A Country in Darkness

Tonight we began to experience what is being described in the press as the worst power crisis in SA since 2008. The state electricity utility, ESKOM, after years of mismanagement and gross fraud and corruption, is utterly bankrupt and unable to manage the needs of the country-wide electricity network. Since we got here there’ve been little scheduled outages – called “load shedding” – during which we’d lose electricity for an hour or two, depending on the stage, with one being the most minor. All of that escalated dramatically today, as ESKOM lost six of their major operating units resulting in an urgent implementation of “Stage 4 Load Shedding.” For us, that means a loss of electricity for about 10 hours a day, staggered in 3 or 4 time slots of about 3 hours each, for the foreseeable future – at least for several weeks. Apparently this is required because at the moment the entire electricity grid could go down at any minute. The ineptitude and mismanagement is staggering.

Tonight’s load shedding was in addition to a planned 8 hour outage we had earlier today for maintenance. All of this, while inconvenient and befuddling, is completely manageable for us, with our candles and flashlights and headlamps and safe locked houses and running water. Of course our garage doesn’t open (which is a problem if we need to get to a meeting or the kids to school and can’t get the car out), the phones don’t charge, the internet is down, the kids can’t print their homework, we have to grill our dinner, the lights in stores are dark, and maybe the ice melts in the freezer. All fine. However I sit in the dark thinking about the millions of people who are not so fortunate; who live in not great conditions in the first place, who don’t have the safety and security that we do, who live in areas with lots of crime and violence, who rely on electrical appliances to heat or preserve food, etc. All definitely not fine.

This country is such a conundrum. So glorious on the one hand (today before dinner we went swimming at tide pools at the beach), and such a mess on the other. As someone said, it definitely “gets under your skin” to want to help.

Here are the kids enjoying the dark!

Our Load-Shedding Schedule for tomorrow is below. Don’t expect to hear anything from us during it!

Stage Four: 2-4:30, 10-12:30, 18-20:30

Rethinking Perspectives and Finding Lots of Inspiration


Over the last several months I have thrown myself into helping as many early childhood/social impact focused initiatives as possible. These have ranged from helping the country’s largest food processing manufacturer think about how to use their influence to assist young children to facilitating a strategic planning process for an investment firm committed to early childhood investments to supporting an innovation firm identify opportunities for innovation and collaboration with business to providing guidance and feedback on policy recommendations offered by the violence prevention field. Through this process I have met many fascinating, committed, intelligent, energetic, sometimes frustrated, stressed and tired South Africans of all ages, backgrounds, education levels, ethnicities, languages and skin tones.

Thank goodness there are so many – because South Africa’s children need them desperately. The situation facing these children and their families is dire:

80% of South Africa’s children are black (10% are coloured and only about 10% are white). Compared to their white peers, these children are, on average:

• 20 times more likely to experience hunger
• 23 times more likely to live in income poverty
• 8 times more likely to have no access to adequate water
• 29 times more likely to have no access to adequate sanitation
• 4.7 times more likely not to complete secondary education

SA children are exposed to unimaginable levels of violence and trauma. 99% of 2000 children being tracked in longitudinal study have experienced or witnessed some form of violence, and more than 40% had multiple experiences of violence in their homes, schools and communities. In one of the rural provinces in which we are helping, 80% of children are poor (meaning household income of less than $71/month) and most live in single parent households.

In terms of educational outcomes, 78% of SA’s children cannot read in any language – birth or other – in grade 4. While this particular number is not dissimilar to literacy rates among low-income populations in the States, the challenges here remind me more of the systems – or lack there-of – in Guatemala, where there are similar levels of poverty, similar levels of institutional racism and inequity, a similar history of evil institutional violence and economic segregation against indigenous cultures, similar levels of regressive taxation and government distrust, and similar levels of government corruption and utter ineptitude. What South Africa does have, thankfully, is a growing cohort of committed individuals – white, black and coloured – who recognize that the future of their country is at stake. They are focused on correcting the mistakes of the past and ensuring that children and families have the foundation they need to flourish. While the hurdles are huge, it’s wonderful to witness, in our own little way to support, and to soak in – the diversity of opinions and approaches is breath-taking.

Chris and I have visited Cape Town’s largest township, Khayelitsha, twice in the past week. The first visit was with Ayanda and Buntu, social entrepreneurs running ABCDConcepts, a for-profit immersive township tourism initiative and Sportingcode, a non-profit focused on youth empowerment through sport. These men – both in their late 20s – did not have formal education, yet they were bright, articulate, humorous, intelligent and street smart. Born and bred in the township, they were proud of their heritage and eager to both promote it and support it. Yet they would not be out of place in Silicon Valley, using all of the current lingo and “narratives” and “frames.” Our meeting with them was raw, humbling, revealing and inspirational. Read more about it on Chris’s blog here.

