her family in the Eastern Cape. Her mother was not well and her family feared for the worst. Of course I said yes.

I never saw her again. A few days later, Clara’s sister called to tell me that her brothers had decided that Clara must stay “at home” to look after her mother and the family’s children (Clara’s own daughter and her nieces and nephews, who had all been in Clara’s mother’s care). The sister mentioned that Clara wanted to come back to Joburg, “but our brothers wouldn’t hear anything about it.” It’s not hard to imagine what an upheaval this was in Clara’s life, but sadly this is an everyday occurrence in South Africa, where women are often the sole provider for their extended families, sometimes working far from home.

I assessed my situation: Husband - busy at work with a new job and some business travelling; children - one three-year-old, one baby; house - spacious; boxes - still plenty to unpack; admin - still plenty to be done, Eskom and Telkom not yet completely sorted out (one could say they never are!)… I don’t consider myself particularly spoilt or lazy, but I thought I could do with a bit of help. And in turn I would help somebody else, someone who needed a job.

It was clear: I needed a new maid. But how would I find one?

I called my new local friends. They didn’t know about anyone looking for work, but agreed in one thing: It was too risky to employ someone who advertised in the newspapers. I needed a maid with references. I spread the word, and soon my child’s class helper in the nursery school took me to the side and told me that her cousin Nompumelelo would love to work for me.

I called Nompumelelo and invited her for an interview. It was not easy. She was young, barely 20 years old, and very shy. I didn’t really know what to ask her. This is often an issue for expats who haven’t employed domestic help before. Having to run the whole conversation on my own didn’t make things easier. Nompumelelo was too timid to say more than a few words, so all I took away was that she wanted to be called Pumi and that she had never worked as a maid before. But how hard can it be, I thought? After 20 minutes I said ok and employed her. We signed a work contract and agreed that she would start working the next day.

In hindsight I cannot believe how naïve I was. The first few days with Pumi were a real eye-opener for me. The quiet, seemingly shy Pumi simply didn’t understand any English. Which was a problem, because she was utterly unable to communicate with my children, and she couldn’t understand any of my explanations and instructions. It was quite clear that Pumi had no idea about the kind of work she was supposed to do in our home. I had to constantly keep an eye on her, and therefore managed to save my Teflon-coated frying pan from getting a good hard scratch with a pan scratcher. I also twice reacted just in time to prevent her from using Omo (a laundry detergent) in the dishwasher, shuddering with visions of returning to a house with foam billowing out of its windows, and there were many other close calls of this nature. Quite humorous from the perspective of looking back on it now, but rather stressful at the time.


It would have been bearable in the name of giving a young girl a chance at her first job, but the worst part was that she wasn’t even trying. It was obvious that Pumi did not like this kind of work. Every day it got a bit later before she turned up for work. She was constantly grumpy. In the afternoon she would try to leave long before the agreed to five o’clock. 

And I wasn’t happy either. Pumi remained foreign to me and my children, a stranger in our home, ignoring most of my wishes, not interested in us at all. It took much more time to manage her than simply doing the work myself.

Thankfully, this situation didn’t last long, as the next Friday Pumi left in the middle of the afternoon, saying that she wouldn’t stay. I interpreted this to mean that she was leaving the job, but she actually came back the next week, late one morning. I gave her the salary for the days she had worked for me, and she left. At this point I fully expected to never see her again, but I did. About six weeks later, at CCMA, the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration, a “dispute resolution body established in terms of the Labour Relations Act”. Where she accused me of “unfair dismissal” – but that’s actually a whole other story.

In the meantime I was back to square one, trying to find a good maid. Only that this time I was a bit wiser because I had already made plenty of mistakes. I made a few notes to myself:

  • Never employ a maid who has no experience with housework. It’s hard to understand for us who grew up with most of the appliances and gadgets we use in our homes, but someone growing up in rural South Africa will easily never have seen a vacuum cleaner before. Having to train someone to run a four-bedroom household while learning the ropes of a new country yourself is simply not feasible.
  • Insist on references, and don’t rely on the recommendation of a relative. Make sure you talk to the previous employer to find out as much as you can about the style and work habits of the domestic worker.
  • Always make sure you employ a maid who speaks good English. Otherwise you may simply not be able to communicate with her, leading to frustration on both sides.
  • Always supplement your interview with a trial run. A 20-minute conversation, especially if you do all the talking, is not sufficient. Ask applicants to come and work for you for a day, or even several days, and pay them by the day, no strings attached. That way you get to know her before you sign a work contract.
  •  Make sure you actually like each other. This point is often overlooked by expats, but the truth is, the two of you will spend a lot of time with each other in the same space, and there is nothing worse than bumping into a grumpy maid all day.


