August 22, 2013

The Story of Charity in Africa

One of the first questions - after which school to pick and whether Johannesburg is safe enough to move there - prospective expats typically ask me is what kind of volunteer work might be available for them or their spouses. If you bear with me, I'll provide some answers. But first, my (evolving) views on charity.

In a way, this is the African story. For decades, no, centuries, people from the West have descended on Africa to do good. To help those less fortunate souls who can't help themselves.

Let's dissect that last sentence.

"To help"

It is such a noble intention, helping someone in need. You can't fault anyone for that. The question, rather, is how to help, or even whether helping at all best serves the intended beneficiary's needs. If you look back on Africa's history, the outcome of our "help" is such a mixed bag. From Livingstone and the missionaries following in his footsteps to all the food dumped - literally - onto Africa in the last fifty years, we don't have all that much to show for. Foreign aid has propped up corrupt regimes, imported food and clothes have crowded out farming and small manufacturing, and Western-style ideas of education seem to have only helped a small elite rather than the masses. The more recent sparks of hope seem to occur wherever people are helping themselves, or at least where aid is being targeted more wisely to the people most likely to help themselves - like microloans for women.

Paul Theroux, who has quite a bit to say on Africa in Dark Star Safari (read my review of the book here), comes to the conclusion that forty years of foreign aid have been useless, if not outright harmful, to Africa. On his long overland trip, he encounters charity upon charity, staffed by young idealistic Westerners driving around in shiny white Land Rovers (who, by the way, are without fail the least likely to offer him a ride), and yet he sees no progress. He comes to view most aid projects as an end in themselves, something that is "funded by foreigners and designed by foreigners and implemented by foreigners using foreign equipment procured in foreign markets."

So basically, we start out with the intention to help, but the act of helping often becomes an end in itself. Building and then running a charity is like any enterprise - it requires our skill and dedication and the reward for years of hard work is to see it grow bigger and bigger.

I know this first-hand. Nothing would please me more than seeing Alexandra Baseball grow into something huge - say, townships all over South Africa empowering children and families through the sport of baseball under what might be called the Alexandra model - and being able to take the credit for it. That is my Western mindset. But shouldn't the ultimate measure of success be the total dismantling of the aid organization one has built? Shouldn't shrinking, rather than expanding, be the goal from day one?

We do this with our children. From the day they are born we slowly disengage ourselves from their business, until one day they leave the house on their own two feet to conquer the world (helicopter parents excepted). But when it comes to Africa, maybe we like the act of helping a little bit too much to ever actually let go of it.

"Those less fortunate souls"

But are they? Less fortunate, I mean? Fortune and happiness - if only one could hold a key to those. After three years in Africa, I'm not so sure anymore as to who is to be pitied and who is to be envied. I'm glad, of course, that I don't have to live under the threat of Aids and tuberculosis, that my house is warm and dry and under no danger of being dismantled, that I'm relatively safe from rape and other violent crimes, that my kids and husband can get to work and school in a reasonably safe manner - I could go on and on. But I've also come to see that many Africans have an outlook on life that makes them more at peace with themselves, gives them a greater sense of community, a less hurried life, more opportunities to smile and laugh.

I often wonder if Westernization, which inevitably comes with foreign aid, will eventually drive out that African personality. That one day you'll wake up in South Africa and all your phone calls will be returned promptly but no one will smile at you anymore.

"Who can't help themselves"

The question is, why shouldn't they be able to help themselves? Do they always want to? Back to Paul Theroux: He served a a Peace Corps teacher in Uganda and Malawi in the 1960s and returns forty years later, only to see the school he once taught in crumbled and neglected. The white couple who founded and ran that particular school had died, and no one stepped in to preserve it. Or rather, no one locally. Young foreign teachers were still coming and going, but Africans neither taught (the government didn't pay them enough) nor even kept the school grounds tidy (a squatter had taken up residence in the crumbling staff quarters).

