Joburg Expat: 2017

May 8, 2017

How to Survive Your First Few Months as an Expat in South Africa, Part II

If you enjoyed last week's post by Phil Maloney -  who blogs at A Canadian in South Africa - then you might enjoy some more of his tips in Part II of his advice column for new expats in South Africa.

...You’ve just arrived in South Africa, and you’re filled with bright-eyed wonder. You’re adorable. If you’re managing to read this, great news: you managed to find an internet connection. That’s your first win. Now what?



5. Explore.


I promise you one thing: after a night of indulging in burritos and beer, it may seem like a good idea to pass gas in a hot, relaxing shower, but it’s not. Something about the way the smell sticks to the steam and then attacks your olfactory system is truly horrific. That has nothing to do with this post, but it seemed like good advice anyway, and I have nowhere else to put it. So I promise you TWO things: farting in hot showers is a terrible, terrible idea, and you’ll find more to do in South Africa than you ever thought imaginable.

Just imagine this in a hot shower.

You could do no greater disservice to yourself and your family to stay at home and within the confines of your safe neighbourhood. There are beaches, wildlife, amusement parks, museums, scenic drives, and countless other mind-blowing activities all within driving distance of wherever you happen to live in South Africa. Get out there as often as you can.

6. Get Good at Waiting


I’m not going to beat around the bush here. If you have ANY type A tendencies whatsoever, if you like things to run on time, and if you have any affinity for efficiency, you’re going to get very, very angry here. At least to start. Nothing here runs smoothly. I’m not exaggerating. Once in a while, despite South Africans’ best efforts, everything may fall into place and something will take exactly as long as it should. But that’s the exception, not the rule. [Editor's note: This is where a discussion about Just Now vs Now Now might be in order.]

Everything here runs on South African time, which is really rather fluid. Something that should take 30 minutes may take exactly 30 minutes. Or several hours. Or days/weeks/months. If you try to make South Africa fit YOUR expectations, you’re in for a world of hurt. Things don’t run efficiently here, and you need to get used to it. In fact, toss out that previous sentence, because I’m doing exactly what I said not to do at the beginning of this list. Efficient is a relative term. Things run South Africanly here, and people just accept it. You will too.

Even the traffic is brutal here.

I’ve learned to bring a book everywhere I go. It helps numb the pain a little. Just be careful to double check the queue you’ve hopped into is actually the right queue for what you need. Or, for that matter, that it’s a queue for anything at all. Waiting in line has become so ingrained into South African culture that there will be long lines that exist solely because somebody decided to stop behind somebody else that was stationary for whatever reason, and BOOM. Next thing you know, a queue forms. There’s nothing more frustrating than waiting for 1-3 hours in a line and then discovering you were in the wrong one. Not that I know from experience or anything…

7. Try New Things


Let’s be honest here. You didn’t decide to become an expat because you have zero sense of adventure. So make the most of it. If somebody puts a hunk of giraffe on your plate, chow down (unless you’re a vegetarian, in which case, you’re going to be incredibly unpopular at social gatherings here). If you’re offered a chunk of lamb innards wrapped in its own stomach lining, go for it (it’s surprisingly good). You’re not here to continue about your life the way you lived back home. Zip line over crocodiles. Put impala poop in your mouth and see how far you can spit it (I’m not even making that one up). Milk an elephant (OK, maybe I made that one up).

Actually, just fire your kids over the crocodiles. You can always make more.

You get my point. Live a little. Because before you know it, you’ll be off to your next assignment and you’ll truly regret not riding that crocodile when you had the chance.

8. Eat, Drink, and be Lekker.


After waiting in queues, South Africans’ favourite thing to do is braai, which is pretty much just like a BBQ turned up to 11. Remember when I said you’d be unpopular at parties if you’re a vegetarian? You should. It was literally one paragraph ago. Anyway, that’s because they serve meat as an appetizer here. Then the main course is meat. And they top it off with meat as a dessert. And in between each course is more meat. If you’ve never been fortunate enough to have an entire barnyard perish in your belly all at once, well, you’re in luck!

If you’re at a proper braai, they’ll cook with wood. One reason is the smoke gives the meat a flavour like you’ve never experienced in your life. The closest thing I can compare it to is an angel standing in your mouth, pissing all over your tonsils. You know what I mean. But from what I can determine, the primary reason they cook over wood is that it takes a long time. And that time is devoted to drinking insane amounts of alcohol. So when you inevitably get invited to your first braai, make sure you take an Uber. Cause you’ll be in no shape to drive home.

You’ll often hear people describe something as lekker, which is pretty much a catch all phrase that describes something good. Once you’ve hosted a braai for South Africans and they say they had a lekker time, you know you’ve arrived.

8. Breathe.


When you first get to South Africa, you’re probably going to be excited, nervous, and out of your element. That’s normal. Things are insane here. Taxi drivers will actively try to run you off the road on a daily basis. Everything can kill you (snakes, hippos, lions, spiders, people, mosquitos, bad nachos, etc). But you know what? Chances are very likely that nothing bad will happen. Your frustration tolerance will be tested. You’ll hit a wall where you’re done with everything and just want to go back home (I hit my breaking about 4 months in).

Remember to breathe. Watch a sunset. Think about why you came here in the first place. I’ve never experienced such raw beauty, such stunning nature, such friendly people, and such vibrant cultures in my life. Sometimes it helps to take a step back and appreciate that while this may not be home, it’s home for now.

And know this: Once South Africa gets into your blood, you’re done for, because you’ll never want to leave.



Thanks so much to Phil for the helpful tips disguised in his trademark humor. We look forward to hearing from you again! In the meantime, if you're an expat in South Africa with a story to tell, contact me here or on the Joburg Expat Facebook page.


"Phil is very clever, handsome, and talented. He is very good at colouring and picking out fancy cheese. He smells good at least 64% of the time." -Phil's mom

Phil has been many things- a musician, a university English instructor, a picker upper of dead bodies, and a sales guy. He moved his family from Vancouver, Canada to Pretoria, South Africa in September 2016 and is still wondering how that happened. Phil's blog is www.acanadianinsouthafrica.blogspot.com, and he agrees with everything his mom said. 

April 28, 2017

How to Survive Your First Few Months as an Expat in South Africa, Part I

Some of you may have already had the privilege of reading some of Phil Maloney's writing at A Canadian in South Africa, as I've posted links to some of his hilarious stories before. If not, visit his blog - but preferably AFTER you've read Phil's guest post here on Joburg Expat. 

It's another good one, full of useful advice for the future SA-bound expat. But more importantly, it'll make you laugh. And who can't use a good dose of that? 

Without further ado, I give you Phil Maloney, from A Canadian in South Africa:

So you’ve taken the plunge. Someone has convinced you that you’re special and talented. Your company could really use someone with your specific skillset at the branch in South Africa. And you bought it hook, line, and sinker. The reality is, you probably just pissed someone off at your home branch, and now you’re going to be someone else’s problem. Whatever the case may be, you’ve just arrived in South Africa, and you’re filled with bright-eyed wonder.