I am quite happy to say that these tips served me well and that I was able to employ a wonderful domestic who has been with us for several years. She is capable and loving and well-integrated into our family. And we have plenty to laugh about when thinking back at those early days.



I just might have saved my beige suede leather shoes from a cruel fate in the washing machine had I had some better advice on the finer points of hiring domestic help.


Barbara Bruhwiler lives in Johannesburg with her husband and two children. She  is the author of the Expat-Living.info Guideto Johannesburg, a handy reference guide full of useful information and advice for expats moving to or living in Joburg (see advertisement on this page).

June 20, 2012

Mail Delivery South African Style

You know me. I always moan about the absence of Amazon.com from my life here in South Africa and all the convenience I'm missing out on by not being able to order anything the heart desires with a simple click of the mouse. I've even told you about the nebulous cloak-and-dagger merchandise exchanges I engage in to score those coveted goods from the U.S. every once in a while.


If only I had Amazon here, all my troubles would be over, is what I've been telling you.

But I'm not being entirely truthful. Because even if Amazon existed, there is the small matter of the delivery part of online shopping. 

In fact, something similar to Amazon does exist here in South Africa, and it's called Kalahari.com. Get it? Amazon is a rainforest in South America, and Kalahari is a desert in Africa. I can't say I quite see the connection, but I'm sure someone thought that one through.

The problem with Kalahari.com is that the selection is nowhere near that of Amazon.com, and that the prices are nowhere near as competitive. It's basically just for buying books and a few movies, and I prefer to buy the former via Kindle and get the latter for free via my newest cool discovery, UnoTelly.

However, some weeks ago I needed a school book for Zax that wasn't available on the Kindle. Macbeth, if you must know, in some ancient edition. So I decided to give Kalahari a try, where miraculously that very edition was available. Used, from some obscure seller.

Ordering couldn't have been any easier. A few clicks, and for R80 or something similar it was mine. After that, I promptly forgot about it. As I should be entitled to, right?

But not in South Africa. By now I should know better about these things and schedule multiple reminders in my calendar. Just because you ordered it doesn’t mean you get it. Back in the U.S., the book would have arrived on my doorstep a few days later, and that would have been the end of it.

And here? About three weeks later, Zax asked again about his book. Which made me remember that I had ordered it, and even gotten a confirmation via email, complete with a link to track the shipment, to my surprise. My package, I was informed when I clicked on it, had been delivered to my post office at Dainfern North over two weeks previously. Except no one had bothered to inform me, a fact that I didn't hesitate to point out to the postal clerk when I inquired about my package.

Or had they? I've told you that our houses don't have mailboxes. Which you can't really blame on the South African Post Office (SAPO), but rather on the nature of our security estates. No one gets in easily, and certainly not the mailman. Although come to think of it, the people from Eskom who came to turn off my power always got in just fine. Anyway, over the course of living here I have gotten a bit lazy about checking our mailbox in our neighborhood shopping center, as there is never really anything exciting in it beyond a couple of flyers and, oddly, the pest control bill.

Since no package was forthcoming when I asked about it at the post office, I left again and went over to our mailbox to look for a slip there. But, as expected, there was nothing in it. So I drove back home, making a mental note to check the tracking tool again, print out the number, and take it by the post office the next time I was there. Which, as mental notes go, I promptly forgot. Let’s just say this turned into another one of those African errands of mine spanning the space of weeks instead of minutes.

It's just so tiring to have to work so hard at everyday occurrences such as getting your mail or calling customer service. It's hard to imagine a thriving mail-order economy without better mail service. One that sends out notifications for package delivery. Where entire shipments don't disappear like this was the Bermuda Triangle. And where overseas credit card statements don't get intercepted by some Nigerian money-making scheme almost succeeding at emptying your entire bank account. 

Maybe I’m really better off sticking with the street vendors, where delivery is never a problem.