Photo courtesy of Jacky du Plessis

"I wanted to see some African volunteers caring for the place," he goes on to say, "sweeping the floors, cutting the grass, washing windows, gluing the spines back onto the few remaining books, scrubbing the slime off the classroom walls. Or, if that was not their choice, I wanted to see them torch the place and burn it to the ground and dance around the flames, then plow everything under and plant food crops.... Maybe none of these flawed schools were problems at all but only foreign institutions like foreign contraptions - like the big metal containers that were sent full of machinery or computers that were distributed and used for a while and then broke and were never fixed. I saw them all over Africa, the castoff containers at the edge of town. Whatever their contents might have been, what remained as the most valuable object was the metal container itself. The empty things became sturdy dwellings, and there were always people or animals living in them."

That's some tough language, but I saw the same thing in South Africa. Parents from our school would go into Diepsloot, the township nextdoor, and spend hours and weeks setting up a new library, cleaning shelves, sorting and labeling books. Another time we bought inexpensive fleece and sewed and sewed until we had outfitted an entire community with infant beanie hats. If it wasn't for our involvement, the library simply wouldn't have happened, the babies remained hatless. The building and the shelves and the fabric - I get that. Those require capital. But organizing and labeling books? Threading needles and hunching over your work for hours? I wonder where all the locals were who could have done that. Yes, some of them work incredibly long days as domestic workers, mostly women, leaving at the crack of dawn and sometimes not returning until the weekend, scratching out a living for their families. But with 40% or higher unemployment, you can't tell me that there aren't a bunch of people out there who could help build shelves and label books and sew clothes.

In the end, my boys became proficient with a needle and understood the art of a good seam, along with the idea of putting in time to serve others. The entire project taught them something. It helped our family, if you will, just like going to Africa helps young volunteers a whole lot in terms of life experience.

But did and does it really help those in need?

I promised some tips on volunteer work opportunities at the beginning of this post. Read Volunteer Opportunities in Johannesburg for more info. 

August 18, 2013

Dark Star Safari

First of all, I admit I love Paul Theroux. Mosquito Coast, if a bit dark and sinister, is one of my favorite books.

So perhaps it doesn't come as a surprise that I loved Dark Star Safari, even though it is an entirely different story. It’s really just one long travelogue, spanning all the way overland from Cairo to Cape Town and touching on a host of African countries. What makes it different from more mainstream travel literature is Theroux’s alternative approach to his trips. He takes the term “off the beaten path” to its logical extreme, going where almost no other tourists venture, seeking out the dark corners, meeting the downtrodden, gathering great stories to tell.

I can’t praise this book enough. In fact, I consider it one of the best books about Africa out there. If you want it brief, the Washington Post’s review says it all: “Few recent books provide such a litany of Africa’s ills, even as they make one fall in love with the continent.”

I took my copy of this book on our recent beach vacation, and having no pen with me lounging poolside, I folded the corners of pages I found interesting. The book is already completely dog-eared for all the treasures I've found – anecdotes, observations, and imparted wisdom. If I now shared them all with you, I’d be writing an entire new book, but here are some of them:

“I was reassured that the trucks [we traveled on] were full of cattle and not people, for in these parts cattle were valuable and people’s lives not worth much at all.”

“’They do not want your life, bwana. They want your shoes’ [after their truck being shot at in Northern Kenya]. Many times after that in my meandering through Africa, I mumbled these words, an epitaph of underdevelopment, desperation in a single sentence. What use is your life to them? It is nothing. But your shoes – ah, they are a different matter. They are worth something, much more than your watch (they had the sun) or your pen (they were illiterate) or your bag (they had nothing to put in it). These were men who needed footwear, for they were forever walking.”

“Inevitably, on the Philae [an Egyptian river cruise ship] there was one of those helpfully nosy couples who asked all the questions the rest of us did not dare to ask for fear of revealing our ignorance.”

I laughed at this one, having harbored that sentiment often when traveling through Africa with my family. And it’s not only for fear of revealing my ignorance, but for a dislike of appearing impatient – the surest sign of the uninitiated African traveler.

On another occasion, while biding his time in Egypt waiting for a Sudanese visa, Theroux observes that “no one is very upbeat about Sudan” to a priest who is showing him around. The reply: “Wonderful people. Terrible government. The African story.”