You’re adorable. If you’re managing to read this, great news: you managed to find an internet connection. That’s your first win. Now what?

While I don’t claim to be an expert by any means, I arrived in Pretoria from Vancouver, Canada in September 2016, and I have managed to discover a few things. I don’t mean tangible things. Any travel guide can point you to the best restaurants, the most thrilling amusement parks, and the sexiest statues (if sexy statues is your thing; I’m not here to judge). What I’m talking about is how to survive your first few months without wanting to off yourself in a spectacular fashion.


1. You’re not in Kansas Anymore. Act Like it.



I’ve been to Kansas. I know why you left.


But whether you’re from the US, Canada, Ireland, wherever, you have certain expectations. For instance, you might expect your internet to work. You might expect contractors to show up on time. Or at all. You might expect everything to function in South Africa the same as it did back home. Knock it off.

One of the absolute worst things you can do is to try to put South Africa into your home country’s box. Trust me. I tried. No matter how hard you scream, beg and plead, you’re not going to change the way South Africa works. You’ll have ideas about how things should be (stores should be open when people want to shop, hooking up cable/internet should be a one-step process, roads should be maintained- the list goes on and on), but in the end, your opinion doesn’t matter. Things will operate differently, and that’s ok.

The worst thing for your own mental health you can do (and the most obnoxious) is to try to make your new home your old home. Along those lines, don’t expect to find all the same brands and products here that you did back home. Instead, expect shopping to be an adventure. You’re not going to get groceries like you think you will. Get used to stopping at several stores to get everything on your list. And make sure you try the local stuff. While I do miss some comforts of home, the new food and household items more than compensate for what I thought I was going to miss.

My point here is, don’t compare here to there. You’re not there anymore. You’re here. And the sooner you act like, the happier you’ll be. [Editor's note: But, if you insist, here is a shopping list for stuff you should buy before moving to South Africa-)]

2. Make Friends with the Locals


No matter how adventurous expats claim to be, people crave familiarity. You’ve probably already made contact with some people from your home country in hopes of having a sense of belonging in South Africa. Look, I’m not saying DON’T do that. But don’t EXCLUSIVELY do that. You may think you have something in common with people just because you were born in the same general area. But a lot of people are terrible. I know if I ran into someone from Vancouver here, their incessant prattling on about hot yoga and the vegan diet they feed their dog would drive me bananas. I’ve met a boatload of South Africans who I’d much rather spend time with, and the bonus is they are a wealth of information and advice. Speaking of which…

3. Listen to Expats and Locals


Unless you speak fluent Afrikaans with no accent (not likely) or one of the other 10 official languages in South Africa (even less likely), people will know you’re a foreigner. And EVERYBODY here loves to give advice, from places to avoid and where to buy the best boerewors, to favourite vacation getaways. Pay attention! You don’t want to find yourself getting carjacked in your first week. Or worse yet, buying boerewors from the SECOND best butcher.

If several people tell you to stay out of certain areas, they might be on to something. You’ll have lots of time to make your own decisions as you go, but to start with, play it safe.

This is one of the best spots to stop and count your money.


There are also plenty of places to explore with your family, and you’ll hear all about them in the first few conversations with people you have here. Go wherever they tell you. Most of the areas will probably be pretty touristy, but that’s OK. They’re good places to start.

Other expats will remember when they first got here, and they generally want to make the most of their time in South Africa, so they’re pretty good resources when it comes to where to eat, visit, explore, etc. But also make sure you ask local South Africans where THEY like to go. Oftentimes, you’ll end up finding hole in the wall restaurants or day trips that you won’t find in any travel guide.

4. Don’t Listen to Expats and Locals.


Ignore everything I just said. OK, maybe not everything. For the first few months, definitely listen to what other people tell you. But you’ll soon get a sense of your surroundings. Once you’re a little more comfortable, start exploring. Do things you’ve been told not to. I’m not condoning running around Hillbrow naked at 2 AM with 200 rand notes wedged in your butt crack. But there ARE things to do in Hillbrow. Join a walking or photography tour. Be smart, but not paranoid. [Editor's note: Check out The Eight Best Johannesburg Sightseeing Tours for guidance.]

Also, people here will tell you to tip wait staff 10%, and no more. In Canada, we generally tip 18-20%, and I see no reason why I should do things differently here, much to the horror of locals I dine with. In fact, tipping will become a way of life for you. You’ll tip car guards, gas station attendants, and a host of other people who rely on these small donations to get by. Tip what YOU feel is appropriate. Keep in mind that you probably make more money than most people here. 10 rand instead of 2 rand will be minimal for you, but it will make someone else’s day.

They will also tell you not to trust anybody, even your domestic help (oh, you WILL end up hiring domestic help. And you’ll start to enjoy having your underwear ironed and folded. Trust me on that one). But people are people- if you treat them with respect, you’ll form relationships that many South Africans didn’t think possible.

Before anybody jumps on me in the comments, yes, I know the crime rate here is relatively high. I know horrific things happen. I know people have been robbed by their maids. I’m not saying that DOESN’T happen. What I AM saying is it’s not as bad as you’ll probably be led to believe. If you’re an expat, you’ll likely be living in an area where you’re in a bit of a bubble. Do some real statistical research on crime in South Africa, and you’ll see that you’re by no means in one of the most vulnerable groups. Take everything you hear with a grain of salt. Within a few months, you’ll feel quite at home and be able to take or leave all the sage wisdom thrust your way.

The editorial team is taking a break at this point, so this is the end of Part I. Keep posted for Part II next week!

"Phil is very clever, handsome, and talented. He is very good at colouring and picking out fancy cheese. He smells good at least 64% of the time." -Phil's mom

Phil has been many things- a musician, a university English instructor, a picker upper of dead bodies, and a sales guy. He moved his family from Vancouver, Canada to Pretoria, South Africa in September 2016 and is still wondering how that happened. Phil's blog is www.acanadianinsouthafrica.blogspot.com, and he agrees with everything his mom said. 

April 11, 2017

What Americans (and United Airlines) Might Learn from South African Craftiness

Americans are known to like the head-on approach to solving problems and to vanquish an opponent. Not so much subtlety as a show of overwhelming force, even if a lot of resources are needed that might be more wisely used with a more thoughtful approach.

The latest brouhaha at United Airlines just underscores that point. If you live in a bubble and somehow haven't heard about it, read a quick recap:

A flight is overbooked, the airline offers 4 free tickets if 4 passengers step forward to relinquish their seat, no one feels like it because a) they've got important places to be, and/or b) the value of the free tickets is laughably low, especially if - like it has happened to us in the past - they come with all sorts of blackout dates and other cumbersome strings attached. Bottom line: Instead of doing what the market dictates, i.e. upping the offer until you hit that sweet spot where supply meets demand, the airline does what a spiteful and overtired parent might do after unsuccessfully trying to bribe their kids to agree on who gets the window seat: They come down with the heavy diktat that 4 random people will be chosen who will have to leave the plane.