Where the goods just come flying through my open car window.

More Postal Service posts:

June 18, 2012

I've Become a Rugby Mom

All I used to fret about in my previous life was showing up on time.

Four kids. Two sports per child. Three after-school hours. You do the math. I spent so much time in my car that I had secret dreams of fitting it out with a wardrobe, and a cupboard, and a desk. Just to keep all the stuff I lugged around with me organized.

I was a full-time American soccer mom.

It was a tight schedule, and things occasionally went wrong. Like the times I got the schedules mixed up and rolled up to a deserted field. Or when I'd forget to pick up a friend's child as part of my carpool arrangements. Or the early days, when Zax had just started playing soccer and I got the evil look from the coach when it was break time and my child was the only one without a water bottle. Which I felt entitled to have forgotten, what with having to leave the house with four kids under the age of five, three teddy bears, four bags, and a double stroller. It was practically a miracle I showed up at all.

But once I made it to the right place at the right time, I would exhale, settle down, and enjoy the brief pause before the next scheduled pickup.

That has now changed. These days, my fretting starts precisely when I arrive at the field, where I join the ranks of my sisters-in-arms, the rugby moms.

Rugby moms (and dads) anxiously watching the match

We all worry about our sons. We stand there at the edge of the field, too nervous to sit. Eyes trained on the pitch. Furrowed brows. An occasional feeble joke to break the silence. Checking our phones to make sure we have the  nearest hospital on speed dial. Jumping forward, yet restraining ourselves, when we see someone go down. Secretly praying our child will have the good sense to get out of the way when a boy twice his size is barreling toward him at full speed. Insanely proud when he doesn't.

Jabulani making his stand...

...and ending up at the very bottom of this

The scrum

The tackle
The injury

We all hate it. Yet we wouldn't miss a game for the world. We're happy that they're so happy.

Ironically, we came to rugby via an injury on the soccer field. Remember when Jabulani broke his arm about a year ago when a boy stepped on it just as he was trying to make a save? Well, he hasn't touched a soccer ball since then. Instead we've already had a sprained thumb and a mild concussion since he decided he would join the ranks of Dainfern College's U-14 rugby team. Not counting the bazillion bruises covering his body like a quilt. Let me just say he is not built like a rugby player. Neither does he seem to distinguish himself by any kind of speed. But whatever he lacks in physical requirements, he more than makes up in spirit, whether it's cheering on his own team or the older boys, all the way up to the revered 1st Team. He usually has no voice left by mid-Saturday.

Team pep talk
Watching the 1st Team


If it weren't for all  my worrying, I would actually enjoy watching him play. Rugby, against all my snooty preconceptions, is a brilliant game, far surpassing American football in speed and finesse. All South African sports will grow on you (I was even spotted playing netball last week!) but of all of them, rugby is the easiest one to embrace. Especially if the Springboks trounce England like they did this weekend.

Nothing spells "South Africa" more than a chilly Saturday morning at your school's Derby Day, waiting for the sun to start warming you, surrounded by school spirit, enjoying the sportsmanship, win or lose, and watching your son turn into a man in front of your eyes.

And sending a silent prayer heavenly each time another match is over.

June 15, 2012

When it Turns Cold in Joburg

It’s that time of year again in Joburg.

Whining time.

And I’m glad to say it’s not just us expats who whine incessantly for two months. No, it is the Joburgers themselves who seem to suffer from collective amnesia every year, when predictably at the beginning of June it turns freezing cold and everyone is shocked how this is possible. I guess we can be forgiven when you consider that the weather is beautiful and warm, nonstop, the other ten months of the year. I swear to you I packed the mosquito nets away less than two weeks ago. It was summer, and now it’s winter. And it will be summer again by September.

As my fellow blogger 2Summers so eloquently observed, it is not actually the biting cold that’s the problem during a Joburg winter. After all, it only goes down to about freezing or a few degrees below during the night, and warms up to 15 or even 20 degrees Celsius most days. Not bad, most of my overseas friends will say, particularly those in Wisconsin.

The problem with a Joburg winter is the lack of heat. From around 5:00 in the afternoon until 7:30 in the morning.

My new best friend these days.