The Stunning Drive to Khayelitsha

The following week we were back for an “Idea Maker” session hosted by the Cape Innovation and Technology Initiative. It was designed to immerse ed tech entrepreneurs in the mindset of the 2 million residents of the townships of the Cape Flats (the relocation site for all of Cape Town’s blacks during the apartheid era, which, from the highway looks like miles and miles of run-down shacks). While the process was fascinating and illuminating, the real value of the day was hearing others’ perspectives – from the University of Cape Town graduate school of business professors to the township entrepreneur to the ed tech developer.

And from another perspective – the first time we drove in I was definitely nervous, not sure what to expect, making sure our car doors were locked, that no one approached us at stop signs, that all of our belongings were hidden in the car or tightly held to our chests. We arrived at a building with a vibe, an energy and a look that would fit right in to Boston’s Seaport. The second time, while still using common sense, I understood that not everyone was out to get us; that while crime happens, most township residents are going about their daily lives and not focused on robbing the idealistic white person. A lot to process and reflect upon.

We are so very fortunate to be here and to be learning so much!!!


To Stay or To Go (and to Return?)

Do I stay or do I go now? No, I’m not referring to the Clash song – and I’m not referring to the decision our family is facing as we consider the move back home in July. (That would be a MUCH longer conversation!) I’m referring to the decision that is apparently top of mind for many South Africans –those who look like us and are in the 30-50 year old range: to remain committed to this country and the future that together South Africans must shape, within the context of the current political and cultural settings; or to leave – to emigrate elsewhere.  This seems to be a common – and heart wrenching – decision.  On the one hand, there is little faith in the government’s ability (and for some, perceived willingness) to play critical governance, oversight and accountability roles that we take for granted in the states. In fact, the prior Presidential administration clearly demonstrated that its priority was solely to enrich the pockets of the men and women in office – leaving the country broke and many of the formerly strong state agencies (such as the department of revenue) in tatters.  There exists incredible inequity and institutional racism that 25 years after the end of apartheid seem to have decreased in word only.  There is a sense of palpable and pervasive fear – fear of violence, of being robbed/kidnapped, of corrupt politicians who purport to serve the poor but who have historically exacerbated the inequities and have little interest in “upliftment of all” – through education, health care, employment, etc.  Why invest in an informed, educated population that ultimately might vote with their feet?

On the other side, Cape Town (which is all we personally can speak to), offers an unparalleled, perhaps best in the world quality of life for those who can afford it.  The diversity of the population is breaktaking  – people of all shapes, sizes, colors and languages are together ALL THE TIME.  The outdoors are stunning – and folks are outside ALL the time. People are friendly and casual, and the food and wine flows for a song.  People have a strong sense of pride in their country, and they want it to succeed.  They are not overtaken with their own sense of import, and seem to have a very healthy work/life/family balance.  The weather is delightful, with summer/spring lasting 8 months of the year.   No sub-zero temperatures (in Celsius or Fahrenheit!) here!

The frequency with which we hear this debate taking place among friends and strangers we meet has really been striking to us. And it also reinforces the gratitude we feel – on a daily basis – to be US citizens. On any given day or year, we might not agree with current political leaders or trends. Yet despite any current misgivings we both have the utmost respect and belief in American political governance, our constitution, our separation of powers, our freedom of the press, the promise of a strong future for our children.

Here are some of the key themes from the relatively small sample size of folks with whom we’ve discussed staying/leaving/returning:


  • This is my country. I’d never leave.
  • Yes, the government is a mess, but we love our country and are determined to help shape its future for our children.
  • Yes there are issues but every time we travel we can’t wait to come home. We could never find this quality of life anywhere else. Just look around!
  • Things have been very very bad for everyone over the past decade. It isn’t sustainable; things need to change.  We are cautiously optimistic about (current President) Cyril Ramaphosas.
  • We absolutely love it here; there is a thriving black middle class where I live (in Joburg) and I would being part of it.  Would never leave.

And from our housekeeper, Rea, an immigrant from Malawi who sends much of her $24 (from us) weekly paycheck home to support her 14 year old daughter there (she has two other daughters here), and from every Uber driver we meet, and from every gas station attendant – many of whom seem to be from Zimbabwe:

  • We absolutely want to be in South Africa. In my country, the government is bad. There are no jobs. We can’t afford petrol. We can’t afford food. We can’t live there. Here, we can work, and we can live, and we can make money. It’s expensive, but we are so grateful to be here.