Except a wrinkle: The last of the 4 chosen ones refuses to leave, and starts screaming bloody murder when told to do so. Then the ultimate idiocy: The pilot - I assume it had to be the pilot - calls in law enforcement or security, and they proceed to drag the offending gentleman by his feat and through the aisle out of the plane.

My question: What rock do these people live under? Have they not heard about social media and the fact that people have, lo and behold, cameras on them at all times, and are very happy to film such an affront to a person's dignity? Let alone the fact that it is just plain wrong to drag a paying passenger, or even any human being, by his feet, no matter how uncooperative he might be.

I can't imagine what the fallout will be for United Airlines, and perhaps the entire airline industry by extension. I hope it is harsh. Double booking seats is common practice, but just imagine any other business doing the same. Like, selling concert tickets for Beyonce and somehow thinking, oh, we'll just sell more than we have because surely some people won't show up, and we will have made us some extra money! Yes, not quite the same, but I'm sure there are more comparable examples. I just find it satisfying that in this case, the bullies of the world are getting tremendous pushback.

The incident serves as a classic example of hard power versus soft power, and the benefits of stepping back from the brink to think about how using the latter might be so much easier and satisfying. Here is how Wikipedia defines the two:

"Soft power is a concept developed by Joseph Nye of Harvard University to describe the ability to attract and co-opt rather than by coercion (hard power), using force or giving money as a means of persuasion. Soft power is the ability to shape the preferences of others through appeal and attraction."

What would a soft power approach have looked like, you ask? I came across a great answer that a reader posted on Facebook:

"Another way to do this, without so much heartburn, was done by SAA a few years ago on a flight from JFK to Johannesburg. A woman passenger was found to not have a ticket/boarding pass and was asked to leave the plane while the matter was investigated. She refused; flight attendants then quietly spoke with other passengers about the situation, saying that they would make an announcement that the flight was cancelled, and that passengers should leave the plane. Not to worry, though, re-boarding would be quick once the offending passenger had deplaned. They made this announcement, passengers quietly filed out, the offending passenger was led quietly off the plane. We all then got back on the plane, a delay of maybe 30 minutes, with no major incident. United, learn some more subtle ways to deal with passengers...."

All I could think was "of course a South African airline would come up with a more subtle approach." And not just subtle, but creative. An out-of-the box mind at work. It's probably taking this too far to speculate if there are cultural differences at work, though I don't doubt there are. I'll let others chime in for that.

But I would venture a guess that a people who don't take themselves so seriously, and aren't historically the strongest ones on the block, have an easier time using the soft power approach.

I bet you that SAA pilot, or the chairman for that matter, didn't have any fallout from the episode he handled so smoothly. United Airlines on the other side might find itself having to send their chairman to the sacrificial block - mostly for his tone-deaf comments after the event.

Raising my glass to the soft power approach to conflict resolution, and to South Africa.

Having a sense of humor often helps with the ability to use soft power. People love to laugh!

March 28, 2017

Culture Shock: This Ancient Invention Baffled my Teenager

A few weeks back, my daughter and I were sitting in the counselor's office at the high school. Sunshine, at 14 years old the youngest of our four children, was signing up for her freshman classes in the fall.

We sat at a desk with the course selection sheet between us while discussing the options for various tracks and electives. When the form was completed, Mrs. C., the counselor, pulled it over to her side, did a little flip and a tug, and voila - there was a yellow copy of the form for Sunshine to take home, all the classes neatly filled in.

Sunshine stared. "Wow! How did you do that?" she marveled.

"How did I do what?" said Mrs. C.

"How did you get a copy of this so fast?" 

Mrs. C., nice as she is, went on to patiently explain and demonstrate, in slow motion, the ancient invention of carbon paper.

"That is so amazing," marveled Sunshine. "It's like magic."

I'm not one to rant against the curse of Smartphones and social media and the general shortcomings of millennials - I'll leave that to my husband. In fact, I quite like living in this connected world. But the incident did trigger a tiny alarm bell in my brain. Are we at risk of turning into another Ancient Rome, where the greatest inventions of mankind to date get forgotten, buried under a wave of barbarism lasting centuries? What if we somehow "lose" the Internet, the place we all turn to in search of facts we can't possibly seem to remember? It's not such an outlandish thought if you think that without electricity the internet goes up in a cloud - ha! - of nothingness. Not much a future archaeologist could find there.

Perhaps our civilization doesn't hinge on such a small thing as carbon paper. And perhaps enough people will remember the magic workings of carbon paper to prevent its slide into obscurity. Except don't look among the ranks of 8th grade teenagers for such people.

Here is what happened a few days later: Sunshine invited several of her friends to a sleepover, and over a breakfast of waffles we chatted about school. My daughter remembered  her rather embarrassing carbon copy incident and relayed it to the group. She needn't be embarrassed.

"OMG," was the answer from all sides. "I thought the exact same thing!" None of the girls had ever seen carbon paper in action. One of the girls admitted she had been convinced the counselor had a copy machine hidden away in her desk drawer and used it to make a quick copy of the sheet.
Another looked thoughtful, and then her face lit up. "I suppose that's why they call it a carbon copy!"

"Yes," I said, delighted that I could teach a small lesson. "That's the origin of the 'cc' field on emails. Carbon Copy."

They all smacked their heads in recognition. They had never stopped to wonder what 'cc' meant.

If you think about it, it's amazing carbon paper has made it this far. It has outlasted the turntable, the cassette player, and the floppy disk, none of which my kids could describe to you. They also don't remember strolling through Blockbuster or buying actual film for a camera or the noise of a dial-up connection. And they stare in horror when Noisette and I describe how we shared one house telephone that was wired into the wall with the entire family - all of whom seemed to perennially lurk in the background listening in. The only good news was you didn't need a mobile phone or iPad to pass the time while sitting on the toilet because - it being the only toilet in the house - there was always someone knocking at the door urging you to be done already.

And this is a good place to end, since we've now come to the one brilliant invention that I believe is here to stay for all eternity. No need to explain to my teenagers how to use one. Although how to clean one is another matter...





March 13, 2017

Your Health in South Africa: Immunizations, Diseases, and Medication

To follow up with Top Five Ways to Prepare for your Health in South Africa, I wanted to shed some light on which immunizations you need in South Africa, as well as the availability of over the counter (OTC) medications.

Immunizations Needed for South Africa


Everyone in your family should be up to date on routine immunizations. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the following routine childhood vaccines for everyone in the United States:

  • Hepatitis B
  • Rotavirus
  • DTaP
  • Hib
  • Pneumococcal
  • Polio
  • Flu
  • MMR
  • Chickenpox
  • Hepatitis A
  • Meningococcal
  • HPV

While your children might be current, you yourself might not be, since some of these vaccines were not routine in the past. Particularly the hepatitis A vaccine is highly recommended for South Africa.

A note about the flu shot: It was our experience - and that of other expats I've spoken to - that the flu isn't as much of a factor in South Africa. This may have to do with the climate: When the typical "flu season" is in full swing during the North American and European winter months, it is summer in South Africa, meaning people are not confined to the indoors. Also, living mostly without central heat or air conditioning might further prevent the spread of germs. Our South African doctors never mentioned flu shots, and as a result we more or less forgot about them, without any repercussions. However, they are certainly available should you want them.

