The last few weeks, I have found ample reason to curse my ill-timed blog migration project. Here I was chasing down broken links when in reality I was meant to buy Christmas presents and decorate the house.
But it has also had an unexpected upside. Having to go through countless old posts to fix bad formatting and lost image links, I got a Cliff Notes-Type summary of 7 years’ worth of South Africa stories.
It was a treasure trove of nostalgia. At times I surprised myself with the power of my own writing – that was ME who wrote that? At other times I couldn’t believe how hung up I got on some small thing and deemed it worth writing about. Less might have been more in many cases.
But overall, speed-reading through Joburg Expat has given me an excellent bird’s-eye view of what South Africa has done for me and my family. We are richer for having lived there for three years. Thank you South Africa for everything, and specifically these things:
It is a rare person who comes back from South Africa not a convert to its dried meat. Born out of the necessity during long overland treks in covered wagons, biltong has evolved into a cross-cultural culinary staple rarely seen elsewhere. Perhaps it’s not the most life-altering thing South Africa has given me, but it’s at the top of my mind. I woke up this morning to the reassuring humming of our very own biltong maker, brought to life by the return of a college-bound son without whom the biltong-making at our house doesn’t happen. I love looking at the biltong hanging from its little hooks, and I love helping myself to the first snapstick because somebody has to determine when it’s ready. It often take 10 snapsticks to determine for sure.
As exasperating as “I Will Do It Just Now” can be to the newly-arrived expat, it also has therapeutic qualities. Here we come charging with our to-do list expecting things to happen exactly as we wish, and then we… relax. South Africans of all walks of life are a patient crowd. Born out of necessity perhaps, because when faced with atrociously inefficient government services, what else can one do but bear one’s cross with patience? But it’s the art of turning patience into virtue that is so attractive to us first-world workaholics. Here is what I said in Welcome to Type A Remedial School:
“Living in Africa will infuse you with a healthy dose of humor, if you’ll only allow it. You will laugh about things you used to frown at, you will forgive where you used to hold a grudge, and you will find beauty in everything, from the toothless smile of the street vendor to the fat bum on the sidewalk in front of you blocking the way. “
Or, as I’ve said elsewhere:
“This is Africa, but it’s not a pain, it’s a gift.”
It follows from the above, but it’s a slightly different thing from mere patience: South Africans genuinely care about their neighbor in a way someone raised in an individualistic society can’t. They call this Ubuntu (or rather I choose this as my personal interpretation of the word). Let’s say you’re at the hardware store counter taking ages to pick supplies for your kitchen remodel, a long line of fellow shoppers behind you. Where you came from you’d feel uncomfortable making these people wait. For good reason, because they might give you the evil eye and impatiently tap their feet. But in South Africa, a crowd forms around you and makes your project their own, getting more excited about your new kitchen than you ever were yourself. I’ve never seen people so selflessly putting their own mission on hold to help out others, but it’s not merely a selfless sacrifice. It’s the genuine joy of finding a new problem to solve. Traveling with our South African friends was so much fun because inevitably something would go wrong – a busted tire, a broken axle – and immediately you would see their faces light up with the joy of this unexpected new project to tinker with.
Having to learn new ways in just about everything made our kids much wiser than their years would suggest. When your world gets upended overnight and you find yourself starting from scratch at school, in sports, and finding new friends, you learn to adapt. I called this the Expat Joy of Variety and Life Skills in an earlier article, for lack of a better title. It’s not necessarily something South Africa is unique at teaching. Most expats will find that there is virtue in doing as the Romans do when they arrive on new shores. And I’m not saying it’s always easy, as I’ve outlined in It’s a Climb: Third Culture Kids and the Power of Peer Pressure. But when I look at our family now, almost five years after we’ve returned, I can see the influence of South Africa on their character. Even though there is still plenty of eye rolling going on about a lot of things, they have become a more patient lot, kinder, and more willing to help. They’re open minded and accept other people for who they are. I credit their years at Dainfern College for a lot of this. I used to think we were extremely lucky to find such a fine school, right on our doorstep no less, but I’ve since learned that you can find a great many other fine private schools of the same caliber throughout South Africa. My listing in Private Schools in Johannesburg is one of my most-read blog posts.
Above all, I thank South Africa for the stories it has given me. No other place I’ve lived has inspired me to put so many thoughts into words. I could hardly keep up with the onslaught of new ideas, often inspired by the most mundane happenings, like a broken robot or an unintentionally funny notice at the post office. There were stories to be told about hard-working women, the incredible beauty of the African sky, and about toilets. And then there were the entertaining stories told to me that I simply recounted, such as Beware of the Horn-Pod Tree and Just Two Flimsy Pieces of Paper, Yet All that Could Stand Between You and a Prison Cell, and I Don’t Even Have to be in Joburg for Another Traffic Cop Story.
Africa supplies many a good story to the writer, and Africans themselves make for great storytellers. One of my favorite stories was the one told by Godlisten Mkonyi, our Kilimanjaro guide, on a frigid night shortly before our push to the summit. Supported with dramatic re-enaction, he recounted the time he begged an overweight but stubborn American climber to turn around, only to have to push her upwards with all his might lest they both fell and toppled down the mountain. Of course I myself had a story to tell after we returned from our adventure, and both of them can be found in Kilimanjaro Diaries: Or, How I Spent a Week Dreaming of Toilets, Drinking Crappy Water, and Making Bad Jokes While Having the Time of My Life. Inexplicably, every year since I’ve published it, it becomes a bestseller in the UK during the Christmas holidays. I like to think that many plans for a Kili climb are born out of someone giving my book to a friend on a whim.
Thank you South Africa, for giving me biltong, patience, Ubuntu, adaptable kids, and the gift of storytelling.
And now, a very Merry Christmas to everyone, may you all be happy and healthy and celebrate in good cheer!