12 Treasured Moments from my 12 Years in South Africa

25 September 2016 will mark my 12 year anniversary living and working in South Africa. This was never the plan. When I arrived with my two suitcases 12 years ago, the plan was to complete my one year contract, pay off the rest of my student loans and make my way back to the US to start a PhD programme. So, I rented a fully furnished apartment when I arrived, paid off the loans and studied for the GREs like crazy. When the time came for the move, I couldn’t do it. I was trapped in the lifestyle (yes, I’m a victim). Here I was, 25 years old, driving my very first car that I bought- a spiffy red honda and living without roommates or parents for the first time in my life! I just couldnt stomach the idea of going back to being a broke student and the doing the whole US hustle…you know, studying full time with 5 jobs on the side as I did in my  senior year of college.

So 12 years later, I’ve to ask myself if I did the right thing. The answer is 100% yes. Of course, there have been so many ups and downs living in this wonderfully complex rainbow nation. But, in the process, I’ve grown tremendously, personally and professionally. I’ve been able to work in 3 different organizations, learned new skills, traveled quite a bit, made lifelong friends, seen friends get engaged, married and have babies. I’ve celebrated promotions, graduations and  professional successes. Here are my 12 most memorable moments from the last 12 years in South Africa- some are major, some are light, some are personal, some are professional, some aren’t mentioned for one reason or another; but all are special and reflect my “coming of age” in South Africa – my home away from home.

1. Traveling all over South Africa. I was part of a team doing a review of South Africa in 2006 and it required us to travel throughout the country and speak to different stakeholders: government, non-goverment folks, etc. During that time, I visited 8 of South Africa’s 9 provinces. Since then, i have also been able to do some leisure traveling around the country. What I have enjoyed most is taking in its natural beauty. Botanical gardens and game parks never get old on me. The Addo Elephant Park (Eastern Cape), Kruger National Park (Mpumalanga), Robben Island (Cape Town) are pretty special. I also like the small town feel of Mafikeng (North West) and the freshness of Tzaneen (Limpopo). I was a bit shocked to discover a luxurious town called St. Francis Bay in the Eastern Cape where the filthy rich have their holiday homes. Most South Africans havent event heard of St. Francis Bay – a well kept secret.

Visiting the Magnificent Addo Elephant Park in the Eastern Cape, South Africa

2. Making some pretty cool professional contacts which I can brag about today. In a previous blog, I talked about working with Dr. Graca Machel so I wont say much about that here. Instead I will highlight two people that I met 10 years ago through work who have relatively recently risen to fame. The first is Dr. Abdul Issahaku aka Nash. Some 10 years ago, we collaborated on a project here in South Africa. At the time, he was working with the African Development Bank. Today, he is Ghana’s Central Bank Governor. Pretty cool!! My second claim to fame is  Prof. Anyang Nyong’o (then Kenya’s Minister of Planning and National Development). He is still engaged in Kenya’s politics and works as a senator. But, who cares about that. He is Lupita Nyongo’s dad so yeah… he might be getting a call from me when I put together a screenplay :). Sidebar: The doctor who delivered my son is Peter’s sister and Lupita’s auntie – seriously. 

With Dr. Abdul Issahaku at a Cape Town Workshop in 2006
Work Dinner with Prof. Nyong’o in Sandton, Johannesburg, 2005

3. Buying my first home. In 2006, during my late twenties, I decided to put down roots and make my first big adult move. I bought this quiet little townhouse with its little garden. I lived there for 5 years – great memories.

Mi Casa, Pretoria (2007-2011)

4. Meeting Nelson Mandela. What an amazing opportunity! This happened in 2007, I think. I don’t have the photo anymore and it kills me. But, it was truly an honour to be up and close and shake his hand. This meet and greet was organized by his wife, Mrs Machel, who sat on our board and decided to “treat” my colleagues and I to this amazing opportunity. What a legend. I will never forget that moment.

5. Speaking to the Pan African Parliament in 2007 about the status of socio-economic development in Rwanda. This was probably one of the most nerve-racking experiences of my professional life because of the sheer size of the room and the calibre of people I was speaking to. All I remember was a thundering applause when I talked about Rwanda’s impressive strides in gender equality, particularly in terms of the proportion of women in parliament. They liked that 🙂 The rest is a distant memory.

