“It must be nice being an expat wife. I mean, you get to have like a 2-year vacation, huh?”
I was surprised and a little more than hurt to hear these words from a South African I’ve gotten to know. But I tried to imagine my life from her perspective: she sees me several times a week at a local coffee shop, where I read, write, use my laptop or chat with local workers. I could see she thought my time in her country was one long tea party.
I considered asking her to actually read what I write, to see that the books, chats, observations and photography influence my work and I hope that I, in turn, influence my readers to see South Africa differently.But “work,” for a Writer, is something I’ve given up trying to explain to friends or even family. From the outside, a person only sees the perks of an expat spouse: flexible time and interactive travel.
These perks are true, but how we use that time and how we let that travel impact us is why there is no such thing as “just an expat spouse.” How we create a new life for ourselves can be fulfilling, and actually make a difference here and back home.
It’s difficult to see what I and other expat spouses have given up to move to South Africa. Often a “real job,” for starters. Part of the agreement when taking this international assignment with Black & Veatch is that a spouse gives up his or her full-time job. Unless he or she also happens to work for the company (there are a few).
This is difficult, but fair. My husband’s company was contracted, with a team of uniquely skilled professionals, to handle a large, multi-year project in the country. For each foreign spouse working, one less South African would hold that position, so only the employees on the job are intended to work. Adjustment takes time, because many of us spent our lives until now working full-time.
For my part, once upon a time in another life I was a Logistics Manager for an international import and export company. Although I had an undergraduate in English and a Master’s in Writing, it wasn’t until my husband took an extensive travel position that I was able to turn to writing full-time.
Other BV spouses were teachers, managers, and full-time professionals who added to the household income while juggling children and the home. Few of us were ready to handle the “downtime” as an international expat spouse, but the frustration turned out to be an opportunity for the most driven among us to make more difference than if we had stayed in our old 40-hour routines.
Most of the B&V spouses I’ve gotten to know here have turned their education and experience into volunteer work. Teachers and Early Childhood Development Specialists give their time and knowledge to local schools, orphanages and area education programs.
Those with management and office skills turn to local non-profit community organizations, implementing programs, creating websites, marketing materials and helping guide other volunteers and staff. One earnest spouse works with the non-profit United Nations Info Centre. Another manages the South African office of international charity, Project Hope.
For my part, I am finally using my MFA degree to write…as honestly and as frequently as possible. In addition to features and articles I submit to publications in the states, I create a lot of work for free and share it openly so that my readers can experience South Africa from an American perspective. And if I craft it well enough, they can also better understand the lives of average Africans I encounter.
Thankfully, since my experience can’t come close to representing the variety of experiences of these expat families in South Africa, several other Black & Veatch spouses write and blog to represent their lives here. HartZA features a Kansas City couple and their two boys, while Babilon Family Adventures features a Pittsburgh couple and their two girls, following through to their repatriation and adjustment.
Solitary Reflections is the site of an aspiring journalist, covering her experience in South Africa with pieces ranging from Mandela to Kruger National Park. Sideburns in Africa is written by a male spouse, documenting his travels throughout the entire continent, while Pretorian Chronicles is a blog by a bilingual spouse writing about her unique African adventures, appealing to both Spanish and English-speaking readers.
There is no better way to share the South African experience than through photography and writing, and what can be seen as a simple hobby blog can have an exponential impact on those reading it from other countries.
Several of us also volunteer at animal charities. Wet Nose, a local rescue shelter finds us meeting up to walk dogs or clean cages. Some expats have even expanded the furry portions of their family through this great organization. Still more prefer donating time and money to the big game rescue organizations, like De Wildt Cheetah Centre, or SanWild Wildlife Sanctuary.
And we all come together for larger fundraisers and charity work supported by Black & Veatch. When B&V spouse Beth Andry moved to South Africa, she realized there was opportunity to harness the collective motivation and funds of B&V employees and spouses in order to create bigger charity projects and make a more powerful and lasting impact on local communities.
She worked to obtain a grant through Black & Veatch’s Building a World of Difference Program, and today B&V and its employees sponsor children at the SOS Mamelodi School. Employees work hands-on each year for Christmas in October, to build, paint, garden and work on general maintenance projects. Started as a neighborhood rehabilitation program near B&V’s headquarters in Kansas City, our South African version takes a day of hard work and gives back ample reward in the lives of the communities we serve.
As we prepare for this year’s Christmas in October, B&V spouses have added two additional charities to accommodate the numerous families joining this year’s day of labor: Edendale School and Tshepo Ya Bana.
As hard as B&V employees and spouses work, we do know how to make beneficial use of our playtime as well. This year saw the 2nd annual charity golf tournament to benefit these South African charities supported by the company, and it was an easy afternoon of camaraderie among families. A group of talented employees and spouses also created an annual concert to raise funds, where a cover charge for the charity is increased immensely by an auction of baskets and items donated by employees. The American basket, a mix of coveted food and items from home, is among the highest bid items, along with, not surprisingly, a home-baked apple pie.
As for my flex time, I’m writing this column to you from the local coffee shop again, and jotting notes for new material. I hope to share every interaction and experience with you, from children to wildlife, from daily life to strange and wondrous travel in a foreign land.
And if my friend stops by today to say hello, I know the only answer I can give her is the truth: Yes, I am very lucky to have and share this experience. I am grateful to have these years as an Expat Spouse, living and contributing to life around me in South Africa.
An American Expat in South Africa, Marla is a freelance writer and global explorer. She creates travel adventures for herself following in the footsteps of her favorite authors. An American expat, she currently lives in Pretoria, South Africa, where she blogs her adventures on travelingmarla.com and is revising her first manuscript.