From our friends who are considering leaving:

  • The country is too fragile. Rightly, the government is implementing policies to try to redress wrongs, but at what expense to our family, to our children? We aren’t confident our children will be able to get the opportunities (in education, career) they need to thrive.
  • The security issue is overwhelming. It’s such a relief to travel and just breathe deeply and relax. We are on edge all the time here (because of the violence).
  • I fear for our country. So many people have been victims of evil, intentional inequity and racism for so long. They are angry – as I would be – and things are going to get to a boiling point. And our current president’s role is very tenuous. If (former President) Zuma comes back, things will only get worse.

And from those who have left:

  • We just had to get out of Joburg. That’s where the jobs are – but it’s just too unsafe, with dangers lurking around every corner. After trying hard to get into the States we moved to Australia two years ago. While we are still trying for the States, Australia is just so much easier…..we can relax and breathe, and our kids can walk on the streets again.
  • I moved to England ten years ago, but I still come home for medical care/health appointments. Health care here is top notch (for those who can afford it).
  • My brother and I both left – he ten years ago for England, I for a year in Australia. We both moved back to SA – for family and for overall quality of life.

Particularly striking is how easily people open up to us, and how emotional they often get. For instance, last weekend a vendor at a market teared up as she told us that she would soon be emigrating to England with her husband and children. It was obvious from her unhappiness that this was not a decision made lightly.

So fascinating!!!! These aren’t conversations that we – in our little bubble in Milton Massachusetts – have on a daily basis!!!

A Spiritual Experience in the Bush

It’s taken a few days to consider how to discuss our recent experience in the Timbavati Reserve near Kruger National Park in the northeast corner of SA. I’ve been on safaris before but this felt different. Perhaps it was the nature of the safari (game drives with occasional walking vs. more walking oriented), the environment (Kruger is vast but concentrated, with every form of game – particularly the big 5 – readily available), but I think it must have been the glee on my children’s faces as they giggled at the antics of young animals playing with each other and their mothers, as they peered through industrial strength binoculars at yet another sighting, as they struggled out of bed every morning at 5am but forgot their weariness the minute we saw the first impala, the first eagle of the day. This felt different.

Everything about our 3 day adventure in the bush was remarkable – Chris uses the word spiritual. All around us we experienced the immensity and intensity of nature and the earth and our role in both; endless land and sky punctuated with a constant, never ending mix of joyous life beginnings and bloody endings, of the simple reality that the fittest, fastest and smartest survive longest, of the importance and joy of community between and among different animal and bird species and humankind; of the clarity, fragility, and strength of life, of the wisdom of men and women completely committed to preserving their beloved country and this planet. We marveled at:

– Multiple herds of elephants with babies of all sizes cooling themselves off at watering holes or browsing in the vegetation;

– A reluctant hippo demonstrating his displeasure by roaring loudly at us, exposing a cavernous mouth almost as tall as Luke in height;

– A carcass of an old bull elephant being torn savagely by hyenas and vultures while a bereaved relative bellowed – from a safe distance – to try to protect the corpse as at least 70 additional vultures flew in circles overhead or perched on nearby trees, a clear sign of death;


– Joyful, playful three month old lion clubs – the first in this region for a long time – trying – and struggling – to climb small bushes and trees while their mother watches carefully;

– Packs of (about 30) zebras taunting bigger packs of (at least 20) wild dogs, who, while vigilant, laid contentedly in the sun to avoid indigestion after what must have been large meals, as an ever-opportunistic hyena circled nearby;

– A mother rhino and her little rhino cub (who must have weighed more than me) we finally located after walking in the bush for about 30 minutes,

– Mother leopard and her cub lounging in a tree at night after sating their appetite by consuming an impala they had hidden in the tree earlier that day;

– Old bull Cape Buffalo trudging slowly at the back of a pack of at least 20 buffalo of all sizes on their way to find nourishment and, in the hot sun, shade;

– Groups of graceful, elegant giraffes munching contentedly on vegetation while a lone adult giraffe gnawed aggressively on the remnants of an impala leg left draped in a tree after its predator – likely a leopard – was finished with it.

– What felt like millions of Impala – called the McDonalds of Kruger because they represented such delectable “fast food” for predators and sported what looks like the letter M on their behinds, sprinkled in with Steenboks;

– Many many species of utterly beautiful indigenous birds, punctuated by the wisdom of many large owls whose nodded eyelids seemed to acknowledge our presence as we marveled at them through industrial strength binoculars many meters away.


And so much more.

