For the past few weeks I’ve been sharing interviews with South African expats across the globe in my new series: The Honest Expat
It’s a question on the minds of many and currently a topic of conversation at braai’s across the country: Emigration. Do we stay or do we go??? We know all the reasons to go – crime, violence, economy, education, politics, but what is it REALLY like??
I don’t want the “fake news” story. I want The Honest Expat to tell me like it is. I want the realities (good and bad) of emigrating for South African families from those who’ve gone before. It’s proving to be an interesting read each week for myself… and I hope for you too!
Today’s story is shared by Gaelyn (32) who has recently taken the emigration leap and followed her husband, Chris (35) to Zambia (along with their growing baby bump due Feb 2018!) Chris’s daughter Zoe, (13), has stayed in East London to start high school.
Where are you originally from?
I grew up in Durban, but lived in East London since 2009.
Where did you emigrate to?
A small mining town, Solwezi, in Zambia.
When did you emigrate (year)?
July 2017 (Previously we spent 18 months in Madagascar and Tanzania in 2008/2009 on contract, and moved back to SA when those expired.)
What was the catalyst/s for your emigration decision?
My husband has been working as a contractor, flying in and out of SA every 6 weeks for almost 10 years, and we were simply DONE being apart. He is a highly qualified paramedic and unfortunately the salary for paramedics in SA is not nearly enough to support a family. Plus, the dangers they face on shift while avoiding reckless drivers in his response car, along with the recent attacks on paramedics, made him consider a change of career. In order to earn a decent enough salary we knew that we would need to look outside of SA. Added to that the general crime, corruption and deterioration of the education system, we knew that it was time to investigate opportunities outside of SA.
How long had you thought through the emigration process?
We have always discussed it, going as far as starting the application to move to Australia back in 2008. Unfortunately we had to cancel those plans when we were told Zoe could no longer move with us. (At 4 years old, she was just too young to consider co-parenting long distance!) Spending 2008 and half of 2009 abroad cemented our decision that one day we would leave SA for good, as that was by far the happiest time of our lives!
How easy/ complicated was the application process to emigrate and how long did it take? Did it require certain qualifications/ documentation/ finances etc?
The most difficult part about our move to Zambia was obtaining a work permit for my husband. The Zambian Government are very strict on the policy that only expats who can perform a service or have skills which a Zambian doesn’t have, are allowed entry. We were told that this application process normally takes 3-6 months, so we prepared to get our affairs in order while we waited. We were all taken completely by surprise when his permit was approved in under 3 weeks! Luckily his company managed all the administration and dealing with Government departments, and all we needed to submit were general documents like his CV, certificates and qualifications, and proof of employment in Zambia. After a few years living here, we will be eligible to apply for residence permits, which will no doubt require another batch of paperwork.
What was your first year like after emigrating?
We have only been here 4 months and so far we couldn’t be happier. Zambian people are just so friendly, polite, respectful and helpful. Anyone with a job is just so grateful to have work that they put in 100% at all times. Us South Africans can really learn from them! There have obviously been some big adjustments too. We are living in a very small town and we don’t have access to things we are used to back in SA. We love learning about the new culture and exploring our new home.
What have you loved about your new home – for you and your children? (the positives of emigrating)
Crime is virtually non-existent, and any that you do hear about is petty/opportunistic crime. Although Zoe isn’t with us (yet) we have done a lot of investigating into what life would be like for her here, and obviously what life will be like for our baby once it’s born next year. There is an incredible international school which caters for children from preschool right through to A levels. This is important for us as Zoe plans to study abroad, and will have a higher chance being accepted to an international university with more than a standard SA Matric. The high school is set on a game reserve, and children ride their bikes to and from primary school on the huge golf estate. The expat community is incredibly welcoming and supportive, quickly becoming like family, and you are never without friends to spend your time with. The climate is great – neither of us are Winter people, so having such a mild Winter works beautifully for us! Obviously a huge plus is the USD salary, and is the main reason why many people leave SA for these kinds of jobs. The companies all have amazing benefits for employees, covering rent, lights and water, internet and DSTV, full time domestic workers, car and petrol, cell phone and medical insurance. Some companies even pay for a certain number of return flights back to SA each year. We find the slower pace of life in Solwezi wonderful too. There are no big malls or cinemas, night clubs or big highways – it’s about playing and watching sport, braai’s and relaxed, laid-back socialising. Most times, a work permit will only be issued to one member of the family, so many wives don’t work. This is wonderful as it means we are able to be full time moms!
