Joburg Expat: August 2014

August 26, 2014

I Can't Find a Spot for My Child at a South African School

You know that I'm a big advocate for South African schools. Here and here and here are just some examples of why I think sending our children to Dainfern College versus the American International School was absolutely the right decision.

However, just as my readers are starting to be convinced by those arguments and are inquiring at South African private schools for spots for their children, those schools are telling them more and more often that there is no space, and that the waiting list for a particular class is already 25 deep.

It seems there is an extreme shortage of private school spots in Johannesburg. I don't know how Cape Town fares in comparison. If you have a choice between those two cities, the school situation might be an important factor to consider. 

The good news is, this problem is not present at all grade levels. Anything from Grade Four upwards is not typically a problem, and especially high school (grades 8-12) is easy to get into. There are many more high schools than elementary schools, and because many South Africans send their children to a boarding school for high school, these spaces open up at the regular high schools so that they are quite happy to take on  new students. Even if you have, say, a 2nd grader with siblings in grade Four and Seven, then most likely the school will accommodate the 2nd grader because they like to fill the higher grades. However, if your oldest or only child is anywhere from grades 0-3, then most likely you will find it extremely difficult to secure a spot for them.

Even if you've decided to send your kids to the American International School, you might face the same problem. American nationals have preference, but from what I've heard the space there is limited as well, so don't assume that just because you're Americans that your children are automatically admitted. 

If you are currently in the process of thinking about an assignment in South Africa, you need to address the school question right away, before you do anything else. Make a list of schools, and contact them as soon as you can to see if they have space. The earlier you can enroll your child, or at least put him or her on the waitlist, the better your chance of securing a spot. 

I'm sorry that I don't have better news. I just wanted to make sure you understand how important it is to find a school in Johannesburg before you do anything else.

August 20, 2014

Mt. Kili Madness

Next month, September, will mark my 2-year anniversary of having reached the summit of Kilimanjaro.

It will also be the 2-year anniversary of handing over the reins of Alexandra Baseball to my wonderful successors, the Irwin family, after I found out my own family was relocating to the United States.

Just like climbing Kili, being involved with a sports team in one of the most impoverished townships in South Africa is incredibly difficult and rewarding at the same time. In both cases progress is very slow. You take one step at a time. Often the route is not direct and you find yourself circling the summit instead. I'm thinking here of the time we wanted to start having league teams playing on our home field in Alexandra, so as to cut down on travel costs as well as building a better community in the league, but running into trouble when the grass was too long. While the township had a lawnmower, there was no petrol. If we wanted the grass mowed and a playable field, we had to go find our own petrol, as well as some spare parts and a driver. What should have been an easy path became obstructed and circuitous, but pole pole, slowly and one step at a time, we got there in the end. And seeing the joy and pride on the kids' faces for showing off their skill on their own home turf was reward enough.

Kind of like watching the sunrise at Stella Point.

Both Kilimanjaro and Alexandra have played a large role in my life. Wouldn't it be great to bring those two passions of mine together in one exciting cause?



Enter Mt. Kili Madness *. It involves a climb of Mount Kilimanjaro, and it involves township kids playing a sport. In fact, the sport will be played ON Mount Kilimanjaro, which is totally awesome. Though in this case it won't be baseball that's being played, but rather cricket, its close cousin.

If you're now pulling a face and telling me that you hate cricket (as those who don't actually know it are often wont to do), let me remind you that I used to be one of those cricket doubters but have since come around, mainly by watching my own son play it while in South Africa and learning to understand the game.

So next month, on September 20th, a very special expedition will set forth, along the Machame Route which I took, to conquer the summit of Kili, like so many others have done. But they will also set forth to accomplish something no other has done before: two teams will play the highest cricket match ever right up there in the crater. The previous world record for a cricket match at high altitude was set in 2009 at Everest Base Camp, and this one will be 600 meters higher.

I can't imagine a more glorious sight. It is bound to be a spectacular undertaking, but I also know how hard it will be.

Part of this group, which includes South African cricket legend Makhaya Ntini as well as some high-profile England players, will be two boys from the Alexandra Township Chiefs Cricket Club. As you can imagine, they'll need some support to help with equipment, travel expenses, vaccines, visas, and more. It is their dream to scale the heights of Kili and enter their name in the record books, but they are also striving for something bigger - being ambassadors for their community, campaigning against violence, and finding their place in the world.

You can become a sponsor of this dream for as little as $1, or maybe you have a company which you'd like to involve in a community outreach opportunity.


I have taken many pictures of exactly the same scene, except with baseball players in
the foreground. That's because the Chiefs and Alexandra Baseball share the same field.

Alexandra Township Chiefs vs Ambassadors from India, June 3, 2014.
(the Chiefs won the match by 10 runs)

Mural of Nelson Mandela House in Alexandra Township. Johannesburg is a
wonderful showcase of murals and graffiti, and Nelson Mandela features in many!