That has got to be one of the most concise and yet accurate ways to describe Africa.

Or, about Addis Ababa: “Scamming is the survival mode in a city where tribal niceties do not apply and there are no sanctions except those of the police, a class of people who in Africa generally are little more than licensed thieves.” And later, while waiting for a train, “most trains in Africa look as if they are on their way to Auschwitz.”

If this sounds cynical and negative, I’m not doing Paul Theroux justice. He says all this in a humorous and patient way, as one might speak about a lovable but slightly eccentric relative. Still, he does paint a picture of despair. Not so much about the poverty he encounters everywhere. He enjoys his contacts with rural people who survive on subsistence farming or somehow scrape by on sheer ingenuity. What he deplores are the people who over the years have learned to wait for, or even demand, a free handout, be it from the government, from white landowners in Zimbabwe, or from foreign charities.

It is the foreign charities he has the least amount of love for, expressing what today amounts to less heresy than in decades past, namely that the best aid one could give to Africa would be to stop foreign aid entirely. Only then, he argues, might Africans in the poorest countries take matters into their own hands. Or perhaps not. But why then should they continue to be supported?

Because nothing, in Theroux’s experience, has changed, or if it has, then for the worse. Having worked in Malawi and Uganda as a peace corps volunteer in the 1960s, he can see the difference first-hand, and it gives no rise to hope that anything has improved in the last forty years. Quite on the contrary, he only sees decay. It is quite telling that he views the one country we've all heard so many horrors about, Zimbabwe, as one of the more hopeful African stories, because its people are mostly helping themselves. He calls Harare the most pleasant African city he had seen until then, enjoying good meals for a change, encountering well-educated and hardworking people.  In many other countries the horrors of war and dictatorship are gone, but there seems to be no ambition to build livelihoods. It's almost as if there is more energy for fighting than for living in peace. Granted, Dark Star Safari was written ten years ago and since then things have changed - most notably Zimbabwe's decline after hyperinflation and a disastrous election - but I’ve seen enough of these places to know that even today Theroux’s assessment is highly accurate.

And yet Dark Star Safari is not a depressing read at all. I quite enjoyed (with not a small amount of envy!) following the route from Cairo through Sudan, Ethopia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Malawi, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe, my excitement progressively mounting the closer we got to his final stop and my home of three years, South Africa. Not only do you get to experience each pace so vividly you could swear you’d been there yourself, but you also come away with an extensive reading list to start a small library of its own, making this a rewarding literary excursion as well.

It’s funny, I don’t actually like travel literature all that much. I don’t really like to read up on a country before I go, much preferring to go and see and only later put it into context by reading more about it. The word “travel” is what actually kept me from reading Dark Star Safari much earlier. But how wrong I was. This is exactly the type of book I love to read. And, for that matter, aspire to write one day.

I particularly like his tales of going through actual border posts – the only way one can really grasp Africa, in his opinion – and all variations of train travel. Like this observation:  “Apart from the departure time, there was no timetable. No one knew when we were expected to arrive in Dire Dawa. ‘Tomorrow,’ the best guess, was all right with me.”

This is where the traveler new to Africa will expose himself. He will be totally stumped by such an imprecise answer and go to great lengths to extract a better one from whoever is willing to listen, usually to no avail. It’s like asking “when will the power come back on” when the lights just went out in your house in Dainfern (even though I am by no means equating the “hardship” of life in Dainfern with the hardship of Paul Theroux’s travels). You are much better off just going to bed instead of wasting your energy in pursuit of more information. But only living and traveling in Africa will teach you this – is it patience? I like to think so. But others might view it as indifference or a lack of ambition.

I imagine Paul Theroux came across very similar sights when traveling in Africa. This
picture was taken in Zanzibar (but we did not ride in that bus). 