In addition to your routine vaccines, the CDC recommends another one specifically for South Africa:

  • Typhoid

CDC recommends this vaccine for "most travelers, especially if you are staying with friends or relatives, visiting smaller cities or rural areas, or if you are an adventurous eater." I will say that no one in our family ever contracted typhoid while living in South Africa without the vaccine, although we were adventurous eaters (impala poop, anyone?) and went on the occasional safari in rural areas.

By the way, since typhoid is a waterborne disease, I'd like to point out again that the drinking water in South Africa is absolutely safe. In fact, I have seldom tasted better tap water.

Finally, the CDC mentions three more diseases for "some travelers" to beware of in South Africa:

  • Malaria
  • Rabies
  • Yellow Fever

Let's talk about these before you rush to see your doctor.

Malaria only occurs in areas bordering Zimbabwe and Mozambique, and even there the risk of contracting it is low. The rest of South Africa is malaria-free. If you travel to Kruger Park from October to March, you should see a South African doctor for a Malanil (or comparable) prescription. Don't ask your European or American doctor for one before you move, as they are not as knowledgeable. (Also, malaria prophylaxis is cheaper in South Africa.)

The CDC recommends a rabies vaccine for anyone moving to South Africa or staying a prolonged time, especially for people involved in outdoor activities or working with animals. I would say that unless you are moving to a rural area where you're likely to be in contact with animals, there is no bigger risk of rabies in South Africa than anywhere in America. I want to mention, however, that a child of a friend of ours was bitten by a small animal she was trying to pet while on safari, and she had to undergo the entire rabies post-bite regimen of shots as a precaution. To avoid that, and to be absolutely safe, you might consider rabies vaccines for your family.

There is no risk of Yellow Fever in South Africa. You will not need an immunization prior to moving. However, if you plan to travel to a yellow fever risk area, you will need an immunization and the corresponding certificate to get back into South Africa. Like malaria prophylaxis, yellow fever vaccines and certificates are a matter of routine for South Africa doctors.

Over The Counter Medicines in South Africa


Not being able to buy certain over the counter (OTC) medicines in your new country of residence is a common concern among expats. However, the opposite can also be true - finding medicines you were previously unable to get without prescription. Based on a short reader survey, I've grouped the most common drugs by their availability in the United States versus South Africa (sorry, Europe and Asia).

1. Drugs available OTC in South Africa that are prescription-only in the USA:

Codeine can be found in South African OTC painkillers such as Nurofen Plus, Myprodol, Panado (also Panadol), or Sinutab. If you suffer from sinus headaches, codeine can be very effective. Then again perhaps you won't need it - a reader says her sinus headaches came on less often in South Africa than before. I've told you Johannesburg has a great climate!

Other drugs available OTC in South Africa but not the United States are birth control pills, diclofenac (Voltaren) and bronchodilators like albuterol (Ventolin) to treat breathing problems such as asthma.

(Note that in South Africa these drugs literally are "over" the counter; rather than displayed on the shelf ready for the taking, they are stashed away behind the pharmacy counter and need to be asked for - sometimes in exchange for your personal data.)

2. Drugs available OTC in both South Africa and the USA:


Most American OTC painkillers are available in South Africa, but they often have different names and usually don't come in large quantities. South African pharmacies are required to offer the generic alternative to brand name drugs, so it helps to know your active ingredients.

A quick translation of painkiller ingredients and brand names:

Acetaminophen (Tylenol) = Paracetamol, Panado
Ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil) = Nurofen
Acetylsalicylic acid (Aspirin) = Disprin

Some brands combine several of these ingredients into one, such as Anadin (Aspirin and paracetamol with caffeine) or the aforementioned painkillers containing codeine.

EpiPens, according to another reader, are often prone to shortages or too-short expiration dates in South Africa. You might be better advised putting those on your "buy before moving to South Africa" list.

3. Drugs available OTC in the USA that are prescription-only in South Africa:

One reader shared that progesterone cream is not available OTC in South Africa. Neither is Melatonin, a drug to prevent jet lag.

Another reader couldn't find Abbott Synthroid to treat hypothyroidism. The European alternative Euthyrox apparently made for a good substitute.

Yet another reader wanted plain old diphenhydramine (Benadryl) and was told that as an "old generation" drug it was not available in South Africa, not even as a prescription. Her doctor prescribed Cetirizine (Ceticit or Zyrtex, which is available OTC in the USA), but she maintains that it didn't "cut it" to alleviate severe allergic reactions to mosquito bites.

I hope you've found this information useful in planning your move to South Africa. In addition to possibly stocking up on drugs you won't be able to easily source, make sure you have a health insurance plan that covers prescription drugs wherever you travel. I recommend Cigna with its encompassing coverage and services tailored to expats. Click here to see the full range of Cigna Africa services.

This post was sponsored by Cigna. Opinions expressed are entirely my own, unless quoted from 3rd party websites such as the CDC.

February 27, 2017

Spud

If you've grown up in South Africa and gone to school there, my guess is you will know (and love) the Spud book series by John van de Ruit:



If you are not South African and new to the country, I highly recommend you get these books. If you aren't much of a reader, opt for the movie with John Cleese instead - a rare instance where the movie is as good or even better than the book. (It's a universal rule: It can never be bad with John Cleese in it.)
Why do I recommend these books?
First off, because they are funny. Sort of like the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books and movie, except more nuanced. 
But beyond entertaining, they are also educational. In a cultural way. To fully understand South Africa, you have to understand the boarding school experience. To this day, many South African kids, right after celebrating their 13th birthday, leave their homes to live and learn at one of the country's fine boarding schools - many of them with a 100+  year old tradition. If you have a few minutes, Google Michaelhouse or Hilton. I can tell you that you'll come away thinking "Wow, I'd love to be a teenager again and be sent to one of these esteemed learning institutions."
Except it's not all fun and glory. Nothing, at age 13, is fun and glory - it's all about pimples, insecurity, and heartbreak. The Spud trilogy tells it all beautifully, viewed through the eyes of the teenager John "Spud" Milton who receives a scholarship to one of South Africa's prestigious boarding schools. From the beginning, it's clear that he doesn't fit in, but nevertheless he makes friends and has typical boarding-school adventures with them, finding an unlikely ally in his English teacher (played in the movie, of course, by John Cleese). 
Laced with typical South African/ English self-deprecating humor (the kind some Americans struggle with - oh the days when we had a president with a sense of humor!), the story of Spud and his coming-of-age in KwaZulu-Natal will not disappoint, I promise you that. It's not unlike the stories we expats like to write about our misadventures, except in this case the protagonist doesn't have to move abroad for his share of culture shock.
Enjoy!
Michaelhouse. The header of their website says it all.