What have you found hard about your new home – for you and your children? (the negatives of emigrating)
I would be lying if I said it was all sunshine and roses, but it is pretty close! Different cultures and nationalities bring with them different expectations and norms, which takes patience, tolerance and time to get used to. (For example, letting a Zambian into traffic never gets you a thank you wave – they just expect that someone will let them in. It’s not a favour, or kindness like it is in SA.) Medical care is limited in our small town. All major emergencies can be cared for, but there are no specialists on call, you would need to travel to Lusaka or SA for that, but the medical insurance is excellent and covers all those costs. Younger children I’ve spoken to have no complaints living here, and the teenagers have all said they love not having the pressure of big city living on them. However, there are some children who struggle with the quieter lifestyle, and who battle academically with the Cambridge system.
What have you NOT missed about South Africa – for you and your children? (the positives of emigrating)
I don’t miss locking my doors, closing all my windows and feeling like I have to be on edge 24/7. I don’t miss the politics and constant negativity in the press and from friends and family. I don’t miss the complaining and lack of gratitude many South Africans are known for. I don’t miss the constant financial worry, and job insecurity brought on by BEE. I don’t miss panicking about my children managing to get into university and whether they will have to miss exams because of protests and violence on campus.
What have you missed about South Africa – for you and your children? (the negatives of emigrating)
I miss the convenience of shops like Woolies with readymade food and pre-chopped veggies!! We have a Shoprite and a Pick n Pay but their fresh produce is limited, and a lot of what is on the shelves are expired items from SA. Although we didn’t eat out a great deal, we always enjoyed weekend breakfasts at farm stalls and being able to go to a speciality restaurant for whatever we craved. I miss the beach – this is the first time I have ever lived away from the coast. Most children here don’t actually miss anything from SA as everything they need is right here! I miss the security of specialist medical doctors on my doorstep, but having a paramedic for a husband helps. Obviously we miss my step-daughter, Zoe, the most! Co-parenting long distance is tough!
Knowing what you know now – would you emigrate again? To the same place or to a different place?
My husband and I are adventurous spirits, and would gladly take up any opportunity for a new experience. We have no regrets about moving here, and if anyone were offered a job here and asked us whether it was worth it, our answer would be a resounding YES.
If you could, would you return to South Africa? What would make you consider returning to South Africa?
At this stage we have no plans to ever return to SA full time. We would only consider it if Chris lost his job, and was not able to find employment elsewhere. SA would not be our first choice to move to from here.
What makes it hard to return to South Africa – for you and your children?
We are just so at peace here, with so much less stress and fewer worries, I can’t imagine giving this physical and emotional security up. I would also feel like moving back to SA would be a step backwards instead of forwards in the advancement of our family. We left for good reasons, those reasons won’t have disappeared any time soon. Since we returned to SA in 2009, we have dreamed of the day we get to leave again.
What were the unexpected (good and bad) aspects of emigrating that you’d wished you’d known about before going. Do you have any advice for those contemplating making this huge move for their families?
Most of us know before we leave that the parts like leaving family and friends behind will be difficult, but what you can’t prepare yourself for is how quickly you can make new friends, and just how welcoming they will be. If you make the decision before you arrive to accept all invitations and put yourselves out there, you will immerse yourself in your new life in no time. Join the local Facebook groups, join a gym and book club, start a sport – all of these offer great ways to make new friends.
Don’t compare this life to your old one, accept and embrace your new normal and run with it. Research your new town before you move there, so that you have some idea of what to expect.
Commit to at least two full years in your new home before having the conversation about whether it’s worked or not for your family. Change is tough, and you need time to settle and get used to your new life. Just like you didn’t rush into the decision to leave SA, don’t rush into the decision to move back.
Oh, and if possible, have a baby. A growing baby bump is a great conversation starter and awesome way to make new friends 🙂
If you enjoyed this interview with a South African expat be sure to read the other interviews with South African expats in The Honest Expat series.
If you’re a South African expat living elsewhere in Africa I’d love to feature you in The Honest Expat series so do email me: firstname.lastname@example.org
Images: Stock Libraries & Gaelyn Cokayne