In just three days we learned so much. We learnt that most animal species are maternalistic; with males often banished from the pride/herd by the females. We learned that because adult male lions often kill cubs who are not their offspring, female lions partner with more than one lion so paternity isn’t clear. We learned that all the various ecosystems – human, animal, ecological, climate, plant, birdlife – must be in alignment for all three to survive and thrive. We learned that the best sightings are early morning (thus requiring 5am wake up calls) and in late afternoon/early evening (our 4pm safaris often didn’t end until 7:30, which were followed by cocktails and then dinner which often went until 10). We learned that it’s not morally correct to shine bright lights at non-nocturnal animals after sunset, since the temporary blindness would make them more vulnerable to predator attack. We were inspired by the amazing respect for nature, for conservation, for education of every member of the Tanda Thula family.


And we were utterly blown away by the knowledge bestowed on us by our tracker – a local gentleman named Given (bestowed upon his birth because his mother felt he was a gift from heaven 35 years ago) who lives about 100K away from the park but works for 6 weeks at a time, with two off; and our guide Antony, a witty, intelligent friendly bushman from the central part of the country featuring guide credentials matched by only a few others in South Africa, who was relentless in tracking every lead (we were usually the last safari truck back to the camp each night) in explaining every plant, every bird, every shape in the dirt that looked like scribbles to us but was actually clear evidence of an animal’s recent experience; in ensuring that we had a mind-blowing experience in the bush. Mission Accomplished and we are so unbelievably, incredibly grateful!

This experience is part of what we sought when we moved to Africa. This connection with the soil, the animals, the air, the bush, the humans who are so very committed to education, to inspiration, to conservation – it’s challenging to articulate, going to be hard when we leave, and utterly impossible to forget.


Delicious Mauritius


I’m writing this as we are flying home from our Christmas in Mauritius. Why Mauritius? When we landed in Cape Town in September, as part of our goal for this experience – to travel as much as possible – we started researching potential Christmas destinations. We considered several: Namibia, Victoria Falls, Mozambique. We didn’t realize that all of these are a) prohibitively expensive over the holidays and b) mostly booked, since South Africans tend to book their annual summer holiday a year in advance. We decided on Mauritius because it was a) relatively more affordable than any of the above and b) relatively easy to get to – just four hours from Johannesburg.


It was a great decision. Mauritius is a FASCINATING place. Its history – like most of Africa – is complicated and complex, with strands of French colonialism, and Mozambique and Indian immigrants and slavery. Our cab driver upon entry told us proudly he’s a fourth generation Mozambiquian living on the island. By far the most prominent language spoken was French (we repeatedly thanked the Milton French immersion program!) with very limited English. It was great for the kids to speak mostly in French and/or to translate between French speakers from France with English speakers from other places (Europe, Australia).

The island reminded me a lot of Bali in its colors, topography and vegetation (remember that, Stacey and Jamie Lyons and Jane Mingey?), but the culture was far more diverse, reflecting European, African and Indian customs and traditions. We saw multiple Hindu temples and Buddhist shrines, although did not see as much evidence of Islam as we might had we visited Zanzibar, further up the coast of Africa.  (remember that, Judith and Melissa?) The island, just about 120 miles from north to south, seemed relatively affluent, with a robust tourism sector and evidence of continued reliance on sugarcane obvious in every field we passed. However the past was never far away: for instance, we took a beautiful hike to the top of the Black River Gorge, a remote and stunning area where apparently slaves used to hide from capture – and if capture seemed imminent would jump off the cliffs to their death. (Hence the vigilance to keep Luke FAR away from any cliffs!)  Other excursions included a visit to the capital, Port Louis, during which we browsed through its famous market, got henna tattoos and twirled under hundreds of hoisted umbrellas, and a trip to the northern (and rather crowded) resort community of Grand Baie, passing gorgeous beaches and scenery along the way.  Color was everywhere – as was nature – frogs and monkeys and beautiful birds were plentiful.   The food was delectable:  fresh-from-the-sea fish and so much fruit- especially pineapple, mangos, pamplemousse (grapefruit), gauva  and lychees.  Yum Yum!






Click above to hear the frogs from our hotel!

Mauritius is also one of the most progressive and permissive African nations (along with Kenya) for innovation in education policy and practice. Chris was super excited about a day he spent with leaders from the African Leadership University, an institution created recently to develop African leaders for Africa. (See his blog post about his day here). Over the next few months we hope to visit their sister organization, the African Leadership Academy, which is based in Joburg and enrolls high school (or matric) level students.

So that was the context for our stay there. In terms of the holiday itself – what a hoot!!! In this culture – and in South Africa, as we understand it – the big deal is Christmas Eve versus Christmas Day. The resort threw a big Christmas Eve fest, complete with cuisine and entertainment from multiple cultures (Mauritian, Malay, Indian), that we enjoyed with another family from Cape Town. Santa rolled in via speedboat on Christmas Day, and while an announcer narrated (all in French of course) a program providing kids presents and opportunities to pose with Santa, Chris and I snorkeled and, after hemming and hawing, enjoyed perhaps just one more fruity cocktail.