You guys in Wisconsin, you know those autumn afternoons when the wind is howling outside and you are sitting in your cozy easy chair in shorts, surrounded by a cloud of central heating bliss? Well, here in Joburg, the wind is howling both outside AND inside the house. Because double-paned (and precisely fitted) windows are an alien concept here in South Africa, along with central heating. And don’t get my started on our underfloor “heating.” I might as well take three $100 bills directly and make a fire from them for all the warmth we get from our underfloor heating. You most definitely won’t be sitting anywhere in shorts in a Joburg winter, especially after sunset. Instead, you will take the principle of layering to new heights.

Jabulani seems to be the one most affected at our house. After sunset, you’ll only ever see him walking around draped in his down comforter. To get ready for school, he has a procedure: Long pajama pants under his school pants, jersey (sweater) under his blazer, scarf wrapped around his face and tucked into the top of his blazer (no wonder the buttons never stay on for more than 2 days with all this bulk underneath), soft polar fleece beanie on his head and scratchy school uniform beanie over that to conform with the dress code. It is bundled in such a way that he staggers, stiffly, to school.

The transformation by the time he returns is always as stunning as it is predictable. Shorts and t-shirt and barefoot, without a care in the world, excess clothing accessories stuffed into a smelly gym bag and forgotten until the next morning, when it starts all over again.

Eskom, our utility company, subjects us to load-shedding. We subject ourselves to clothes-shedding. In inverse proportionality to the load-shedding, basically.

Typical load I've shed by 10:00 a.m.

You know how the Incas were sun worshippers? Well, I totally get that. They also lived high up in the mountains where it was dry with lots of sunshine. Just like the Highveld. Their lives revolved around the sun, and so does mine. Every morning I cannot wait for the sun to come up and warm the house, especially the one warm corner with my black easy chair. The perfect spot for having my tea and reading my Kindle and thawing out my hands. The days where there is cloud cover (I admit, there are usually only about two of them all winter) are absolute agony. Those are the days I want to crawl back into bed. Or spend right in front of my best friend, the gas heater.

In the mornings and at dinner time, huge fights ensue at our house over who gets the seat next to the gas heater. One incentive to get up early and claim the first spot, at least. If I wheel it into the kitchen while I’m cooking, I will soon find company in the form of bodies standing right in front of the heater eating their yoghurt, blocking any potentially warming rays from ever reaching me. And this is on the good days when we actually have gas for that heater. It’s been a good year for gas, compared to last, but I wouldn’t really know because I stocked up on bottles in March, just like I said I would.

My sun-worshipping chair. Except I often have to share it with sun-worshipping Maus

There is more that I don’t like about a Joburg winter.

The dust, for one thing. I suppose it’s nice that it doesn’t rain from May to October and that the sun faithfully warms you for 9 hours of the day, but that also means that the entire countryside turns to dust. All of which, I am telling you, decides to settle on my patio table. To make matters worse, this is also the exact time of year South Africans decide to burn their grass. As soon as the weather turns dry and the grass along with it, people decide it’s time to put the torch to vast swaths of land. I’ve heard many theories about why this is, ranging from “makes it grow better come spring time” to “makes it easier to spot bad guys from hiding in the grass along the road.” During our first winter, when I first caught that acrid whiff of smoke in our bedroom, I was quite alarmed as to what could possibly be burning in our house. Everything you touch has that smell. Often you’ll see what looks like a blade of grass landing on the cushion next to you, except when you move to pick it off, it turns to ashes, leaving a very unsightly gray smudge.

So if you’re a budding Joburg expat, don’t even think of getting any white cushions for your patio furniture, I’m telling you right now.

Dirty rag from wiping the patio table. Lovely, huh? And repeated daily...

And I’ve mentioned the load shedding. Of course that also happens in winter, because that’s when people use the most electricity. We have a little device called “Eddi” in our house, courtesy of Eskom, and it occasionally gives off an alarming beep and instructs us to turn off lights (or else!). So far no forced turn-offs for us, but the neighborhood across the street has had power outages the last few days, due to the substation not being able to keep up. So when that happens you’re already freezing, but now you also have to do your shivering in the dark. It’s as if Joburg is determined to make us all go to bed early. I do wonder if anyone has ever tracked the birth rates, say in March.