February 20, 2017

Why I am Teaching my Daughters How to Knit

The following is my attempt to make sense of the world we woke up to on November 9, 2016, and then again on January 20, 2017. It is about my country, the United States of America, rather than about expat life, but don't think that it doesn't have anything to do with you. The right of free speech, as exercised by a country's free press, has been under attack in your country just as much as it is now in ours. I reported about this in 2011. So perhaps you can appreciate the parallels.

Who would have thought that in the year 2017 knitting would become a feminist symbol?

Certainly not my grandmother, who was a champion knitter in her day. I can still see her as if it were yesterday, churning out cabled sweaters at alarming speed while watching her beloved Kaiser Franz bring glory to German soccer fans of the 1970s. She was a practical woman who would have felt guilty watching TV without getting something done on the side. I doubt she would have known what to make of a pussy hat, and I'm sure she would have disapproved of such vulgar language.

But here I am with a mountain of pink yarn of various hues and textures, knitting up a storm of rather crude hats Grandma would have disdained for their lack of refinement: simple rectangles you sew together at the sides and across the top, resulting in two "ears" at each corner to poke out from your head.




Not only am I knitting till my fingers bleed, with a permanent yarn-shaped dent in my index finger, I've also taught my teenage daughters the craft. Never have we bonded as much as we do now (thank you, Donald Trump), sitting together each evening clinking our needles while speaking the language of stockinette stitch, purls, and k1-sl1-k2tog-psso. Every so often I have to rescue their work from the destruction wreaked by a dropped stitch. And somehow we do this to ward off the destruction of our country.

What, with knitting? I can see you have doubts. So let me try to explain.

We are knitting pussy hats so we can wear them when we march again. No doubt there will be reason for many more marches.

(We are also knitting pussy hats so that we will not throw our glass at the TV when yet another stupidity or outrageous lie - or most likely both in the same sentence - is reported on the nightly news. It is so much harder to throw a glass when your fingers have yarn wound tightly around them.)

So why do we march wearing our pink pussy hats? Oh, the reasons. Perhaps, first and foremost, because we (still) can. South Africans know a thing or two about marching and protesting, and this is the first time in my life that I fully understand what compelled them to take to the streets.

We march in solidarity with those who are suddenly turned away from our borders simply because of their faith. Don't give me the "keeping our country safe" BS. If you wanted to keep our country safe, you wouldn't sit in plain view of gawkers discussing issues of national security, you would not have nominated an unvetted and unhinged National Security Adviser, and you certainly wouldn't still use your phone to send out your early morning Twitter-diarrhea complaining about petty slights. There are so many ways you can start keeping our country safe, but vindictively forcing families apart simply because you think you can should not be one of them.

We march because we want all our children to have access to good education, because we see the threat of climate change, because we do not think the White House should be like a candy shop for its occupants to help themselves to whatever they feel like to enrich themselves.

We march not as "professional anarchists, thugs, and paid protesters," as our president would have you believe. I am simply a concerned citizen as well as a writer who will never surrender my right to say and write what I think. There are people who died in pursuit of that right, and I will not have it trampled. Of all the threats facing our country, and frankly the world, from this new wanna-be authoritarian government. this is the most dear to my heart.

I didn't use to think of myself as a feminist. Business school graduate, mother, expat, trailing spouse - I've accumulated tons of labels. But feminist? I didn't think about it. Perhaps I thought we didn't need them anymore. But boy was I wrong. As one of my favorite posters lofted by a fellow protester stated: Mr. President, keep your tiny hands off my rights!



Those of us who marched in rallies across the country all had different reasons for being there. I may not have much in common with many of the other participants. In fact, history pitted some of us against each other, as laid out in this excellent article in The New York Times Magazine. But on January 21, 2017, we were all united: young, old, blond, brown, black, thin, fat, immigrant, Muslim, atheist, straight, gay, and more than one pothead. We were united in our opposition to a man who plays dangerous games with the truth.

As conservative writer Bret Stephens wrote in Time Magazine, we now have a leader with this worldview:

"Truth is what you can get away with. If you can sell condos by claiming your building is 90% occupied when it’s only 20% occupied, well, then—it’s 90% occupied. If you can convince a sufficient number of people that you really did win the popular vote, or that your inauguration crowds were the biggest—well then, what do the statistical data and aerial photographs matter?"

I would add: If you can have your home remodeled on the taxpayer's dime claiming it was a "security upgrade" and get away with it, who cares?

I do. We do. We marched because the truth does matter. We're not going to let this man and his entourage of unprincipled aides - the people who now applaud the very things in their anointed they so much decried when attacking his opponent - get away with lying or obscuring the facts. I know logic is not your strong suit, Mr. President, but it's either a leaked story or Fake News. You can't have it both ways.

It's only been four weeks and my daughters and I already have 10 finished pussy hats. In an added twist that cheers my expat heart, this entire first batch is going to Spain as per special order from a group of women organizers. More are in the pipeline, and we're happy to take your orders!

My grandmother, who taught me not only how to knit but also the importance of finishing a work I had started, would likely be puzzled by the notion of knitting as a symbol of resistance.

But she would be proud of me, and of the great-granddaughters she's never met.

We are all feminists.

***

And now the pictures can tell the rest of the story:

"Friends of South Africa" and friends at Nashville Women's March, Jan 21 2017
Walking up to the Capitol



Note my daughter's t-shirt - oh the good old days of THAT president

More great posters and pussy hats

Brilliant

The Nashville skyline makes such a pretty backdrop

This was my favorite sign (I didn't get a picture of the "Betsy deVos = Dolores Umbridge" one)

Not sure about THAT poster but gotta love, once again, the skyline


The minute there comes  a Muslim registry, I'll wrap my head in our flag just like that and take
us all to be registered

Grab this pussy (hat)! We accommodate any color or pattern preference and will ship
you your hat in exchange for a donation to Planned Parenthood or National Public Radio.

January 23, 2017

Retiring in Africa Series: Mauritius, an Island Paradise

We had so many great family vacations while living in Africa that sometimes it's hard to remember them all. Yet if you asked my husband and children which one of those was their favorite, a uniform "Mauritius" would be the answer.

Frankly, to a large degree this is based not on the beautiful sandy beaches or excellent scuba-diving but on the beyond divine chocolate mousse available without fail at our hotel's nightly dessert table, rows and rows of slim glass flutes filled to the rim with the rich creamy dessert. We ate A TON of that chocolate mousse at Le Touessrok, favorite of favorite hotels ever.

To us, Mauritius was like paradise, but there were some cracks in the facade. We had friends who were building a house there. They were building it when we arrived in South Africa, and they were still building it when we left. It was a never-ending project, and there was always something going wrong and decidedly not moving forward. When you drive across the island, you see the same thing: oodles of half-built houses. Mauritius, it seems, is even slower-moving in terms of getting stuff done than South Africa.

Nevertheless, living in Mauritius can be a dream come true, as it was for Ross Campbell, an American who recently decided to retire there. The following is a guest post about his experience.

