A Day in the Life of an Expat Mother in South Africa

plantsIn “Carrying On,” her contribution to Call Me Okaasan: Adventures in Multicultural Mothering, Canadian Katherine Barrett writes about the beauty and disparity she finds in South Africa. Katherine is the at-home mother of  three preschoolers – “all boys, all boisterous, and all beautiful.”  In her infrequent stretches of quiet time, she writes, and in a former life she was a relatively together academic. She has recently published an essay in Mom Writers Literary Magazine and she blogs at http://www.twinutero.org

Sometimes the roosters wake me up; more often it’s Alex, our reluctant sleeper. He likes to rise before dawn and rummage through the dresser drawers for his favourite clothes: muscle shirts and basketball shorts, no matter the season. He’s three, and by the time he’s dressed, his twin brother Jon and his older-by-a-year brother Thomas are clamouring from their beds. It’s autumn now and our stone floors are chilly (they’ll be freezing in winter as our house isn’t heated). I pile on a few layers of fleece and turn off the house alarm before heading for the coffee pot. Like all houses in the neighbourhood, ours is alarmed at night and when we go out. There are ‘panic buttons’ on both floors, walls around our yard and a security company that patrols the streets 24/7. After a year and a half, I’m no longer freaked out by this.

The boys go to preschool and it’s always a scurry to get all three in the car by 7:45. Breakfast is quick. Thomas loves soft boiled eggs with biltong – chewy strips of meat and South African tradition dating from the first Dutch settlers. Twenty years a vegetarian, I can hardly imagine a more revolting start to the day. The school is a short but lovely drive away. We live on the very edge of urban development (hence the roosters) and pass by rolling vineyards and crops of giant wild aloes. The latter are always pshuwed through the car window by Thomas, who considers their spikes and thorns “a job for Superman.” The kids are dropped at the school gate and make their own way to their class (school rules). There are only five rooms to choose from, each a single door off an outdoor corridor; a motel-like design that simply wouldn’t work in Canada’s winters. Nor would I likely find a family of ducks laying eggs under the schoolyard bushes, or chickens casually pecking around the classroom doors. I’m sure at least one Canadian by-law prohibits free-range fowl on the school grounds.

This being Thursday, the kids will “go to Xhosa” which is their term both for the class and the teacher. Xhosa is one of eleven official languages in South Africa. The school also teaches in Afrikaans and (primarily) English. Combined with a smattering of French Canadian, the boys have the making of a truly unusual dialect. In the quiet hours between dropping off and picking up, I write. I’m working on a short story about a female genetic engineer with control issues. It is my first real attempt at fiction and it has been great fun to dip into my past (for the genetics part that is, not the control issues – really). On the days when I have the luxury of uninterrupted writing time, and especially when our housekeeper Lizzie is here to help with the entrenched chaos, I’m acutely aware of the privileged life we are able lead in South Africa. On the days when I don’t write and Lizzie is not here, I shovel the dishes into the dishwasher myself and dart across Cape Town to volunteer with a community group. That too has been an education.

The kids are piled back into the car shortly after noon, full of stories from their morning. “Teacha said I could do the weatha today,” says Jon, announcing his new-found accent as well. And as we stop at the playground on the way home, he adds before tearing across the field: “I want my jersey oof.” He wants his sweater off; he would no longer be understood in our neighbourhood park in Canada! The playground is too hot, even in autumn, to stay for long. The grass is prickly-brittle and metal slide scorching. Besides, the kids are now tired and we have to take Lizzie to the taxi rank. As we pull into the parking lot, the ubiquitous mini-bus taxis in rows, Lizzie turns to the boys in the back seat. “Enkosi,” she says, thank you in Xhosa. “Enkosi,” Jon replies sleepily, drawling the “o” in perfect imitation.

 “Baie dankie,” adds Alex in Afrikaans, going through our usual farewell routine.

“Thank you,” says Thomas.

“Merci,” I finish as Lizzie shuts the car door and the kids finally close their eyes.

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