Quite apart from making you freeze, the cold in our house has other annoying effects. Like your butter being hard as a rock, both inside the fridge and out. How, I ask you, am I supposed to soften it for my chocolate chip cookie recipe which I’ve had to use three times this week because, yikes, birthday season has started again? And it’s a pity since winter is indeed the ideal time to do all your Christmas baking, what with the spot next to your oven probably being the warmest of the house. Forget doing it in December, when it is so hot all your cookies immediately stick together unless your freeze them right away.

On the plus side, the garbage doesn’t smell in my kitchen these days. Although that could be due to the fact that my nose is constantly dripping from the cold.

The one place I love to be in winter is my car. Central heating at its finest, controls cranked to high. It feels so good to have hot air gushing at you when you are hot-air deprived during a Joburg winter. I’m almost tempted some days to take my computer into the car for a spell so I can feel like typing  properly.

We’ve also resorted to some more old-fashioned remedies. I mean, when was the last time you used a hot water bottle? I think for me that was in 1973. Well, I am proud to say that our family is now outfitted with three brand-new (color coded) water bottles that the kids take to bed with them (and to other places, I might add, even school). This of course has been met with a lot of disdain by Noisette, who can go off on a tirade at the mere mention of an electric blanket, and god forbid I leave the heat on high in HIS car after using it.

Our new water bottle collection. We got the basic functional model, not the pretty stuffed-
in-a-teddy-bear-model that I've seen kids at school tote around. Because school is also freezing.

This concludes my annual whining marathon, thank you for listening. 

As an afterthought, I should mention that a Joburg winter still beats many a European summer, if we're completely honest. Can't top the amount of sunshine we get. 

And I suppose the one good side effect of shivering through the next ten weeks is that all of us living in South Affrica can feel quite virtuous about our contribution to the environment. I mean, can you believe how small our 6-person carbon footprint is here in South Africa compared to the U.S.? The country using a quarter of the entire world's energy all on its own? No air conditioning, practically no heat, at times no car either because of supply problems and strikes… But the emphasis is on feeling virtuous. The Germans have a saying about making virtue from necessity, and it’s true.

If you gave us central heating and enough power plants to supply the electricity for it, all our virtue would go flying out the window in five seconds, along with that first satisfying “whoosh” when you turn on the heat.

Older posts on Winter in Joburg:

June 13, 2012

Finding a House in Johannesburg: Part 2

Joburg is a BIG city. There are lots and lots of areas and neighborhoods, and finding the right one for you can be intimidating, to say the least. It's hard to know where to start.

As promised previously in Finding a House in Johannesburg: Part 1, I will now give you a list of suburbs to choose from. But first, have a look at this map. I would have loved to see a simple map like this before moving here, as it will go a long way towards giving you an idea where things are, not just for house-hunting but all sorts of other purposes. Like finding out where in the world your daughter's netball match will be (even if you have no idea WHAT in the world netball is). Just remember that the map isn't everything, because it doesn't show TRAFFIC. What looks close isn't necessarily so.

Map courtesy of privateproperty.co.za 

Ok, getting to the actual suburbs: The following is what I wrote for the website Expat Arrivals about Areas and Suburbs in Johannesburg, listing them all going from North to South. (You should definitely visit Expat Arrivals as it is an excellent resource for expats getting their bearings in South Africa.)

Midrand
Including Waterfall, Kyalami
Technically Midrand might not count as a Johannesburg suburb as it is so far removed, but especially in the last few years it has become a popular area to live, offering affordable housing set in wide open spaces and still relatively easy access to the main hubs of business. If you like open areas and nice views at affordable prices, Midrand should be on your list. Close to AISJ, Midrand also has the advantage of being relatively close to Pretoria.

Sunninghill/Lonehill/Fourways
Including Dainfern, Broadacres, Fernridge, Douglasdale, Northriding, Beverley
These are also relatively recent developments in the eyes of long-term Joburgers, but today this area probably houses the vast majority of expats living in Johannesburg. It has more established (and often more expensive) neighborhoods than Midrand and a host of good private schools to choose from in addition to AISJ. It is here you will find one of the largest concentrations of security estates clustered around the Fourways area with its many options in shopping, entertainment, healthcare and recreation. It is fairly close to Sandton, but don’t be fooled – traffic going that way will be very heavy with daily commuters.