One bit of excitement was the threat of a cyclone which developed on our second day. While it didn’t materialize, the risk was imminent enough that all water sports were cancelled for two days. Unfortunately this meant cancelling a planned trip to “swim with dolphins,” instead we opted to swim with turtles. That was absolutely miraculous and a terrific Christmas gift.  Since we were departing the next day, we also spent our last day saying goodbye to the friends we had met during the week.  Who knows where we’ll meet again?

(Post script). The standard closing for a post like this would be something like this:  we departed sunny Mauritius and arrived back in chilly, wintery New England, gasping at the cold air in our lungs and the dollars we must fork over for Uber or parking at Logan Airport.  However, this wasn’t the case. As we got off the plane in Cape Town, squinting in the 80 degree sunshine and marveling at Table Mountain’s striking profile 10 miles away, we walked briskly to our car and, after being a bit confused about the whopping $30 parking fee for the 7 day duration of our stay, we drove  home to our own little paradise in 30 minutes.



Celebrating the Holidays

It’s been a very busy few weeks, as the kids and Chris wrapped up their respective schools and experienced what Christmas looks and feels like in Cape Town.  One thing we weren’t expecting was the huge party atmosphere related both to the holidays but also to the end of the school year and start of summer vacation.  As mentioned earlier, Christmas for South Africans is different than at home: there certainly is not as much commercialism, there isn’t pervasive amazon, there aren’t aisles and aisles of plastic toys to be purchased.  Houses aren’t adorned with lights, and people (as far as we can tell) don’t send Christmas cards. What there are are lots and lots of those “crackers” (like toilet paper rolls that are pulled apart to release pre-loaded treats) and many opportunities for caroling; there are braais (barbecues) on sunny summer days and lots of bubbly and too many year end parties.

We were determined to bring with us traditions from home.  I purchased some cheap “stockings” and some twine and a needle and embroidered our initials into each stocking – a poor but well intentioned attempt to recreate Grandmommy’s stockings.  Pictures of our Christmas “tree” are in a separate post.  We attended multiple carols and sang and laughed with close friends.  And, with a nod toward one of our most cherished traditions from home, Charlotte and I held a cookie bake with friends here.  Women and girls representing multiple countries, cultures and religions joined us for an afternoon of baking, silliness, decorating, bubbly, swimming (a new twist), singing and caroling.

The ingredients were “kind of” the same – ha ha. My friends and I scoured the stores looking for ingredients similar to those we use at home.  One friend offered cookie cutters that, while including traditional favorites such as Santa, also represented a sub-Saharan Africa point of view:  a giraffe, some elephants, the continent of Africa.  The cranberry juice in the poinsettia drinks was a bit more fruit juicey; we had to constantly reference the “cheat sheet” of grams to kilograms to liters to ounces to cups, and we couldn’t quite get the oven temperature right.

It was REALLY fun.

From Water Shortage to Electricity Outages

It’s been an interesting few weeks, as we’ve (thankfully and luckily) moved away from the water shortage and are now facing another crisis. In terms of water, the dams are now at about 70% capacity. The powers that be feel confident enough to relax water restrictions from a level 5 (a 6 when we moved here- very near utter crisis, although not quite at the “day zero” level forecast originally to be May 2018) to level 3. Knowing that we are entering a dry season which will last until next winter (May/June here), I keep asking people if that’s wise to relax that much. People shrug their shoulders. Despite the level, we are continuing to use the conservation methods we’ve learned – reduced shower times, toilet flushes, etc.  It feels good to be mindful of the environment and do what we can to help.  We are also among the fortunate in that we have “borewater” in our backyard – which is separate system from the town.

So now that we have adjusted to reduced water consumption, we are facing another utility crisis: electricity “load shedding.” Apparently as a result of gross financial mismanagement at ESKOM, the state electricity utility, during the prior Zuma Administration, there is not sufficient capacity in the system to power all the city’s critical infrastructure – dams, lights, transport systems – when needed. “Load shedding” is a process of systemic and shared power black outs to conserve enough capacity to allocate it where most needed. It effects the entire Cape peninsula. Ostensibly there’s a published schedule announcing that a particular neighborhood will have a black out for two hours 4-5 times a week. Not completely sure how accurate it is; according to our schedule (which honestly I’m not paying enough attention to) we should have had several outages. We’ve only had one to my knowledge.

Even with the planned schedules, load shedding is causing chaos. Complete neighbors are pitch black; alarms go haywire, clocks blink off and on and phone systems seem impacted too.  I can’t even imagine how this impacts people in the townships.

As people say, this is Africa, after all!