Theroux embarks on his quest to travel by road – be it in a cattle truck, a train, a minibus, a dugout canoe, or whatever means available other than flying – from Cairo to Cape Town with this general idea: “…the image I carried with me on my trip was of a burned-out wilderness, empty of significant life, having no promise. I was in a land of despair, full of predators, tumbling down the side of a dark star.” Hence the name of the book, though he continues to allude to the dark star analogy throughout the story, like when he describes Africa as the anti-Europe, the anti-West, liking it precisely because “there was nothing of home here. Being in Africa was like being on a dark star.” And then “I was not dismayed. The traveler’s conceit is that he is heading into the unknown. The best travel is a leap in the dark. If the destination were familiar and friendly, what would be the point of going there?”

I love this last observation. It is the exact opposite of what I suspect  most Western tourists will tell you about their upcoming trip, yet rings very true to me. My motto, after three years in Africa, has often been “the crappier the experience, the better the story.” Or what a reviewer at the New York Book Review calls “the humor of ill humor.” I realize that not all tourists are after a good story, at least not more than they are after relaxation and luxury, but as a writer you know that you have to almost go looking for trouble if you want to experience anything worth putting to paper.

Paul Theroux certainly knows this.  As one acquaintance he makes along the way observes: “You’re going to Nairobi by road? Well, of course you are. Flying there would be too simple for you. It’ll take a week or more. You’ll have a terrible time. You’ll have some great stuff for your book.”

Great stuff indeed.

August 16, 2013

Three Easy Steps for Quickly Settling in Johannesburg

The following is a guest post by Barbara Bruhwiler.

Baby steps. Teeny tiny baby steps. That’s what they always recommend in self-help books. “As long as you move in the right direction, it doesn't matter how fast you move” is one of the mantras in this field.

Well, when you move abroad, things are a bit different. While baby steps are not completely wrong, giant leaps are much better. Because according to international research on expats, the faster one settles into the foreign place, the better.

Why, you may ask. Why do I have to hurry instead of taking my time?

I believe it has to do with our feelings. Before we are settled into our new life, we are in limbo, we haven’t arrived yet. Homesickness, frustration, sadness, even desperation are the feelings that go with this place, and they leave us drained of energy. But when we feel settled in, we experience excitement, interest and pleasure – feelings that lift us up and give us power.

Settling in: Not only the act of getting past THIS, but also a mindset.

Which means exactly one thing: the sooner you get results, the sooner and the more often you feel excited about your international transfer, the happier you are, and the more energy you have for the next steps. You’ll find yourself in a positive, uplifting cycle.

Now what can you do to settle quickly in Johannesburg?

I recommend 3 essential steps:

The first step is to get the best and most comprehensive information available about Johannesburg.
And get it as early as possible. You will need time to study the documentation and mull over what is applicable for you and what steps to take. You will be able to make plans about what to take with you and what to leave behind, what to buy, and where to turn to for organising everything you will need in Johannesburg.
What kind of information do fellow expats feel is important? South Africa’s shipping restrictions, for instance; how to set up utilities; where to find computer tech support or local handyman services; connections to social groups of people; where to go for medical treatments; lists of speciality shops and how to find them; South Africa’s history and culture; and so on.

The second step is actually using this information.
Huh, you may say, what else am I supposed to do with it? Well, what do most people do with their self-help books? Read a few pages, then put them away and slowly let them sink to the bottom of their pile of reading material. 
Only this will not help you with moving to Johannesburg. You have to study and use the information you get, to be prepared before you move. And learn what you will need for your assignment in Johannesburg to work. Because research has shown that those who use the support they receive are more settled and feel happier.
This is especially important for singles who find it generally more difficult to settle in their host city or country. A fact that is easy to understand, considering that they can’t count on a partner who takes care of at least half of the settling in tasks.

The third step is doing the right things first.
The thing is, when you finally arrive in Johannesburg, there will be a lot of work waiting for you. Your fridge will be empty (and unplugged), you won’t be able to go anywhere in Joburg before you have a car, your home will have to be connected to electricity and water, and so on. There will be a to-do-list for you, that’s for sure, and a long one, too.

From chaos to serenity: For some expats, this will feel like having settled.