Raymond Lebokana, Captain of Alexandra Township Chiefs,
with Vikram Dayal, Captain of Ambassadors of Cricket

I know how scaling a mountain can help you fulfill your dreams. I always wanted to write a book but never quite got around to "just doing it," until I climbed Kilimanjaro. Going about it one step at a time until I stood on the top and accomplished the seemingly impossible spurred me on to do exactly the same as a writer. It helped in my case that the climb itself provided the story for Kilimanjaro Diaries, but it can help in many other ways too.

I'm so excited for those two boys and the entire expedition of Mt. Kili Madness. Check out their website here, and please help spread the word in your social network, so that this dream can get a boost. Every little bit helps, one step at a time.

Pole pole.

Skeen Primary School, winners of the Alexandra Township Junior LMS League.
It's pictures like this that make me want to write about Alexandra again and again -
so full of hope and  joy, so much potential, and yet so much to overcome.


* All photos courtesy of Aliya Bauer and/or the Alexandra Township Chiefs

August 15, 2014

Your Child Will Need to Bring 48 Pencils

I can't tell you how happy I am that the kids are finally back in school. So far, they actually seem to be happy too. It's perfect bliss all around.

However, it didn't come without a price to pay, and that was back-to-school shopping.

Now I know that some mothers LOVE to go back to school shopping with their daughters, but I am not one of them. Maybe because I grew up in a place where the term back to school shopping isn't even part of the language. Or maybe I'm just a mean mom (more likely). In any case, I hate it.

By the way, this isn't about clothes. I could actually be talked into going clothes shopping. No, this is about school supplies. Which we already have overflowing drawers full of, but each year we seem to need more. We need, of course, exactly what the school supply list says we do. We also need matching binders and color-coded folders to go with those binders. And last year's binders absolutely won't do, because they are an inch and a half wide instead of an inch. Or vice versa.

You would think that I'd just order the supply pack from the PTO that comes in a tidy cardboard box, delivered to your classroom, and be done with it. No shopping necessary, you get everything in it that you need. But while I hate supply shopping, I'm also kind of cheap. Those supply packs always have way too much of everything in them. And things you don't have to buy new every year, like scissors. Although our family has a history of having them confiscated at airport security, so scissors we might in fact be in the market for again. What we do have lots and lots of is loose leaf paper - the boys are too lazy to take notes and can make do with about 25 sheets per year, it seems - and hundreds of pencils.


It is the pencils that send me over the edge this year. 48 Pencils, says Sunshine's list. Excuse me, 48? Per child? You could outfit a whole township school in South Africa with 48 pencils.  How in the world could one person possibly write so much as to need 48 pencils in 180 days?And then the girls enlighten me. The boys sit there and break them in half by bending them across their foreheads, they tell me. And they'll compete with each other as to how many they can break at a time. There you go, that makes perfect sense. One can see how you get through 48 pencils pretty quickly that way.

So as to avoid overpaying for a box with 48 pencils in it, my plan is to buy our own supplies sometime this summer. Of course "sometime this summer" to me means something else entirely than to the girls. In my mind it means the first week of August right before the start of school. To the girls it means the first week of June, right at the start of summer, which is when the nagging starts. When are we going to go back to school shopping? And, We absolutely have to go back to school shopping this week, Mom!!! 

We finally go supply shopping, just so the nagging stops. (This makes me reflect on the fact that nagging, in fact, DOES work, and I keep a mental note of it.) We go to Target. Target has o.k. binders and they are cheap, and Target has a whole lot of other stuff, but the locker shelves they have are all wrong. Too narrow and not high enough and Mom, the books aren't going to fit under it, no way. I am not surprised. Scoring all the supplies in one single shopping trip would have been a miracle akin to Jesus Walking On Water, and so I voluntarily head over to Office Max with them. I hand them $20 and drop them off at the door, and I go get a Grande Latte at Starbucks in the meantime, congratulating myself on the way I handled that. The locker shelf from Office Max is indeed perfect, and all is well.

Except then school starts. And Teacher X hands a supply list to the 8th grade kids that is nothing like what was on the pre-summer-break supply list. And Impatience comes home after the first day of school greeting me with We have to go get more school supplies NOW. I know from experience that it is better to go NOW NOW NOW than to argue. I'm not going to bore you with the details of our second shopping trip, because no sane person will understand how I possibly put up with all of that, but let me tell you we went to three (3!) stores to come up with the perfect 10-tab dividers for Impatience, who that day ensured that she'll be stuck with that blog name for another year at least. Not 8-tab dividers, not a combination of 2 5-tab dividers either, the (so I thought) smart suggestion by her brother earning withering looks, not the one single set of 10-tab dividers we finally dug out from under a disorderly strewn about pile left by the masses of previous shoppers, because They don't look nice, Mom. What we did find in those three stores is plenty more binders that were so much nicer and sturdier than the cheap Target ones, and I let myself be talked into getting those instead.

