Deciding to move to another country isn’t an easy decision especially for a single mom of a fifth grader, Nya, whose entire family and support system still lives in the States. For me, however, it was one of the easiest decisions I’ve made in my life to date. The hardest decision was which continent I’d move to first. As a freelance journalist for the past 20 years, I’ve luckily had been able to make a living in my hometown Detroit, Michigan; the city where I went to college, Atlanta, Georgia; the city where I made my first film and got married, Harlem, New York; and most recently the city where I landed after my divorce, Los Angeles, California.
For me, moving to another country was a natural progression in my dream for worldwide storytelling. I knew so little about Africa even though I’d visited the continent on three separate occasions. The first time was in 2002 after I produced a documentary on Langston Hughes; I traveled to Burkina Faso for FESPACO — a biennial international film festival that invited American filmmakers to display their work. That experience was both eye-opening and exhausting as it was the first time I was on a flight for more than 15 hours and the first time I’d ever been robbed at knife point. Let me not give you a bad impression of Africa because I was a gullible tourist, carrying my passport, all my money and airline tickets with me everyplace I went from movie screenings, shopping and to restaurants. The second and third time I visited Kampala, Uganda on assignment to cover Kampala Fashion Week was where I was treated like royalty, experiencing the incredible growth of a city in the midst of a business revolution. All three experiences left me with a feeling of belonging and inquiry.
Before Moving Abroad
First things first, it’s best to plan as far in advance as possible. I started saving for the move a year in advance; telling most of my family and friends and putting my dreams out into the atmosphere. I made my mind to move to South Africa because I’d seen so many American publications launch South African editions which gave me hope that I’d be able to continue freelancing. Deciding to move, even visit South Africa, requires that you apply for both a passport and a visa. Now the passport is easy enough to get, if you have all of the requirements and fees. It cost me $140 and another $95 for Nya’s. Oddly enough I’d been told that they took up to four months to arrive, but ours were in the mail less than eight weeks later which was a happy surprise because when you apply for a passport, the United States asks for original copies of your birth certificate which they do return.
In order to enroll Nya in school, we were required to have possession of a study visa which is altogether different than what I applied for: a 6-month travel visa. Here’s the kicker, you can’t request for a study visa until you have an acceptance letter from a school. So my many friends who had visited Johannesburg suggested that I visit before moving. I, unfortunately, didn’t follow that suggestion which hurt us in the long run, but there are always ways to get around the rules. To get an application from a school, it’s essential to communicate with the school’s administration and express how much your child would contribute to the school family. In our case, we were referred to a school called Kairos School of Inquiry — a small yet focused primary school where it was very easy to connect with the owner, Marc Loon. They’d been open less than five years, and he interviewed Nya over Skype before accepted her records from the Los Angeles Unified School District. He asked for recommendations from her teachers and we were able to get accepted less than two weeks later. Unlike in America, there are no free public schools in South Africa. Every school has a fee associated with attendance, even the public schools. Private schools can be quite expensive but some international schools especially cater to American students to make a smoother transition. We chose Kairos because we felt that the teachers would pay particular attention to Nya and her needs, especially since her teacher joined in on her online interview. Fees for Kairos range between $500–$600 per month for 5th graders. I especially appreciated being able to meet and converse with the person that would be directly responsible for her education.
It took us two days to reach Johannesburg, and the transition from America to South Africa was relatively easy. The school year began the last week of July, so Nya was a week later, however, the school was incredibly welcoming. Nya fell in love with the school immediately — making friends the first week and engaging in the after-school programs which included meditation, cooking class, and the nature club. After-school programs are called extramurals and have an added expense which is super affordable. Each extramural teacher shares their emails and phone numbers and is very engaged with parents.
“I think we all know that moving can be extremely stressful for most adults, so what more for children — especially since they may already have a sense of not enjoying much control over their own lives, which can make them vulnerable to anxiety and more rigid ways of managing,” says Zamakhanya Makhanya, M.A., M.P.H., a clinical psychologist. “What I have found in my work is that parents are often oblivious to or perhaps in denial when it comes to the impact of certain experiences on their children, including the emotional baggage that relocation can leave on the child’s psyche. Factors, such as losing friends, starting at a new school, culture shock, identity politics and language difficulties cannot be underestimated. However, I have also seen how a parent’s involvement can be quite significant in helping the child process the relocation. This kind of participation from the parent can also aid in mediating the child’s experience and in helping them integrate the experience in a more meaningful way. Parental collaboration in this process, however, can give them the tools to understand their own feelings and think through unrealistic and unhelpful fantasies about the relocation, as well as help them learn appropriate ways to say “goodbye” and “hello.”