Holiday Reflections


Being here over the holidays is raising many feelings and questions and impressions. First is a tinge of homesickness; we love our family and friends and miss being with all of you during this season especially.  We openly acknowledge this with the kids, and are framing this as a terrific opportunity to experience a Christmas like we’ve never had! We are still going to maintain some important traditions, including the cookie bake with new friends this Saturday, an advent calendar (but not the $60 Lego version), our unique midget version of a Christmas tree reflecting the fact we won’t actually be here after Dec. 19 (Chris feels offended but I think its perfect – see below); stockings embroidered with our names on them (Mom give me the aptitude and strength to pull this off), some carefully chosen presents that don’t put us over the weight limit of our small flight to Mauritius, where we’ll be spending Christmas day, and lots and lots of carols conveniently located at nearby vineyards.


Our Christmas Tree!

A few things that strike us:

First, how is the weather so amazingly wonderful? Shouldn’t it be cold and dark and rainy and snowy, with surround sound media including A White Christmas and Bing Crosby crooning in the corner? Shouldn’t we be out shoveling in the dark?

Second. The contrast with American commercialism is remarkable and welcome. Although we understand that stores have really ratcheted up the Christmas noise/spiel/promotions over the past few years, it does not come even close to the US. While there might be some real estate dedicated to Christmas shopping in a given store, most we’ve been in have allocated a whopping ½ an aisle to it. And half of that ½ an aisle is for chocolate (certainly an admirable thing). Most of the grocery stores here don’t fill their shelves with cheap plastic toys – there are other stores for that. Maybe we aren’t shopping in the right places, but it really strikes me. Plus some stores continue to (horrifyingly) close at 5 on Saturdays and are not open on Sundays. And while we understand from friends that things like Black Friday are growing in popularity here it still feels like the states maybe 10 years ago. Not a bad thing.

Third. Online commerce is just beginning to take off here. Amazon hasn’t yet made its appearance (although two friends at the kids school have parents working at Amazon – one leading all of sub-Saharan Africa) and it seems like only a few major retailers have really put a stake in the ground around it. The privacy, security and delivery systems all seem to be a bit shaky and not reliable. I’ve heard people argue with delivery folks about delivery time, and only participate in online shopping if it’s “cash on delivery.”

Fourth: this country is gearing up to shut down; everything seems to shut down from mid December to mid January. This is the end of their academic, business, and calendar years. Kids are taking exams*, companies are having end of year parties, everyone seems exhausted and ready to shut down for 4-6 weeks. This is somewhat unfortunate for us as, now that we are settled with house, school, etc. we are geared up to really figure out how to make a difference here. Chris esp. is exploring various options, but unfortunately will need to wait a month until folks are back in the right frame of mind. Fortunately I had a ready made network upon arrival so have been doing really interesting work for the past few months – but developing a network takes time. More on that in January.

(*I’ll leave the discussion of the academic year to a different post but their concept of exams, or “matric” – is fascinating. Most if not all of their annual grade comes down to one test at the end of the year. We have had many discussions with education experts here about the merits of the various approaches to education in SA vs. US vs. UK. Fascinating)

So how have we spent our holidays thus far? Thanksgiving we went to an amazing area called Cederberg, about 3 hours from Cape Town. A blend of Sedona and southern Utah, it is an immense area of prehistoric red rock with verdant green olive farms interspersed throughout. We had to travel 40K on a dirt/gravel road to even reach our lodging – and were grateful that our mighty $10K Honda made it!!! The weekend was filled with fabulous hiking and climbing to caves and jumping in waterfalls and swimming in lovely remote streams. The last night we were closer to civilization in a little valley which is as close to heaven as I’ve been…. a working farm with a small game reserve, pool for the kids, lovely restaurant. We have everything to be thankful for and are even more aware of it here then ever.


The Play by Play and some Reflections….

What We’ve Been Up To:

Two weekends ago we participated in The Cape Town Fun “run” – a somewhat euphemistic notion. Concept was: thousands of people walk/try to run along the picturesque Atlantic seaboard – one of the most beautiful landscapes in Cape Town. Over the course of the 5 K run through four massive domes in which the runners are doused with dried paint – yellow, red, purple and blue. Followed by the largest party we’ve been to here. Really really fun – followed the next day by a rocking party at our home for 50 of our new friends- tons of families and kids! Really fun.

Fast forward four days….Six months ago we couldn’t imagine saying the words, “Charlotte is in Joburg for a swim meet” for the following reasons:
• Charlotte swim? Beyond a few classes at the Y and participation in some triathlons, not really. But yup, started on a “real team” in early October and has, not surprisingly, jumped enthusiastically and determinedly (to my chagrin sometimes) into 7 am and after school swim practices
• Charlotte travel to Joburg? Without me? Yup – happily!
• Charlotte travel to Joburg for a swim meet? Yup – this weekend she travelled there for a tournament, along with students from American International Schools across Africa. She came, very respectfully and as expected, in the middle of the pack on all her races, finishing second out of 7 on two relays. Very strong showing for someone really new to swimming!!!!

