More from us…

Oh it’s been a while. We’ve been cracking along here with various highs & lows, as you would expect…

We are feeling more settled in our house – we’ve bought a fridge/freezer (after a month of subsisting with the camping fridge, which was driving me potty – I could either refrigerate everything or freeze everything so we kept oscillating between the two depending on what was the biggest priority) and acquired a slightly worm eaten bookcase from the old chapel via the laundry, so we are fully unpacked.

The kids and me are falling into more of a weekly routine now, I think. They have swimming twice a week in Mthatha, which enables us to also do the shopping – while we can get most things in Libode 20 minutes away, there is a better range in Mthatha, & some products that you just can’t buy in Libode – like cheese. Ideally this would also include a library trip, but I haven’t yet braved the central library in Mthatha, & when we attempted a return visit to the university library everything was locked up, so our library system may need some fine tuning…

As of this week, the girls are also doing two days a week in school in Libode. We decided on this really for the social element, as there doesn’t seem to be a way outside school for them to make connections with local kids. I don’t want them to go back to the UK without having had some sort of cultural immersion here, & school seems the best way to achieve it! Unless they are very keen to go more days a week (unlikely I think!) they will stay at home 3 days so we can still cover the learning we think is important… We’ve signed them up the local private school, where the two other children who live on the compound go, mostly because it is English medium and the children who attend will hopefully have a better level of fluency in English than at the local government school. The fees are 460 ZAR a month (about £28) – not very much or an awful lot, depending on where you are on the scale of South Africa’s wide range of wealth distribution! The staff & children at the school have all been very welcoming, & the girls have enjoyed their two days there this week. Apparently everyone loves playing with their hair! I will try to post some pictures of the school anon…

We are finding more children in our lives in general actually. Some local boys – they live down the road from the hospital & walk through the grounds as a shortcut from school – have noticed our bikes, & come round hopefully asking to borrow them for a ride round the tennis court. Yesterday one of them (they told us it was another boy who they didn’t know who then ran away!) snapped the chain on Greta’s bike – it was rusty & old – so today they spent 5 hours after school finishing at 12, trying to fix the chain back again, having brought a screwdriver & pliers to help them. They were aged about 9-11, very polite & respectful, & gentle towards Johnny. It only seems to be boys, though, I don’t know whether the girls don’t venture so far from home, or are more likely to have domestic responsibilities after school? Nina & Greta play with the boys a little bit, trying to bully them into playing games of British bulldog, but generally the two parties mutually ignore each other! Nina says that at school boys and girls don’t mix at all.

We’ve also have several weekends away (“the weekends are great!” seems to be the catchphrase, as everyone hangs on to them as a respite from a challenging working week!). I think last time I posted we were about to go to Hluleka, a reserve 1.5 hours away from us on the coast, where we saw zebras & dolphins. It really tickles me to think of zebras just casually hanging out so close by to our home. We’ve also spent another two weekends on the coast at lodges, hiking along the cliff paths, surfing a little, and meeting new people.

Just a couple of little stories –

To fill in the application for the school I had to submit certified copies of their birth certificates, which the school secretary told me I could get done at the police station. Since I had no idea where that was, she extracted a student from his lesson to come along with us in the car and direct us (I love this sort of thing – can you imagine a child in a UK school being sent off with a random parent to act as as guide? It just makes me chuckle). He was a very polite Grade 9 boy (around 14, the last year of compulsory schooling in SA) who stays in the school’s boarding hostel (many schools have boarding hostels for the more rural pupils – this boy comes from Coffee Bay, about 2.5 hours away). At the police station I was escorted off to a little trailer with a queue of around 7 people standing outside clutching certificates. I joined the back of the queue – British – but my escort leapt back out of the office & beckoned me within, up to the desk. For some reason I was allowed to totally bypass the queue and get my documents stamped immediately (annoyingly they also stamped Nina’s original birth certificate, which now has a stamp from the SA police service certifying it as a copy…). This has happened to me a couple of times here & it always bemuses me. Does my general cluelessness signal that I am a foreigner, not a South African? Or would all white South Africans also be ushered to the front of the queue? I asked our white South African neighbours (the physio & the OT) about it & they said it doesn’t happen to them, so perhaps it is my cluelessness!