Living in Mauritius Teaches Patience and Appreciation




For many people, living in Mauritius is living in paradise, and while that’s vastly true for myself, I also find Mauritius has much more to offer than just beautiful scenery and comfortable weather. It’s a great place to call home with welcoming people and plenty to do, and best of all, a nice slower pace of living than what I was accustomed to in the States. This has been the perfect place to destress from the hustle and bustle of living in a large city and having to be around an enormous number of busy people one day after another.

I moved from the United States to Mauritius a little over a year ago, and it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Even with the natural beauty of the island, you will still need to do your part to make life great. Before I get into my time spent here, I would like to talk about why I decided to make the move in the first place.

Please keep in mind though that there was a fair share of swearing, complaining and frustration throughout the process. Not only did I have problems obtaining my visa due to slow paperwork, I also found some of the residential areas were much more crowded than I anticipated.

Why I Wanted to Move



Many expats move away from America to try and find a more affordable place to live. There are plenty of countries that are cheaper than the USA, but Mauritius isn’t one of them, and the cost of living was not the reason I wanted to have a change of scenery. I chose to live here because I was enchanted by the beauty and seclusion it offered. Sure, the island isn’t massively large, but there’s always something new and beautiful to look at. While on vacation here for the 5th time in 10 years, I knew there was something particularly special about Mauritius. I could spend hours just wandering the island and taking in the sights, and that’s exactly what I do now. I enjoy hiking and seeing majestic waterfalls, lounging around on the beach, surfing and even shopping in the local markets. In Mauritius, I have found a lifestyle of calmness that I was never able to capture before. (Of course, calm is something you will not find in the market on a Sunday morning.)

My Life in Mauritius



Since I first came to Mauritius, I’ve grown very fond of the people of the island more than anything else. Compared to Americans they are exceedingly friendly and accepting. Something to note is that Mauritius is not large, and with a low population, the noise level, as well as the level of social gatherings is slim. While there is not a large bustling population to hinder travel and sightseeing, it is normal to see smiling faces everywhere  you go, and this makes it more enjoyable to travel around and to explore new locations.

As an expat, I spend my days walking the island and talking with locals. I love browsing through the many open air shops and looking at the goods everyone has for sale. I’ll take a dip in the ocean as it starts to warm up, and I’ll grab a bite to eat before settling down to read a good book.

The main thing I’ve learned during my time here is how to slow down and appreciate the finer things in life. I pay more attention to my food and how it tastes, to the people and how they communicate so openly, and every experience  I have has made my life better.

I could focus on every beautiful site that I’ve seen like the Chamerel waterfall, or experiences that I’ve had since moving here, like open water scuba diving, but those aren’t the things that mean the most to me. Learning to relax and take in life is what I enjoy the most about living here, and it’s the reason I tell friends and family to move here as well. Even when I stop for a while and work, I feel more relaxed during my work day than I was ever able to feel back in the States. Don’t get me wrong, I still work hard, but with the calming scenery around me, it’s much easier to feel relaxed when I’m working. The pressure for results and to meet deadlines just doesn't seem to worry me quite as much as it previously did when I was surrounded with loud noises and busy people.

Moving to Mauritius



Moving to Mauritius is quite the feat if you want to bring your personal belongings with you, because it’s just so far away. It’s possible to ship things through boat or by air, and I did this myself for some belongings, but I wouldn’t recommend it for too many items. I relied on a professional transport company to ship my car here in a sealed container. When I started planning to ship everything else, I was looking for a low cost provider to ship everything all at once. While I managed to ship most of my belongings all at the same time, I paid more than $3500 to do so. I’ve spoken to others who paid more. The shipping period was very extended and I had to set up the service many weeks before I planned on moving myself. This gave me anxiety, but it worked out for the best in the end. The same company helped me with some of my larger belongings, but I decided not to bring my bulky furniture and large personal property but rather to sell much of it to people I knew or via sales ads online. I also placed a few important pieces in storage for safekeeping before the move.

And then there is the small matter of paperwork. Once I had arranged my shipping through the moving company, I had to gather the paperwork to hand to the officials of Mauritius. Here is a quick list that can help you gather what is needed if you’re considering the same move:


  • A Visa, which can be obtained through an application with an intent to move to the country. In it you will state the reasons why you want to move to Mauritius. United States citizens are not required to obtain a visa, so this is a plus for American expats considering a move.  
  • A Passport is required and must be valid for at least 6 months prior to leaving for Mauritius.
  • Declaration of Goods for all personal property imported.
  • Proof of Income or letter from the company you will be working for showing what your position is and what your salary will be. 
  • Those seeking permanent residence need to show proof that they have a negative HIV/Aids test
  • Vaccinations are required and these include: Hepatitis A, Typhoid and all routine vaccines such a polio, MMR, DPT and chickenpox. 


Please keep in mind that to become a permanent resident in Mauritius you must provide proof of being an investor with $500,000 or more that you will bring into the country, or you must work within a specialized field.

Many expats move to save money, but those who live in Mauritius have usually moved here to live a quieter life. Something to keep in mind about moving to Mauritius is that you really need to check rates for rentals and check into the cost of living before you move. The cost of living can be high, higher than in many areas of the U.S., and should be taken into consideration prior to moving. If you can purchase a property in areas such as La Balise Marina, La Tourelle or Tamarina Golf & Beach resort instead of renting, and can afford to spend a half million USD, you will be eligible for permanent residency.You should also know that expats are only allowed to purchase property within a few developments.

Mauritius is an exciting place to live, it’s beautiful and a truly rewarding location to call home, but only if you value beauty and a relaxed pace of life.

January 16, 2017

Time for Your New Year's Resolutions: 7 Things to Put on Your South Africa Bucket List for 2017

To all expats in South Africa: It's 2017 and you have a brand-new year in front of you. How are you going to fill it?

If your experience living in South Africa has been like that of my family and so many others I have talked to over the years, your biggest fear isn't of crime. Most likely you are vigilant and aware of danger spots, but otherwise manage quite well.

No - your biggest fear, I'd venture a guess, might well be that of being sent home before you've had a chance to explore more of the wonders of Africa. As expats, we know how quickly things can change when your whereabouts depend on the fickle corporate powers back home. You might be recalled to where you came from or be sent to another continent at a moment's notice. And as expats, we also know that regret about opportunities missed is one of the burdens we often bear heavily.

So as you begin implementing your New Year's Resolutions for 2017, why not look at your South Africa Bucket List and start making concrete plans?

Here are my recommendations:

  1. Go on a safari. I know, I know, this sounds lame, because of course you've already been on a safari. It's everyone's first order of business right after the boxes are unpacked and the domestic is hired. But from one who no longer lives in Africa, trust me that having a safari within easy reach is what you will miss most in your future life. If you need ideas, my safari suggestions for South Africa might help.


    Savuti Game Reserve, Okavango Delta, Botswana 2012



  2. Explore Johannesburg and surroundings. There is a ton to do close to home that often is missed because we expats are so busy traveling. Ride in a hot air balloon over the Magaliesberg, tour Soweto, get kissed by elephants at the Elephant Sanctuary, see cheetahs up close at De Wildt, savor the view from Northcliff Hill, or walk the tightrope at JoziX. See my complete list of Johannesburg attractions here.