While Charlotte was in Jo-burg, the rest of us were busy. On Saturday I helped put on our school’s Thanksgiving Lunch and Gratitude Celebration. While last year it was squarely about Thanksgiving, this year my friend Kate and I expanded it, to maximize the value of the amazing diversity at the school and to minimize the (perhaps questionable and not entirely historically accurate) “celebration” between white pilgrims and indigenous Americans. While neither Kate nor I were eager to spend our first three months in South Africa organizing buffets and yard games, the day was an amazing success – over 400 folks joined in, contributing 27 turkeys, 15 chickens and 200 hot dogs – all of which were immediately inhaled! We worked with the ecd, elementary and middle school staff to incorporate expressions of gratitude into curriculum over the past few weeks – and were treated to amazing performances by the school’s marimba band, cheerleaders and other groups! The fact we had our local brewery on hand made it even better for the adults! It was a wonderful multi-cultural celebration of thanks and gratitude – and made us feel even better and more welcome into our school and community here in Cape Town.

And Now Some Reflections:  on inequity, from both the macro and the personal levels:

I went to a regional economic conference last week, stuffed to the gills with economists and government ministers. The focus was on inequalities within economies….and what to do about it. Biggest learning for me: poverty reduction strategies often exacerbate inequality……..it makes sense: as policies help the rich to get richer, often times the poor get poorer. This chart was presented by a World Bank official. Not surprisingly, South Africa is ranked the most “polarized” country in the world. Most disturbingly, the US is ranked as 4th, with the UK right behind. !!!! (There are a few countries not on the list that I had thought would be; I need to do more research.)


On a micro level, inequality is unbelievably evident in the completely accepted practice of hiring “domestic (ie black) workers” among white South Africans. Housekeepers, gardeners, drivers, nannies – everyone seems to have domestic help. While we initially scoffed at the idea (yes, mom, I know you are likely shaking your head in heaven right now!) we have since learned that this form of employment, as distasteful as it might be to the morally righteous amongst us –- is actually a critical economic engine. A monthly wage for this domestic work might be R5000 – about $357. This money – which is all cash based – is used to fund entire extended families including children, parents, grandparents, nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles, etc – living often in much poorer, rural provinces across the eastern part of the country or in other, poorer African countries. Every morning thousands of black or coloured folks (accepted terms here) travel far and sometimes dangerous distances from the townships in which they live to suburbs like mine. After hemming and hawing about the fact that we are quite equipped to do our own housework, we have retained a lovely young woman named Rea to come in every other week to clean the house. Rea, who looks 16 but is actually 32, works hard. For the embarrassing wage of R270 (we promoted her to R300 ($21) plus lunch, to her utter glee), Rea spends 8 hours cleaning, polishing, washing and ironing……and seems to get quite embarrassed when I offer to help, get the laundry started, rinse the dishes, etc.

Yet even these manual jobs are at risk, as the South African economy sputters its way through the legacy of the prior Presidential administration. A recent article in the Cape Town times states, “As households continue to chip away at their budgets to make ends meet, increasingly even employing a domestic worker can be counted as a luxury. Department of Labour Statistics reports that 30,000 jobs in private homes were lost in third quarter compared to second. Year over year 46,000 jobs have been lost.”

All I know is that Rea is a kind woman with two children and a husband who works as a gardener who is doing her best to provide for her children; she is dependable and keeps our house unbelievably spotless. She also desperately needs more work. So I ask you, the reader: should we have her come once/week, vs. every other? The cost to us – who, granted, are living on a tight sabbatical budget – is about $20 per week. We did not originally have this included in our budget – yet it’s such a small amount, and makes such a big difference in the life of a kind woman. We are constantly trying to figure out the appropriate ways to “give back:” through our work? Through donations to organizations? Through support for people like Rea? I’d love opinions.

Our other domestic worker is a gardener who has worked for the owner of our house, and her family, for over 25 years. Henrik is a delightful man who dresses with style, sporting a fedora perched every so elegantly on his well coiffed head, and whistles his way through the day. Hendrik takes pride in his work and is good at it. Unfortunately he has not been able to come the past few weeks, as his granddaughter, who tragically was born with severe birth defects, has been in the hospital in Joburg, with bleak prospects for improvement. The challenge: despite the longstanding loyalty to the family, Hendrik does not get paid when he doesn’t show up. The first few weeks Chris and I decided we would still pay him and told the landlord so; but at what point does that stop? Where does the landlord role stop and ours begin? Again, opinions please!