Small Things Make a Big Difference
The great thing about South Africa is that everything is primarily controlled digitally. Housing, banking, school, extra activities can all be taken care of on your mobile phone. These institutions encourage you to engage online because meeting people in person can be very difficult. For example, Nya’s school required us to have a bank account in order for them to take fees out each month. Banks in South Africa, unfortunately, don’t like to allow expats to have bank accounts. You are required to have a 6-month (or longer) lease agreement along with utility bills in your name to open a checking bank account. For us, we were able to open a limited, non-resident savings bank account, but every time we deposited or transferred American dollars into the account, we were charged an enormous fee and had to wait in line with tellers inside the branch. Because banks, cell phone providers and other institutions (libraries) encourage online service — lines to get service are always extremely long. The day I opened my bank account, we were in the branch for 2.5 hours. The second time I tried to deposit U.S. dollars into the account, I waited at the teller line for 1.5 hours because the system needed to convert my money to rand was down, and I had to wait for it to be back up. That wasn’t the only line that I had to wait in; there was the line to get a cell phone carrier. To set up a phone account, you also need to be a South African resident. If you’re not, you need three months bank statements, an employment contract, and a lease or utility bill. They also allow you to use a current South Africa resident to co-sign for you, but that’s quite a bit to ask of a stranger. So as an alternative, I paid for a prepaid SIM card which I’m only able to get a small amount of data which means that I’m buying data and airtime at least twice a week. Not that we’re using my phone that much outside of a Wi-Fi setting, it just seems to run out which means that I have to pay special attention to my phone and data usage, something that I haven’t worried about in years.
We arrived Aug. 1, in the dead of winter when the temperature rests in the mid-50s. LA’s hottest months are South Africa’s coldest. Unlike LA, Africans are the dominant ethnicity. Since we’ve arrived, we’ve only seen Africans, white South Africans, and Indians. There are no Asians, Mexicans or Chinese. If they’re here, we haven’t seen them. Similar to Europe, drivers ride on the opposite side of the streets and the right side of the car. Grocery stores are always right next to liquor stores, and other little things include the name of things like cookies are called biscuits, milk is called crème, grits are called pop, a barbeque is labeled a braai and ketchup is called Tomato sauce. Certain foods simply don’t exist; like there’s no chili, no non-dairy creamer and our favorite yams aren’t sold in the grocery stores. And LA traffic has nothing on Johannesburg traffic. There is no Ebay in South Africa and no one, I mean no one, trusts the Johannesburg postal system. We haven’t figured out how to send out simple letters to our family and friends so Facebook and Instagram, as well as the WhatsApp, keep us connected. WhatsApp is the number way that most South Africans communicate because it’s a Wi-Fi app and no one wants to use their airtime or data unnecessarily.
We are still in the early days. We have a long way to go and A LOT to learn. But we are taking it in our stride. Some days we sing and skip to school, some days we just walk. Some days are super fun and some days we cry. Because saying goodbye is always hard and when the life you left behind had any love and beauty in it, you mourn the loss of that life and despite the love of adventure, you miss the familiar. There is no magic pill, or magic place. Life can be tough at times. Anxiety and fear follow us, until we unearth their roots. And discussing that fact is very different to confronting it and dealing with it.
Pieces of Advice for Parents Relocating with Young Children
“We moved from Johannesburg, South Africa to Laverstock, England on the 25th of August. We said goodbye to our country of birth; our friends and family; our home where our 8-year old child was born and we raised our family; and all the many small familiar things that made it home. We (Thandi and husband Bevan Rees) have two daughters — aged 12 and 8 and had been deliberating for about 4 years about when would be the ideal time to uproot them and move to another country,” recalls Thandi Puren, mother of Coco Rose Puren-Wilter, 12, and Leia Belle. “The truth is, I don’t know if there is a perfect time. Our girls were both so happy in their intimate, alternative school in Johannesburg. They knew the names of tellers at our local supermarket, they had a predictable routine, which I liked to think gave them a sense of security. At the end of the day, moving is tumultuous and traumatic. … In my experience children find it unsettling. The unpredictability makes them feel insecure and the unknown is always a little bit scary … even for me.”