I skip the latte that day when we get home and go straight for the wine, over which I contemplate that I'm now left with a trunk full of binders to be returned to various stores, as well as a new list of supplies for the boys who are Very sorry we didn't tell you this yesterday.

Over dinner, I fill in Noisette about my shopping odyssey (he always loves to hear where all his money is going). I talk about how shopping early backfires, as evidenced by the wrong supply list, but how shopping late is also bad, because you compete with a bazillion other last-minute shoppers over an ever-dwindling stash of supplies. I talk about the good old days in South Africa and how they didn't give us such bothersome lists there, and instead let the kids bring whatever they felt they needed, so that you didn't end up buying a pack with way too much in it. But it turns out I'm totally deluded.

That's not true mom, chimes in Jabulani. They had those supply packs there as well.

Oh, but those were only for the disadvantaged children, weren't they, says Noisette.

No, they were for everybody, says Jabulani. Mom just never bought those for us because she didn't want to spend the money. WE were the disadvantaged children!

August 8, 2014

Cold Winters, Gas Heaters, and Americans Freezing in the Dark

We're well into August and American kids are about to return to the classroom while it's still 95 degrees outside (that's hot, even for Fahrenheit), while my friends in Johannesburg are breathing a collective sigh of relief because the mercury is finally inching up again. The coldest months of June and July are finally over. Spring is almost in the air in South Africa.

Winters on the Highveld are cold. Not as cold as our Tennessee winters, to be sure. In fact, most people in other parts of the world would kill for a summer that was like a Joburg winter. Cold nights yes, but lovely dry and sunny days, warm but not hot. 

The problem, however, are those cold nights. And the fact that no South African house has any central heating. Nor does it have any double-paned windows or other insulation to speak of. There are gaps around your window frames and slits under your doors so wide that a small warthog could squeeze through. From the minute the sun goes down in the late afternoon until about 7:30 in the morning when it has reliably climbed over the horizon again without so much as a cloud in the sky to obscure it, you'll try everything to stay warm. You'll fire up the gas heater and nudge it ever so gently in your direction and away from your spouse, hoping he won't notice that the heat is now going elsewhere. While you're making a mental note that it's high time to order a new gas bottle, unless you've left it until too late and they are sold out everywhere. You'll make yourself the third cup of hot Rooibos tea in an effort to warm up from the inside. You'll busy yourself longer in the kitchen than strictly necessary and perhaps even get out the Christmas cookie recipes, just for an excuse to turn on the oven. But despite of all this you'll be shivering so badly by 8:30 pm that you'll give up and go to bed, where you'll huddle so close to your spouse that you're reminded of the days you were newly-weds. Or perhaps you've invested in an electric blanket and are happy as can be, watching TV shows that ran in the U.S. two seasons ago, except your only problem is that your fingers are freezing while channel flipping with the remote control. Though most likely you won't suffer long because the electricity will go off any minute, due to the strain on the power grid caused by all those electric blankets, and of course Medupi and Kusile (the two new power plants having been under construction for, oh, the last twenty years) still not having come online. All you can do is go to sleep really early, which is just as well because the infamous Hadedas will wake you up with their blood-curdling screech at 4:30, summer and winter alike. By the time the sun finally rises again, you'll be ready to worship it by sacrificing a small goat.

In short, you might very well be freezing in the dark during a typical Johannesburg winter.

The most welcome sight on a freezing Johannesburg winter morning

Which is the fate that apparently awaits us Americans here as well, if you are to believe the gloomy forecasts made by some people who reacted with outrage to President Obama's new emissions reduction goals for the year 2030. Climate change isn't really real, they say, and besides, even if it were, it's not worth doing anything about it if it means we'll be freezing in the dark.

It seems to me, with the United States using 25% of the world's energy (and having only something like 5% of its population) there is a long way to go before we ever freeze in the dark. We use so much energy it's ridiculous. We are energy hogs. That's because our energy, by and large, is very cheap. Yes, cheap. We still fill up our cars for less than half the price the rest of the world pays at the pump. We - and by that I mean mainly my oldest son - take half-hour hot showers because it doesn't cost that much at all. We not only expect access to electricity anywhere we go, we get upset if free Wifi doesn't come right with it, served straight up on a silver platter, password included, thank you very much.

I don't think anyone here is at risk of freezing in the dark anytime soon. You know where you're much more likely to freeze in the U.S.? In a typical shopping mall in the summer, where the air conditioning never fails to be set in arctic regions. 

When I am done with my shopping here in America, I so worship the lovely sunshine afterwards that I could sacrifice an entire bull.