Sandton/Bryanston
Including Morningside, Wendywood, Sandown, Sandhurst, Hyde Park
In the last twenty years or so, Sandton has replaced the CBD as Johannesburg’s hub of business and commerce, meaning many corporate headquarters, banks, and large hotels are located there. As a general rule, the closer you get to Sandton, the more expensive housing becomes, so expect to pay a premium in this area. Bryanston along the northern edge is less expensive, and is mostly known for its beautiful free standing homes on tree-lined streets which explode in a purple sea of blooming jacarandas in late spring. Further to the south, in Morningside, Sandown and Hyde Park one finds stately homes as well as apartment complexes. This area also sports a large concentration of renowned private hospitals.

Randburg/Ferndale
Including Randpark Ridge, Cresta, Blairgowrie, Windsor East
Much quieter and less ritzy than Sandton, this area is nevertheless perfect in many ways – it's close to Sandton; the centre of Randburg has its own assortment of businesses; the nearby Cresta shopping centre is one of Joburg’s largest; as well as restaurants and government offices. These are leafy suburbs with spacious homes and gardens in close proximity to a championship golf course as well as the Johannesburg Botanical Gardens and Emmarentia Dam (perfect for dog walking and summer picnics). Generally, this is a good area for families as well as apartment dwellers.

Northcliff/Melville
Including Blackheath, Auckland Park
These are older and more established suburbs with some of Johannesburg’s most beautiful scenery. Northcliff Hill with its winding roads and park-like homes nestled on the slopes is especially stunning, while next-door Melville is more trendy and has what some call a bohemian pavement culture. It’s definitely one of the most diverse neighbourhoods of Johannesburg, perhaps fuelled by the proximity of two universities. Here expatriates will encounter a lively nightlife scene, plenty of street cafés, antique shops, very unique restaurants, as well as the Melville Koppies Nature Reserve with its beautiful walks and views.

Linden/Greenside
Including Parkhurst, Emmarentia
Similar to Northcliff and Melville, Parkhurst and Greenside provide the area's nightlife while Emmarentia Dam and Zoo Lake offer beautiful scenery and recreation right within the city. Centrally located within easy reach of both central Johannesburg and Sandton via Barry Hertzog Avenue, its comfortable family homes are set in well-established gardens surrounded by some of Joburg’s most beautiful trees.

Parkhurst especially is a trendy neighbourhood for young families pushing their strollers along Fourth Avenue on a Sunday morning, a place where one finds eclectic coffee shops, bakeries, interior design boutiques, antique dealers and some of the best restaurants in Johannesburg.

Rosebank/Parktown
Including Houghton, Melrose, Saxonwold, Killarney, Westcliff
Expats who find a home in one of these historic suburbs will be living at one of the city’s best addresses in close proximity to three of its oldest and best schools – King Edward VII School, Parktown High, and St John’s College. The homes here are sizeable and dignified, set on large properties, and residents are very close to the popular, sprawling Johannesburg Zoo.

Bedfordview
Including Oriel, Bedford Gardens, Edenvale
Located on the East Rand but still not far from the city centre, Bedfordview is ideally located for business travellers flying in and out of the nearby OR Tambo International Airport on a regular basis. It offers quiet, spacious and safe estate living in another one of Joburg’s leafy tree-lined areas, and is also conveniently located close to multiple shopping centres, including Cyrildene’s Chinatown.

Joburg City Centre
Including Bruma, Kensington, Lyndhurst
Most expats wouldn't dream of moving into Joburg’s city centre, given its bad reputation and the crime problems of areas like Hillbrow, Berea, and Yeoville. However, just like in other big cities, this area has lately undergone some urban rejuvenation and many hail the Maboneng Precinct, Newtown and Braamfontein as the places to be, especially for professional singles and couples without children. There are plenty of renovated apartments and lofts available with good security, beautiful views, amazing nightlife and shopping within walking distance, and the campus of Wits University is just around the corner.

And here, even though I have no connection to it and no special incentive to promote it, a promotional video about Lonehill, a suburb in the Fourways area mentioned above that is billed as one of Joburg's safest open (i.e. not enclosed) estates:


A big thank you to Heather at 2Summers and Jo at Past Experiences for their valuable advice regarding areas of Joburg I knew nothing about!

Didn't find the neighborhood you were looking for in the above list? The website SA-venues offers an excellent listing of towns/suburbs/neighborhoods in Johannesburg.

