Over the past few months I’ve been sharing stories of South African expats who have emigrated across the globe and it’s quickly become one of the most talked about series on my site!
I’ve tried to feature people and families who have chosen the “usual suspects” of England, Australia, New Zealand and Canada… but I find the stories that feature those who’ve chosen an alternative option even more fascinating!
Today’s Honest Expat is Yolande, a good friend of mine (and we miss their family dearly), who moved to Ghana in West Africa just over a year ago.
Read on below for more of her experience as an Expat in Accra…
Where are you originally from?
I am South African and lived in the country for most of my life – first in Pretoria and then in Cape Town.
Where did you emigrate to?
We haven’t actually emigrated as such. My husband was offered a 3 year family assignment working on a project abroad. We are currently living in Accra, the capital of Ghana in West Africa.
When did you emigrate (year)?
Our assignment started in August 2016.
What was the catalyst/s for your emigration?
With the drop in the oil price and the longer than usual downturn, many oil companies have been in a process of streamlining their business. Engineering work had dried up in Cape Town and we were offered a role in Ghana. We were faced with a tough decision, stay in Cape Town with limited career or experience development opportunities, or move to Ghana and be involved in a world class project, developing good experience during the downturn.
How long had you thought through the emigration process?
We were given 4 months to make a decision which, fortunately, included a recce trip to our potential new location.
How easy/ complicated was the application process to emigrate and how long did it take?
As we were not actually emigrating, this was a relatively simple process. We were also fortunate, as this was a company move, that most of the formalities were managed by the company. Our biggest challenge was managing the actual house move and getting our children into an international school in Ghana.
Did it require certain qualifications/ documentation/ finances etc?
Yes, the assignment did require a minimum of 10 years’ experience, a tertiary qualification with documented work experience history and evidence of additional training. As the company was aware of these, it was just a matter of providing the relevant information. This, however, only secured a 1 year work permit that needs to be renewed on an annual basis and we were not given any permanent residency.
What was your first year like after emigrating?
It was initially quite challenging on both a work and a personal level. At work my husband had to adapt to a very different and demanding work environment with exceptionally long hours. On a personal level it took longer than we anticipated to get into a house which was quite unsettling. For the first 5 months we lived out of suitcases as securing a rental home took far longer than we anticipated. We were fortunate, however, that the company did provide us with furnished accommodation which at least allowed us some semblance of normality. The kids had to adapt to a very different school system and ethos and make new friends. Once we moved into a more permanent rental home with our own furniture and personal items things did start to get better.
What have you loved about your new home – for you and your children?
It’s warm all year round, we can swim and spend lots of time around the pool. We live in a gated estate which reduces some of the security concern, but also offers the opportunity to really get to know our neighbours. As an expat with kids in an international school I’ve been offered the opportunity to meet many people from different nationalities which makes for interesting friends. People in the expat community are tight and always willing to help. We have been able to explore a new country, to get an understanding of West African culture and to go on some interesting international holidays. Living in a different country sometimes forces you to try new things you never thought about before. My children have got involved in the swimming team due to the lack of familiar sports here in Ghana and I have got involved in Batik wax dying, sewing, cooking and art classes, some of which I wasn’t doing back in South Africa.
What have you found hard about your new home – for you and your children?
First and foremost being far away from close friends and family and the beautiful mountains and clean beaches that surround us back home. It took the children a while to get used to their new school as it’s very different from what they had previously experienced. Living in a 3rd world country has the usual challenges around poor road network and condition, general pollution, availability of goods and lack of good public services which you’ve come to expect. There is also a very different general work ethic here, so getting anything done well, and in a reasonable time frame, is challenging. While Ghana is an interesting place, there isn’t much to do here, especially for families. While we try get out of the city and embrace the outdoor on weekends, you quickly exhaust the short list of attractive family-friendly activities which you still need to manage to enjoy in a very hot and humid climate. It is additionally very stressful to drive outside the city as you are regularly pulled over by authorities who are often looking for “something extra”. The risk of malaria, of course, is always in the back of your mind.
What have you NOT missed about South Africa – for you and your children?
The regular aggressive crime reporting and the constant worry for family safety.
What have you missed about South Africa – for you and your children?
The beauty of Cape Town, the range of fine affordable restaurants, the access to a huge range of outdoor activities and the great weather to enjoy it. Something we took for granted in SA was the kids primary school in Cape Town that offered a huge variety of academic, sport and culture activities on premises within the school day. Here it is more limited and we have to manage a lot of the kids sport and cultural development outside of school hours. We have definitely missed fresh milk and some of the good quality fresh meat, cheese and vegetables we could easily get in South Africa. Need I say, good, affordable wine??
Knowing what you know now – would you emigrate again? To the same place or to a different place?
In our case this is a temporary assignment, so we would more than likely still have made the same decision. That said, we might have tackled our various challenges with a more positive attitude and maybe chosen not to bring as much of our stuff with us!
If you could, would you return to South Africa? What would make you consider returning to South Africa?
Yes, we love South Africa and always will. If the industry turns enough before the end of our assignment and work opportunities present themselves it would be difficult not to seriously consider a return. Cape Town is our home after all.
What makes it hard to return to South Africa – for you and your children?
First and foremost securing a challenging and rewarding work opportunity near our extended family for my husband, and secondly the uncertainty with regards to securing a quality education and good future work opportunities for our children.
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?
I don’t think anyone can truly prepare you for moving to a new country, especially if it is so different to your own.
My advice would be to definitely have a flexible and open minded attitude, if you remain positive then you will be able to manage the challenges much better. Embrace everything about the new country and try not to keep one foot in the old one, it will just make it harder to accept all the things that are different and you will keep thinking about the things you miss.
As far as visas, work permits and other practicalities go, it is different for each country, but you should definitely do your research, even better if you have a company lined up on the other side to support you through this process.
It is also helpful to meet with other families who have moved to the same country and get valuable information from them.
In hindsight what we would have done differently was to try and secure a house that we could have moved in straight away. I am glad I brought all our own furniture as it saved me a lot of time and hassle on this side. It quickly felt more like home because our things were familiar to us.
Sometimes if you know too much of the hardships lying ahead you might not have the courage to go through with it so knowing less can also be a blessing!
Thanks Yolande for sharing your story about your time as an Expat in Accra x
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 are (or have been) a South African expat and are prepared to share your story please drop me an email. I’d love to hear from you! firstname.lastname@example.org