Interestingly enough, researchers found that certain tasks should be your first priority. Because if you tackle these quickly you will settle in more quickly.
Start with these tasks:
Buy basic food staples, prepare a meal, and arrange your kitchen. Fill in and complete all your documents.
Then unpack your pictures and display family photos, before unpacking all of your boxes. *
After this, explore your environment to meet at least one new neighbour and to find a place to pursue your favourite leisure activity (sports, music, etc.), a medical provider for your family and a place to worship.
And finally it is time to start a social life again, by inviting local friends, co-workers or neighbours to your home, having family or friends from home visiting you, and celebrating a holiday in your new home. 

Good luck, and I hope you have a great time in Joburg!

* Note by editor: Somewhere between unpacking the first boxes and hanging up pictures, you absolutely, positively, have to go on a safari. Nothing will make you fall in love with South Africa as much as being in the bush, and preferably being pampered in the bush, while seeing the most amazing animals. And it will help put the daunting to-do list still awaiting you in perspective, giving you new energy to tackle it.

Barbara Bruhwiler lives in Johannesburg with her husband and two children. She is an internationally successful author of five books. One of them is the Guide to Johannesburg, a handy reference guide full of practical, useful information and advice for expats moving to or living in Johannesburg.

August 13, 2013

Welcome to Af-merica

Before I strangle someone, can I just say it out loud?

I hate hate hate Comcast!

Okay, now I feel a little better. But now I also realize that I'm not being fair. As many of you know, by virtue of extensive documentation on this blog, my object of intense dislike while living in South Africa was Eskom, the power company. They were inefficient, their billing system was terrible, they would charge you for their own mistakes, and you'd battle with them for years to get your money back. All that in addition to fairly frequent power outages, although those can't be blamed on Eskom alone.

And yet I did not hate Eskom. How could I hate an institution that gave me such wonderful writing material day-in day-out, never lacking the absurdly comical? It was a great Welcome to Africa showcase.

Which is why I've decided I owe Comcast the same treatment. They did give me great writing material yesterday. Which of course I didn't have time to write about yesterday, seeing as Comcast was keeping me busy all day.

The story pretty much started when we moved here. Comcast more or less has a monopoly in the Nashville area, if you want cable. Their package sounds great - phone, internet and cable TV, all in one package, with up to four cable boxes throughout the house.

They came in what in all fairness I can only call very un-African promptness (although leaving behind a jumble of cables that would have made any African installer proud) and installed everything. Well, almost everything. They were short two cable boxes and would have to come back. Which they did, the week after. So far so good.

Interesting wiring in our basement

But then what appeared on our invoice? Not just one $30 "installation charge" which, it was advertised, should have been part of the package, but two of them. Because there had been two installation trips of course. I have not been able to get that reversed yet. Neither have we received the $250 debit card which was also advertised together with the promotion. Which sounds great in theory but doesn't get you very far, even if you do receive it, considering the astronomical prices American cable and internet providers charge these days. If I add up what we paid for our Afrihost uncapped internet, our monthly Multichoice cable bill, and our Telkom phone line, South Africa actually comes out cheaper. Even though the kids had to watch Good Luck Charlie from three seasons back.

I could have handled all of that, if the internet had been as good as promised. After all, we were moving from the darkest corner of the world with a 2 mbps download speed on a good day to what I had come to think of as Internet Nirwana. Which it was, for about 2 hours right up until the first speed test. But then it got really slow. And not only that, it began to drop at random times of the day, necessitating a trip to the basement to reset the modem and router. But sometimes even that wouldn't do the trick, and I'd have to call support.

So over the last few months I've become quite familiar with Comcast technical support. I call them regularly, sometimes almost every day. And I've started to write down their reference numbers. Reference numbers, people! That's what it has come to. Just like with Eskom.

And just like with Eskom, you never know who you're going to get on the Comcast tech support line. A few weeks back I lucked out and got a guy who thought maybe our cable modem's wifi capabilities interfered with our wifi router (which we need to get a decent signal). That made a lot of sense, and he turned off the modem's wifi capabilities by setting it to "bridge mode." Except then the internet still kept dropping at regular intervals prompting more technical support calls which revealed that the bridge mode was disabled every time Comcast updated something on their system.