Previous Post: Finding a House in Johannesburg: Part 1 (which criteria should you been using when searching for a house in Johannesburg/South Africa).

June 12, 2012

Finding a House in Johannesburg: Part 1

If you've been reading my blog for a while, you will know that I've already posted several times about living in the Dainfern area, which it is probably safe to say is one of the prime expat locations in Johannesburg.

But writing a more comprehensive guide to living in Joburg that compares the different suburbs in a less biased way had been on my agenda for quite some time. Except I mostly procrastinated writing it, because I felt I didn't know enough about Joburg. Writing your own blog is great, but meeting deadlines is not one thing you'll get good at, because, well, there aren't any deadlines. 

I got the much-needed kick in the pants to finally deliver my "guide to accommodations in Joburg" from the folks at another website, Expat Arrivals, for whom I'd written several articles before, and what you'll now read here is an adapted version of what was published on their website a few weeks back. To read the original article, please visit Expat Arrivals.

In this first post of this two-part series, let's focus on the questions you should be asking yourself as you prepare to find a place to live in Johannesburg (or anywhere in South Africa, for that matter). Tomorrow I'll elaborate on the actual suburbs of Johannesburg.

Size

What size house will you be looking for? Are you expecting plenty of visitors? (trust me, they will come!) Will you employ domestic help? (yep, you will.) Will he/she live in with you? (in which case you will need to have enough room in your domestic quarters); (but in which case you also won't mind a house one or two sizes too big for you, because it won't be you scrubbing the seventeen toilets). Given all of the above, most likely your house in South Africa will be bigger than what you left behind.

Oh, and also  make sure you take the climate into consideration. With which I mean two things: a) you will need a nice big covered patio. Most of your life will take place on it, around the braai, around the pool, eating outside, etc. The only expats I've ever met who were disappointed with their houses were the ones where there was no patio, or only a tiny one. And b) make sure your house is North-facing, meaning you will get a whole day of sunshine in most rooms. This may not be so intuitive or even welcome in summer, but trust me, those two months of winter with your flimsy yet expensive underfloor heating will be extremely uncomfortable without the power of the sun. Can you tell I'm writing this blog post in the dead of winter on what is probably the coldest day of the year?

Cost

Affordable housing in SA?
What will your budget be? And will you buy or rent? Most expats rent, and the ones who buy typically do that after having rented for two years and having gained a good understanding of the market. Your typical expat areas such as Dainfern, Kyalami, and Fourways Gardens will be the most expensive, just because the landlords there get spoiled, in my opinion, by a fairly constant and not so price-sensitive stream of company-sponsored expats from all over the world. Expect to pay anywhere from R5,000 to R60,000 per month. Though, to be honest, I have yet to meet anybody paying R5,000. Maybe that's for a studio apartment out in the boondocks somewhere. Most likely you'll find yourself in the R35,000 to R45,000 range if you want to live in a security estate. There will also be an additional levy of up to R2,000 per month to pay for all that security.

I don't know anything about buying a house but I wish I did because then I might have been able to star in House Hunters International when they contacted me sometime last year. Seriously, I did have some fun going onto one of the real estate websites and checking out home prices around where we live. There is quite a range, from around R1.5 million all the way to over R10 million. There are some really nice houses at the upper end!

Oh, and back to renting: There is also quite a selection of nicely furnished homes. Something to consider if you don't want to lug all your stuff here in a container that may or may not take "only" 8 weeks to get here (and that may or may not fall into the water upon unloading, as has happened to one of my acquaintances; actually, they don't know for sure, but how else would everything in there have gotten completely wet?).

Security

Ding ding ding! That's the million dollar question here in South Africa, right? Well, that's why we have these so-called security estates so many expats choose to live in. Though to be completely honest, I think the biggest draw towards these estates is not just the security they are surrounded with (think walls topped with razor wire topped with high-voltage-that-can-kill-you wires, interspersed with 24-hour cameras, some of them night vision, armed guards, booms and spikes in the entry lanes, fingerprints, face recognition...). The biggest draw is the lifestyle they offer - manicured lawns and common areas, recreation facilities, socializing within your neighborhood, proximity to schools, and convenient shopping.