    Ann van Dyk Cheetah Centre at De Wildt near Johannesburg, South Africa 2010



  3. Leave your comfort zone. If you haven't yet visited Alexandra, the most notorious but also most fascinating of South Africa's townships, do it this year. Contact me and I'll set you up with my friend Tedius Ncube as your personal guide who can show you the field where the dreams of Alexandra Baseball are born. Join the Joburg Photowalkers, or go an any other Joburg walking tour. If you haven't yet, volunteer in a Diepsloot school through EduFun or any of the other volunteer opportunities listed here.


    Street in Alexandra, South Africa 2010


  4. Visit the Drakensberg. It's a spectacular mountain range, but with so many other spectacular sights on most expats' lists, the hauntingly beautiful scenery of the Drakensberg is easily missed. Our son went on a 10-day wilderness hiking tour with his school during 9th grade, and I always regretted not doing something similar with friends. We only go to hike in the Drakensberg for half a day - from the hotel to a waterfall and back - and even so, walking along those scraggly ridges was an unforgettable experience.

    Drakensberg near Champagne Sports Resort, South Africa 2012


  5. Visit Cape Town - again. Just like a safari, Cape Town  with its breathtaking views, wide sandy beaches, and gourmet restaurants is the place you'll longingly think back to one day. But unlike a safari, it's very affordable. If you've already seen the main tourist attractions in Cape Town, here are some new ideas: Tour the former prison on Robben Island, sit on a bench in Hermanus watching whales right below you, go scuba diving in the tank of the Two Oceans Aquarium, or spend a day going wine tasting in Franschhoek - you may never want to leave.

    Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town, South Africa 2011


  6. Go hiking. There are many options for day hikes close to Joburg, like Groenkloof Nature Reserve, the Hennops Hiking Trail, or Cradle Nature Reserve. If you want to go bigger without lacking comfort, book the Wild Coast Meander like we did last August - the scenery is unforgettable. I've also heard great things about the Oystercatcher Trail. And for the ultimate African hiking trip (but where, I'm not going to lie, you will lack in comfort), climb Mount Kilimanjaro. I can recommend a little book called Kilimanjaro Diaries for further research.

    Hennops River hiking trail near Johannesburg, South Africa 2012


  7. Make a point of having a sundowner every night. There are so many more destinations I wanted to put on this list. Stone Town on Zanzibar, the Okavango Delta in Botswana, Isle aux Cerfs in Mauritius, the dunes of Sossusvlei and the Orange River in Namibia, Victoria Falls in either Zambia or Zimbabwe... But I've already gone on for too long. You know what I miss most of all when thinking back to our charmed life in South Africa? I miss impromptu get-togethers with friends watching African sunsets. It's called a sundowner, and it's one of Africa's greatest inventions. Cheers!

    Somewhere in the bush at sunset, Madikwe Game Reserve, South Africa 2012

I hope I've given you some ideas for your 2017 calendar. If you're newly embarking on your expat adventure, this should be a good starting point. And if this is the year you'll have to leave Africa, I hope I've given you some tips so you can leave without regrets.

Finally, to make sure you truly don't have any regrets, get the kind of health insurance that covers you and your family during all your travels. I recommend Cigna as a provider – they have services tailored for expats and coverage that includes emergency medical evacuation throughout Africa, giving you peace of mind throughout all your adventures. Click here to see the full range of Cigna Africa services.

This post was sponsored by Hollard Cigna Health. Opinions expressed are entirely my own.

January 11, 2017

Book Review: We Are Not Such Things by Justine van der Leun


The story is about  author Justine van der Leun’s quest to get to the bottom of what really happened the day Amy Biehl, an American student on a Fullbright scholarship in South Africa, was killed by an angry mob in a township near Cape Town in 1993, in that period between Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and his election as president of South Africa. It’s a heartbreaking story: Amy drove into Gugulethu that day to drive home two of her anti-Apartheid activist friends. They were all fighting for social justice, yet she was brutally murdered by some of the very people whose welfare she was most concerned about.

I vaguely remembered the event, and also that Amy’s parents created headlines by publicly forgiving the men convicted of her murder. But I knew none of the details.

If you’re interested in that long-ago story, this book will bring it back in all its detail. The author, an American writer married to a South African, finds herself with time on her hands when first moving to Cape Town, where she stumbles across this story. Believing there are unexplained holes in it, she decides to investigate it on her own.

But Amy Biehl’s murder and its investigation by the author isn’t all there is to We Are Not Such Things. It’s much more than that. I would say it’s one of the best portraits of life in a South African township that I’ve read, at least if you consider it’s written by an outsider. In the course of her investigation, Justine gets to know the main players on that fateful day and forges an especially close bond with one of the men who pleaded guilty to Amy’s murder, Easy Nofemala. He was one of the four men arrested for Amy’s murder in the aftermath – all of whom were, in the end, pardoned by South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) that was formed to address Apartheid-era crimes. Through Easy, Justine gets to meet other witnesses on frequent visits to Gugulethu and surroundings.

I don't have pictures of Gugulethu. The closest I have is this picture of another township near
Cape Town, Khayelitsha, taken in 2012. It goes on for miles along the highway to the airport.


To me, these visits are the real gem in her book, giving us a glimpse into a world so different from our own. They lay bare something I myself have struggled with in my experiences in a different township, Alexandra. As some of you know, I became involved in the fate of a township baseball team soon after we moved to South Africa, and my experiences helping them in any way I could make for some of my fondest memories. But I always felt a bit uneasy in my dealings with them. Not so much because many consider it unsafe to even enter a South African township, especially one as notorious as Alexandra or Gugulethu. In fact, some of South Africa’s reputation as crime-ridden and violent country probably rests on precisely what happened to Amy Biehl in 1993, but much has changed since then. No, the reason for my unease was mainly that I never quite trusted all of the stories I was told. I would hear one story from the first person I talked to, a totally different from the next, and so on. What happened to the laptop computer I donated to the team? Was it indeed stolen by one of the earlier coaches? Was he indeed caught for some other crime and now lingering in prison? Or was the computer simply sold for a quick profit, something I was assured by others involved with helping the team had certainly happened in the past with donated equipment?

When you forge ties to Africans from the lowest rungs of society who are struggling to get by every day, it’s no surprise that you’ll become their center of attention, and that perhaps some of the stories you are told at least bend the truth a little, so as to make sure you don’t go away. What I learned in my time in South Africa is that with my white middle-class childhood, idyllic compared to that of many of the kids I came across in Alexandra, I have almost no way of understanding their plight and how it might propel their actions. The morals I grew up to embrace that I thought were so ironclad appear a lot more fluid when viewed through this lens. Trevor Noah does an excellent job describing this in his memoir Born a Crime, which I’ve recently reviewed.

Getting back to Justine van der Leun, it is the telling of her quest to understand the Amy Biehl story that is so fascinating. The deeper she digs, the more confusing it gets. Did Easy and the other accused really commit the crime? Were they wrongfully convicted, and if so, why is it so hard to get to the truth? Is there perhaps an ulterior motive for them not wanting to revisit the past, because their present role at the Amy Biehl foundation has become quite comfortable and even profitable, and unraveling the truth would threaten that carefully crafted new life?