Finally having had enough of this - even though it meant sacrificing my first full day of freedom aka the kids' first day of school - I packed up the modem and drove to the Comcast service center. Which is a tiny hole in the wall crammed full of people waiting in line, without even any chairs to sit on. Mental note, and another lesson from Africa: bring Kindle next time!

Comcast "sevice center"

So I finally got my turn, took a stab at all the billing issues ("Oh no, I can't help you with those, you're going to have to call accounting for that, I can give you a number...") and exchanged the modem for one that doesn't have any wifi, so that it can't interfere.

"Let me check you account... I see, you have phone service through us too, I'll have to give you a modem with phone capabilities," says he. "Just call this number to activate it after you've plugged it in, and you'll be all set."

Got home, plugged it in, activated it, no internet. Called tech support again, had them reset the modem, unplugged and restarted the router several times, and finally had the internet back. Picked up phone to get on with the rest of my to-do list that day. No dial tone. Called tech support again from my cellphone, got "I can't help you with that, that'll be our phone division" and was put on hold. Finally got the phone people on line, had them remotely reset my modem once more, had to unplug and restart the router because now the internet had been knocked out again, got the internet working again, but still no dial tone on the phone. "Let me check your modem; what's your serial number"? Minutes later after hunting down my reading glasses because I can no longer read such tiny numbers and clambering back down into the basement armed with flashlight and reading glasses, it was established that "your modem does not have any phone capabilities; you need to get another one."

I am now promised an in-home tech support visit to deliver a new modem. Someone is going to call me to schedule an appointment. I'm sure it's going to be "just now."

And I'm sure it will make another $30 appear on our bill.

Welcome to Af-merica.

By the way, what we thought was unlimited internet actually does have a cap, it turns out. It's just a bit embarrassing to admit that we found this out because we reached our 300 gigabyte limit in July. We need to get a life!

August 1, 2013

Unsuitable Home

Moving to Johannesburg anytime soon? If you are, you are probably looking for a house. This can be more difficult than you think.

When Noisette and I, the accompanying spouse – who later became the Glamorous ExpatWife -  had gone all the way to South Africa on a house-hunting boondoggle one September some years ago, and looked at a bazillion homes, one more beautiful and bigger than the other, we settled on our first choice after much hand ringing and hemming and hawing. A letter of intent was signed, earnest money changed hands, and plans were made. However, and this is a note of caution to you prospective expats out there: South African sellers and landlords are prone to change their minds. In our case, it transpired that the house so beautifully suited to our needs, or so we thought, was no longer going to be leased, because the wife, who had somehow not actually been informed by her own husband of the pending plans to rent out her house, was up in arms about it and then decided she’d rather sell it. Maybe we should have known not to go with the house with the two yapping poodles at the front gate. Over the three years that we lived in that same neighborhood, the house was never sold nor leased, as evidenced by the poodles remaining firmly in place. But it was shown to potential buyers as well as renters all the same, as we learned from friends of ours who were looking to buy a house.

So, back to square one before our relocation, a second house was looked at, this time by Noisette solo because no one was flying the spouse over there a second time, glamorous or otherwise, and another letter of intent was signed, after much emailing back and forth so that I could at least see a ton of pictures to help make a decision. It was another lovely house. Alas, its owners also didn’t feel compelled to stick too literally to the “intent” part of the letter, and so this home slipped through our hands as well.

We ended up with the third house. Which, frankly, I never actually looked at, because by that time I had resigned myself to probably living in a tent somewhere upon arrival. That prospect seemed preferably to wasting any more time on houses that wouldn’t work out anyway. Noisette quietly looked at it, signed a lease, and the first time I set eyes on Number Three was when I stepped over its threshold a few months later, exhausted kids in tow (who immediately proceeded to fight over who would get which room).

And perhaps it was a good thing. It was the perfect house for us. Not one to fall in love with at first sight, but the only one within walking distance of the school, which turned out to be a huge bonus, and also the only North-facing one, which, in the Southern hemisphere with no heat and bad insulation is a must during winter. So you see, this all helped us make a more rational decision rather than me picking the prettiest kitchen.

