I’ve never been one to stay in one place. As a journalist for more than 20 years, I’ve been able to make a living in my hometown of Detroit; the city where I went to college, Atlanta; the city where I married, New York; and the city where I landed after my divorce, L.A. Moving to another country was the next natural step in my journey of worldwide storytelling.
But as the single mom of a fifth grader, my dream of moving to Johannesburg required extra preparation and careful planning. Here’s my story, with some lessons I learned along the way and a few pointers from experts.
I started saving for our move a year in advance, telling most of my family and friends and putting my dreams out into the atmosphere. I made up my mind to move to South Africa because I’d seen so many U.S. publications launch South African editions, which gave me hope that I’d be able to continue freelancing. Many friends who had visited Johannesburg suggested that I visit before moving. Unfortunately, I didn’t follow their suggestion, which complicated things a little.
If you’re planning even a visit to South Africa, you’ll need a passport and a visa. It cost me $140 for my passport and another $95 for my daughter Nya’s. We had to send in original copies of our birth certificates, which were returned when we received our passport books less than eight weeks later.
The visas were more complicated. I was able to apply for a six-month travel visa, but Nya was required to have a study visa in order to enroll in school. Here’s the kicker: You can’t request a study visa until you have an acceptance letter from a school. And because I hadn’t visited in advance, we had to manage this long distance.
We were referred to the Kairos School of Inquiry – a small, focused primary school that had been open less than five years – and were able to connect with the owner, Marc Loon. He and Nya’s teacher interviewed Nya over Skype before reviewing her school records. He asked for recommendations from her teachers, and we were able to get accepted less than two weeks later.
In South Africa, even public schools charge attendance fees, and fees for fifth graders at Kairos are $500-$600 per month. Some international schools cater to American students, and we chose Kairos because we felt that the teachers would pay particular attention to Nya and her needs.
We arrived Aug. 1, in the dead of winter when the temperatures rest in the mid-50s. L.A.’s hottest months are South Africa’s coldest. The school year began the last week of July, so Nya was a week late, but the school was incredibly welcoming. Nya fell in love with the school immediately, making friends the first week and engaging in the after-school meditation program, cooking class and nature club.
I also began learning right away. Some of my first lessons were about banking. Nya’s school required us to have a bank account for them to take fees out each month, but banks in South Africa require at least a six-month lease agreement on a house or apartment, along with utility bills in your name to open a checking account.
We were able to open a limited non-resident savings 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 inside the branch. Because banks and other institutions such as libraries encourage online service, lines to get service in person are always extremely long. The day I opened my bank account, we were in the branch for two and a half hours. The second time I tried to deposit American dollars into the account, I waited in line for 90 minutes because the computer system used to convert my dollars to local currency was down.
The line to set up my cell phone account was also quite long. Anyone who wants to set up an account but isn’t a South African resident is required to provide three months of bank statements, an employment contract and a lease or utility bill. A current South African resident can co-sign for you, but that’s quite a bit to ask of a stranger. As an alternative, I bought a prepaid SIM card that holds only a small amount of data, so I’m buying data and airtime at least twice a week.
There are plenty of other differences as well. Drivers drive from the right-hand side of the car on the right-hand side of the street, and L.A. traffic has nothing on Johannesburg traffic. Grocery stores are always right next to liquor stores, cookies are called biscuits, milk is called crème, grits are called pop, a barbecue is called a braai and ketchup is called tomato sauce. There’s no chili and no non-dairy creamer. There is no Ebay in South Africa and no one trusts the Johannesburg postal system. We haven’t figured out how to send letters to our family and friends, so Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp keep us connected.
As of this writing, 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. Leaving is always hard and despite the love of adventure, you miss the familiar.
If you are planning a big out-of-the-country move, there are things you can do to make the journey easier on your child.
Advice for Your Journey
Thandi Puren, husband Bevan Rees and daughters Coco Rose Puren-Wilter, 12, and Leia Belle, 8, moved from Johannesburg to Laverstock, England, this past summer after four years of deliberation about the right time for the transition. “The truth is, I don’t know if there is a perfect time,” Puren says. “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.”
Johannesburg-based clinical psychologist Zamakhanya Makhanya says these feelings are natural. “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,” Makhanya says. “What I have found in my work is that parents are often oblivious or perhaps in denial when it comes to the impact of certain experiences on their children.”
Losing friends, starting at a new school, being immersed in a new culture and trying to learn a new language are among the factors that can have a big impact on kids, but Makhanya says a parent’s involvement can make a big difference. She says moms and dads can help kids understand their feelings about the move, work through expectations and gain practical skills such as how to say “goodbye” and “hello” to their new peers.
Margie Wilson, a Johannesburg-based counseling psychologist, adds some other tips for parents:
Communicate with your children as soon as the decision to move has been made.
Respect and validate your children’s feelings and allow them to express their reactions – positive or negative – to the move. Reassure them that you will give them all the support and help that you can in making the adjustment, and share with them that it is going to be an adjustment for you, too.
Be clear about the reasons for the move and do not sugarcoat the challenges there will be for the whole family in settling in a new country.
Plan farewell functions for them at school and any other place where they are involved.
Explain where you will be living. Ideally, be able to show them pictures of their new home and plan details such as how their bedroom will be decorated. Reassure them that some of your household belongings will be going with you and that they will be surrounded by familiar and loved things.
Discuss schooling with them and settle on school placement before the move if possible. Show your child pictures of their new school.
Help your child with some age-appropriate research into the country where you will be living and identify places they might like to visit and interesting facts about the culture. Chat about familiar activities that you will still be able to share and some new pursuits you may enjoy as a family.
Explain the ways you will be able to stay in touch with family and friends (via Skype, etc.) and any possible visits to or from their loved ones.
Puren and her husband took time in helping their daughters with the transition. “We went through a very long process of speaking to our girls about their feelings, especially relating to security,” Puren says. “We wanted to know how they saw their lives, how they experienced it and how they dreamed it to be. Then we drew up a list of what we wanted our new lives to have and to be. Yes, much on that list was pure fancy, but we gave our children and ourselves free rein to dream. We wanted our children to feel empowered as co-creators of the experience and not victims of it.”
Darralynn Hutson is a freelance writer currently living with her daughter in Johannesburg.