6. The 2010 Soccer World Cup. Magic, Pure Magic.. until Ghana was kicked out (unfairly I might add) and then the excitement kind of died down for me. But, I remember the buzz around the whole event. The country was on fire. I went to the opening concert – that was great. I went to watch some games live at the stadium – first time ever! I am convinced that I’ve lost a bit of my hearing from those vuvuzelas.

Pre-game shenanigans at the Ghana-Serbia Game in Centurion (2010)

7. Meeting (ok, stalking) Denzel Washington in Cape Town. Yes, this story made the cut even though my photo evidence is suspect – I admit. But it is really him – cross my heart and hope to die. I believe it was in 2011. I was unwinding in a bar in Cape Town after a long day of work when this wonderful specimen in Nike tracksuit bottoms walked in with his posse in the black Tees and the OG wearing the hat. The bar went crazy! Capetonians are generally too cool for school but everybody including the white people raced over to gawk and take photos. I Usain-bolted over there, took one photo and boom, camera died. That is Denzel in the Nike tracksuit bottom about to sit. I know, I know… But, its really him. He was in South Africa shooting a movie. True story, I promise.

Denzel Washington and friends at Cubana Cafe in Cape Town, 2011

8. Graduating with the Playa-Hatin Degree. It took 6 long years to complete my doctorate part time in SA. I must admit I nearly gave up a few times. So many things went wrong including my PhD supervisor leaving the university and me having to find a new one mid way. But, with help from above, I pulled through and graduated in 2012. The ceremony was pretty special. My two besties  were there to support me. It was great!

Graduation Ceremony, 2012

9. Receiving two awards and getting published all in one year . In 2013, my PhD research won me an award for “best emerging researcher” by the Association for the Development of Education in Africa (ADEA) which is an initiative of the African Development Bank. I was invited to Paris to receive this award. I also got a cash prize of $5000 (yessss!). In the same year, I was informed by my university that I won a prize for “best two Economics PhD students”. It was supposed to come with a small cash prize. I never received it… hmmm. This year was also pretty special in raising my academic profile. My work was published in two scientific journals after a brutal peer review process. My research about the mess of the education system in SA was also covered in a local newspaper to the annoyance of the Department of Education who responded aggressively and defensively.

10. Pursuing my hobbies. I enrolled in an online documentary film-making school in 2013 because I believe there’s a storyteller inside me who will eventually use all kinds of platforms to tell African stories. I made a short film about nature and race relations in South Africa thereafter. The following year, I signed up for a photography class and took some nice photos with my fancy canon camera which “walked away” from my apartment together my laptop in the same year (I’m still in recovery). In 2015, I launched this blog – my creative outlet and in 2016, took on a new challenge to learn how to make chocolate.

Some of my photos from the Walter Sisulu Botanical Gardens and the Kruger National Park

11. Becoming an auntie and god mother to my special munchkins. I love kids. Its been such a blessing being around friends in South Africa who have become parents. I am god mother to two special kids and “auntie”to several little boys and girls. I was even privileged to be in the delivery room for the birth of one special boy. I remember in 2014, getting a call at 4am that the baby was coming early – I got to the hospital so fast. I was there even before mommy arrived.

Bonding with my little angels

12. The birth of my son. Words cannot describe this feeling. All the cliches are very true. This is obviously my most treasured memory and I get chills thinking about that sunny morning in Sandton (February 2015) when my little man arrived pretty much on schedule at 38 weeks. My little Mzansi magic.

Little man’s arrival,  Johannesburg, 2015.

So, thank you, South Africa. This sounds like a good bye but it is not. I am still here and counting every blessing. It’s good to take a moment to take stock of the amazing highlights in your life especially in times when you feel frustrated and/or unaccomplished as I do sometimes. Snapping out of it and focusing on past achievements and how far you’ve come put things into perspective. It will also give you the oomph that you need to soldier on in this journey called life.

Peace and Love!