These are all questions that pop up as you progress through the narrative. It is somewhat unsatisfying that when you turn the last page, you have no idea what really happened that day in 1993. If your sole goal in reading the book is to find out what happened, don’t read it, you’ll be disappointed. I think the publisher wasn’t quite honest in pushing exactly that narrative.

What you do learn is that digging deeper doesn’t always give a satisfying answer, but that it can open a window to an entirely different world from yours, and perhaps even a window into your own soul.

January 3, 2017

From Slum to Sitting With a President: Trevor Noah, Born a Crime

Buy on Amazon
Many Americans don't know Trevor Noah nearly as well as most South Africans, who over the years have seen him rise through the ranks of comedians to become a South African icon. No one does accents as well as Trevor Noah does, and no country like South Africa gives you so much good material for them.

But perhaps even most South Africans don't know much about Noah's past. He was "Born a Crime," which is also the title of his newly-released memoir, grew up in poverty, and suffered from bullying and domestic abuse. Raised by a fiercely independent single mother, he flitted between Soweto, Alexandra, and a handful of other Johannesburg suburbs throughout his childhood and adolescence, never far away from the next disaster.

To think that he is now the host of The Daily Show where we could recently watch him interview an American President seems utterly impossible given his humble beginnings. I have been to Alexandra, I have been to Soweto, and I have seen the daily struggles of the vast majority of people living there. Trevor Noah's improbable walk out of an African township and right into the halls of power (or, if not power itself, then the power by proxy of wielding influence over hearts and minds) surely must be one of the most inspiring stories of our time.

It is a story of hope.

Alexandra

Soweto


But it's also a hugely entertaining story, and this brings me to the rest of this blog post, my review of Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood.


Whether you have any connection to South Africa, love Trevor Noah, or simply like reading a good memoir, Born a Crime should be on your shortlist. More specifically, you should get it on Audible - Noah narrates the story himself, and it is a luxury to listen to his voice outside of my nightly dose of The Daily Show.

As the title suggests, at the center of Trevor Noah's personal story lies the fact that his birth constituted a crime in then-Apartheid South Africa. At the time, interracial marriage or intimate relations were forbidden, and when his African mother became pregnant as a result of her relationship with a Swiss businessman she met in Johannesburg, both had to go to great lengths to hide the outcome of their crime, only meeting behind closed doors or walking apart when out in public. As a result of his parents never marrying or even living together, Noah was raised by his mother, who herself was an outsider of sorts among her own people, the Xhosa.

Far from turning Noah into a person who is bitter at the world he grew up in, his unique childhood instilled in him an intense curiosity and ability to fit in with a wide range of vastly different and separate groups like a chameleon, as he repeatedly calls himself. His unique ability with languages helped him greatly. When he lived among his black cousins in Soweto, he conversed in Xhosa and felt black, just like them. When he attended a private primary school after the end of Apartheid where kids of various backgrounds came together, he felt equally at ease with the white kids, due to his flawless upper-class South African English. As he points out at the beginning of the book, South Africa has 11 official languages - written into its constitution post-Apartheid so as not to offend anyone - and he learned to speak many of them, sometimes without even being aware that he did. In his mind, all the conversations occurred in English, he says at some point.

Curiously, the racial group he felt least welcomed by were South Africa's Coloureds, even though he looked the most like them as a mixed-race child. Fiercely protective of their cultural history and status (above blacks, but below whites) in an Apartheid regime whose goal it was to put a wedge between racial groups, as he explains it, he was considered a traitor rather than one of them. A traitor, because instead of Afrikaans, he spoke the language of their rivals.

"Language, even more than color,defines who you are to people," says Noah. You might be viewed with suspicion based on your looks which pit you as a certain race, but once you open your mouth and speak a group's language just like them, they will consider you one of them. Nelson Mandela, as quoted by Noah in the book, famously described the same phenomenon:

"If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart."

I have found this to be very true after years of living as an expat. It is so very easy to dismiss people who speak little English, or heavily accented English, as inferior and uneducated. English is not just the language of business, it is also very much the language of culture and learning. If you're black and speak English badly, you immediately invoke a lot of prejudice in white people. If you're black and not only speak English fluently but do so with the perfect accent appropriate to the group you find yourself in, you become one of them. Suddenly, through the lens of language, they see you as white.

Noah doesn't mince words. He is very critical of racism and the way South Africa's government institutionalized it through Apartheid, and also of the more subtle forms of white privilege still persistent today. When you grow up black and poor, he says, you are told that you need to just work hard to make something of yourself. But no one gives you any of the tools you need for it, or even tells you what the tools are.

Another question he spends some time exploring is this: What does it mean to be a criminal? Where exactly are the lines between right and wrong? On the streets of Alexandra, he says, there is a definite honor code. It's not lawless. But what our Western worldview considers to be criminal behavior, like selling bootlegged music or peddling goods you know had to be stolen, is not seen the same way when you grow up in abject poverty. Stealing from whites is often justified with a simple truth: Whites, his township friends tell him when he voices his qualms, have insurance. Miraculously, they get back what is taken from them. Because township life is so removed from the lives of the privileged, it's easy to grow up without feeling remorseful when all you're trying to do is get by day to day. I've alluded to this in previous musings about corruption in the context of culture, and found it hard to hit the right tone between thoughtful and condescending. Noah does a good job explaining what I meant to say.

But his main gift is to humanize the environment he grew up in with wonderful tales of his childhood and adolescence. His mother is a truly fearsome person who insisted on building his character with whatever means she deemed necessary, even if it meant letting him linger in jail when he got himself into a mess, or dragging him on endless missions through the dangerous streets of Johannesburg to attend Sunday church - not once, not twice, but often three times, to pray to Jesus at every possible turn and to cover all the bases.

Having lived in South Africa, I felt myself inexorably drawn back into its orbit by Noah's wonderful storytelling. He captured the spirit of Johannesburg and of the South African psyche perfectly. Many situations he describes were very vivid to me, by virtue of having lived there. His experiences at school sounded very much like those of my kids, even though their backgrounds are very different.

Some anecdotes in particular stood out to me: His being thrown, by his mother, from a moving car in order to escape a dangerous situation; his taking a clandestine dump on a piece of newspaper to avoid using the outhouse during a rainstorm; and him hustling pirated music CDs and financial services on the streets of Alexandra after he and his friends have finished high school and find themselves without prospects.

These are all great South African stories, and so much more, that you get in "Born a Crime." For memoir lovers, I'd say it's a bit like Angela's Ashes with sunnier weather. As a bonus when you get the Audible version, you get to listen to Trevor Noah unabridged, including his entire repertoire of African accents.

If you're reading this post because you are a soon-to-be expat in South Africa, then get Born a Crime to familiarize yourself with the surroundings.

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HARDCOVER AUDIBLE

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I also encourage you to browse my other book recommendations on the Africa Bookshelf.