To find out what else might be important in choosing the right home in Johannesburg, read the following guest post by Barbara Bruhwiler.

An Unsuitable Home
by Barbara Bruhwiler

Some people are car people. They spend most of their money on cars. Some people are clothes people. Do you remember the Sex and the City episode where Carry Bradshaw muses about where the money from her bestselling books disappeared to? And her friend points out that it ended up in her shoe closet – and in Manolo Blahnik’s account. Carry is clearly a clothes type.

Then there are house people who like to spend their money on houses. But even if you are not a house type of person – if you pick an unsuitable home in Johannesburg, your whole expat experience can turn sour.

"The Balinese". Photo by Barbara Bruhwiler

When you’re abroad, your house or apartment is even more important for you and your family than in your home country. It may feel like the only refuge you have in this strange and foreign place that is Johannesburg. And a gain in a beautiful home you feel comfortable in can make up for the losses you may have to suffer, like leaving family and friends behind.

How do you make sure you don’t choose an unsuitable house, but a home you will like?

Location, location, location

First of all, listen to what estate agents say, and one of their mantras is ‘location, location, location’. That’s true for people who want to buy a house and stay there for the rest of their lives, but it’s just as much true for us expats. In one study, over 80% of the expats who stated they would not choose their house again, mentioned they didn't like its location.

In Johannesburg, look out for a neighbourhood that is convenient for your daily commuting to work or school, because traffic can be a nightmare in this city, and also make sure that it is in an area you feel comfortable in.

Look out for shopping, leisure activities and nightlife. If the things you like to do are too far away, you may end up making too many compromises.

What to look for

Cape Dutch? French? Balinese? Tuscan? In a city like Johannesburg where we are spoilt for choice when it comes to different house styles, the following little exercise is particularly effective: Think about the home you most loved living in. What did it feel like? What did you love about it?

"The Faux Tuscan". Photo by Barbara Bruhwiler
"The Silver Baron". Photo by Barbara Bruhwiler

Studies show that expats who loved their home and would choose the same house again reported that their current home was similar to their favourite one. And not only were these expatriates happier in their new home, but they were also more satisfied with their expat experience overall and felt more settled; they were in better mental health, were more loyal to their employer, and so on.

But what are you supposed to do if you and your partner have different views about what to look out for? What if you want modern clean lines and your partner raves about old fashioned French country kitchens with painted tiles (which are surprisingly easy to find in Joburg)?

Well, in this case, you have to ask one more question: Who in the family is spending the most hours at home?

In an expat family, in most cases there will be an accompanying spouse. And she (yes, in most cases it is a she) will be the one who decorates your place and makes it a home. Let her have the ultimate say on which house you should rent.

"Bush Safari". Photo by Barbara Bruhwiler

Is big beautiful?

In Johannesburg, most expats find themselves in the wonderful position of being able to afford a bigger home than they had before. And some foreigners receive such a generous allowance that they can go totally over board. There are houses on the rental market that not only fit the description of a mansion, but even have palatial dimensions. And as it makes sense to employ domestic workers in this country with its high unemployment rate you can make sure, at an affordable price, that you are not the one who has to scrub these long flight of stairs.

So if you always dreamt of living like Scarlett O’Hara, here is your chance to make your dreams come true.

"Gone With The Wind." Photo by Barbara Bruhwiler

Just consider one thing: an international study found that those expat families who were happiest lived in a house that let them often and easily communicate with each other. A bigger home may have the negative side-effect of family members spending more time alone in separate rooms, far away from each other. 

Now that you know that your home is such an important factor in your overall well-being as an expat in Johannesburg, make sure you choose wisely. But do not be discouraged - there is such a great choice of different homes available in Joburg that you will find the perfect one for you and your family.

Good luck!

Barbara Bruhwiler lives in Johannesburg with her husband and two children. She is an internationally successful author of five books. One of them is the Guide to Johannesburg, a handy reference guide full of practical, useful information and advice for expats moving to or living in Johannesburg.