Free-standing homes (where you are responsible for your own security) are apparently what you should stay away from here in Joburg, so we were told. However, there are some lovely free-standing homes out there, particularly in some of the older tree-lined neighborhoods of Joburg, and we know people who live in free-standing homes who seem to be just fine. Whereas even security estates are not immune to break-ins (and the occasional shooting or mafia hit, apparently). My point is, you can't ever be entirely safe but why not live in a security estate, if you can afford it, when it offers so many other conveniences.

Location

Perhaps a bit remote?
Where will it be? I'll be spending  much more time on that in tomorrow's post, but you do need to carefully consider the location of your home. Traffic in Joburg is terrible, and it's especially bad going from any of the Northern suburbs towards the city. Just looking at a map and finding the shortest distance between home and office won't give you an accurate picture until you've actually driven the route at 7:00 in the morning. And anytime after 3:00 in the afternoon. You won't avoid traffic altogether, that's impossible, but finding a home at least close to school OR work, if you can't do both, is a must. Unless you're considering getting a driver and doing work in the car or don't mind leaving the house before 6:00 am and returning after 7:00 pm.

Schools

For those expats with children, this is the number one consideration, no matter where you move to. And the location of the American International School of Johannesburg is the prime reason the Dainfern and Kyalami estates are so popular among expats. It's the closest you can get living in one of the larger security estates, and they all have school bus service (which you pay a fee for).

As you know, I never miss an opportunity to make a plug for going local where schools are concerned. Most expats don't even consider any school beyond AISJ, or perhaps the German School for those who are German speaking. However, there is a wealth of excellent private schools scattered all over Johannesburg, some of them so old and prestigious you might think you've time-traveled back to 1920s England when walking over their campuses. Except the weather is so much better here. Expats often assume South African schools are behind, but that, whether true or not, is just one factor. The advantage of broadening your school search beyond AISJ is not only just a substantial cost savings as well as an opportunity for so much cultural learning for your kids, but also the fact that you can now be more flexible in your home search as well. (Be aware, however, that school space, both in the private and international schools in Johannesburg, has become increasingly limited over the last decade or so, and that most schools maintain long wait lists, especially for the lower (K-3) grades. Before you do anything else to prepare for your move, you have to find a school that can accommodate your children!)

Play

It might be asking too much to factor in the location of recreational activities on top of finding a home conveniently located close to work and school. But just know that South Africa is a country of an outdoor lifestyle, one that you will want to participate in. Which again is why estate living is so convenient, as you'll have facilities right within your neighborhood - golf, tennis, squash, soccer, in some cases even horse riding. The more your children (and you!) can participate in sports within your estate or at the school (another advantage of South African schools which typically have state of the art sports facilities), the happier you will be, what with not having to cart anyone around town during afternoon rush hour.

Getting Started

The best way to find a place to live is of course to come look at what's on offer. You can do some of that online (Property24.com is a good first start), and if you get to do a look-see trip, that's great, otherwise living in temporary housing while searching for a permanent place is an option. In either case, hire a relocation or estate agent to show you around (Seeff, Remax, Gaye Cawood, and Pam Golding are some of the well-known estate agencies in the area).

One thing I'd like to warn you of, as it happened to us and many of our friends: Just because you've picked a house and signed the papers doesn't mean that the seller/landlord is actually committed. South Africans, for some reason, seem to like to hedge their options to the last second, changing their minds from wanting to rent to wanting to sell, or vice versa, and you, the buyer/renter are often the one left holding the bag. So you might have picked your dream home on your get-to-know trip and gone back to your home country, happy with the thought that everything is settled, until weeks later you hear that the home indeed is no longer available because the husband never actually told the wife he put it on the market and the wife, upon finding out, doesn't want to move. Honestly!

And if you happen to be house hunting anytime from December to mid-January, tough luck. Joburgers flee to the beach in droves for their summer vacations and literally stay there the entire six weeks, so getting any house papers signed during that time is not going to be a good plan. If you want to make a bid and it's the end of November, you better make sure you get that signature quickly.

So just a word of caution here to make sure you have several homes on your short list and to insist on a quick turnaround from the landlord's or seller's side, so that you can be sure you actually have a home to move into when you relocate rather than having to start the whole procedure from scratch.

Next post: Finding a House in Johannesburg: Part 2 - Johannesburg Suburbs