We are realizing that with everything going on here, each blog post takes many days to write. We are now facing Thanksgiving in two days, and packing our bags to celebrate it in a rural area about three hours from Cape Town that is quite similar to the US Southwest/Sedona. We are thankful for all of our beloved friends and family and will be back in touch once we are back in cell range!!!

Funny everyday things….and the Color Run

Every day there are one or two funny things that make us pause and reflect on how different life here is from Massachusetts.  A few examples:

Because of continued restrictions resulting from the drought, we are continuing to conserve water.  Day Zero has been averted, the dams are much more full, and the restrictions have been lifted – but we are still being held to 60 liters/day/person – about 15 gallons. If you are fortunate like us, while you might try hard not to waste water, you’ve never actually had a sense of how much you are using on a daily basis. That 15 gallons/person includes ALL water consumption – toilet flushing, tooth brushing, hand washing, and the big ones – washing dishes, cleaning clothes.  Things like watering lawns and cars and filling up swimming pools are still NOT permissible (although, because we have borehole water in our backyard we apparently can fill the pool on a sporadic basis). and things like bathtubs are just not possible. Last month was the first time our water consumption has ever been measured – we were quite proud that we held at 55 liters/person/day – but a) that was over the then-limit of 50 liters/day (so we were charged extra) and b) we were travelling for 8 days of the 33 day period, so in actuality our consumption was quite a bit more.  (oops). We just got our bill for October and were even prouder that we only spent 45 liters/person/day (about 12 gallons).

Some of the tricks we’ve learned to conserve water:

  • recycled shower water.  Every bathroom in every house in Cape Town seems to have shallow plastic tubs that capture extra shower water – and believe me, that’s a lot.  People were recommended to shower for only 90 seconds – which is actually quite possible; it just involves shutting the water on and off.  IN any case, the water is captured and then transferred to buckets to use for toilet flushing, watering outside plants, etc.  Because we mostly shower in just one bathroom, and have three around the house, this means I spend a fair amount of time each time shuttling H20 from one room to the next.



  • daily showering.  Really not done.  Not really necessary.
  • dishwasher. We run it every 2-3 days. Again, don’t really need more.  Our rinsing habits have also dramatically changed; we just don’t use as much water as we used to.
  • Washing machine. At first I was petrified to do laundry.  I’m somewhat over that now, but for both the dishwasher and washing  machine we use only the rapid cycle, eco setting.   Clothes are washed in 30 minutes.

In the greater spirit of conservation, and due to the very high cost of electricity here (far more expensive than in Boston), we typically do laundry first thing in the morning, so clothes can be hung on a clothesline and thus avoid running a tiny and pretty inefficient dryer which takes a long time and uses a ton of energy.   We also are very avid recyclers and composters (nod to Colin and Pam and MK) – it’s amazing how you can reduce your disposable trash by doing these things.  It takes longer but it’s really a good feeling.

Bank Transfers.  Feels like PayPal/Venmo all have a lot to learn. Everyone pays everyone else using EFT through regular bank accounts.  It’s so very easy for us to use our mobile apps to pay everyone and anyone.  Perhaps that functionality is widespread in the states and we just didn’t know it;  but it sure is easy here.

Library borrowing.  We have a delightful little local library around the corner from our house.  Despite the fact getting a library card was a bit like accessing Fort Knox – we needed to show lease, kids birth certificates, passports, etc. – we are in!!!  The systems remind me a lot of the library experience we had as a kid…..while a little bit automated, we still have little cards that are inserted in the back of our books with the return due dates stamped on them.  Nothing wrong with a little childhood nostalgia!



We’ve decided we are going to start posting about an “adventure of the week” although we seem to have so may of them it’s hard to choose!   This week there was lots of excitement – Luke went to overnight camp (which I’m sure he’ll write about), I visited some amazing early childhood programs and experienced both poverty and inspiration like I’ve never seen (another post coming within the next day or so), we discovered yet another amazing market with stunning sea views, and today we participated, along with about 10,000 other very cheerful people, in the Cape Town Color Run.  We didn’t really know what it was about, but we showed up at the venue, on the stunning Atlantic Seaboard in Sea Point (in downtown Cape Town).   Basically over the course of a 5K (which most people walked, as the crowds made the start of the Boston marathon look sparse – hard to run), you get sprayed with all types of colored paint – red, blue, yellow, pink. People of all shapes, sizes, colors and ages jumped in – and at the end all partied together, looking very much like a rainbow nation.  I’m sure the kids will write more about it. It was an absolute HOOT.  A few pics below; the kids will post more.