Again with the school, school nominally begins at 7.45 -although when I left it this morning at 8.15 there was still a sizeable stream of children making their way to school, so it clearly isn’t a hard & fast start time – & ends for most children at 14.45. The younger children finish at 14.00 but most of them seem to wait around. I came to collect Nina & Greta at 14.45 and was told by them that we were taking our neighbour’s kids home too. They normally travel home in a “school bus” – like the taxis that are actually minibuses this is a slightly confusing term, these are bakkies that parents can arrange to pick up/drop their children. There are hundreds of them on the roads at school run times, crowded full of children hanging out the windows etc. I would say it is highly unusual for children to be taken to school by their parents here, those that are too far to walk seem to rattle along in the back of a bakkie instead. The younger child (age 4) was waiting for us to take her home, but her brother (age 6) was nowhere to be found, & there was no adult taking any note of who was going home/when/where/with who. I swallowed my concerns, concluded he had probably gone off with his normal transport, & went home (kids in the back of the bakkie of course!), & of course it was all fine. I couldn’t help remembering the difficulties of trying to take home another child from school if their parent hadn’t explicitly told the school what the plans were that day for that child!

The roads. We are actually, I’ve concluded, quite lucky to be living on a tar road. Not only does it make our immediate routine journeys quicker and easier, but it also makes going to other places easier. We didn’t choose to be at St Barnabas, it was really just assigned to us, so there is always a part of me assessing other locations, wondering if we would be better off there – but the tar road is a big deal! However, because the road is tarred it has more, and faster, traffic racing along it. There are also loads of domestic animals on the roads… So there are also lots of dead animals along the road. Dogs seem the most common, but at the moment outside the hospital entrance is a dead horse, & just as you come into Libode there is a dead cow… Most of these accidents happen at night, I believe, but the driving in the daytime is pretty terrible too so it could be any time… My favourite bit of driving is the expectation that you will drive in the ditch in order to allow someone else to overtake you – after which they will then flash their hazards at you to say thank you. Or they may beep their horn at you, which can mean the usual negative messages but also means thank you. Confusing!

I’ve been intending on getting Harry to write a guest post (hah) about the work side of things, but pending that our friend Nisreen, who is the other British doctor working here, has written this blog post which you all may read, which includes medical info!

That’s all folks!



Great news! We’ve found the children who live on site here. This makes all the difference. We had actually been told there were children here, belonging to one of the doctors Harry works with, but I had stopped believing in their existence as they were totally invisible. I think they were away when we arrived, for the Easter break. They are a 6 year old and 4 year old, who go to an English medium school, so luckily we have a common language, & a shared enjoyment of running up & down playing “British bulldog” on the tennis court. Now we just need to find a 9 year old for Nina & we will be sorted! But I think we have come to the end of children living in the hospital compound, so we will have to cast our net wider…

And further great news! I found a library in Mthatha! I can’t tell you how excited I am. And I have leads on 2 more libraries, one in Port St John’s which is about an hour away, and apparently another one in the centre of Mthatha… We have also found the shell of a library being built in Libode, which is going to be a brand spanking new all bells & whistles building when it is finished, which apparently will be in 3 months time – maybe – according to the workman I accosted. Anyway, so for some reason I had in the back of my mind that there was some sort of public library (beyond the university facilities) at the Walter Sisulu University here in Mthatha, & as we were up that way today I over-rode the objections of everyone else in the car (Nina wanted to get home & read, Greta wanted to get home & play with her new friends, Johnny is just objectionable) & we went off to try to find it. We marched into what seemed very much a university library, with signs to the various academic departments, no sign for children’s library… but the front desk sent us to the library administrator who was so helpful, made several phone calls, ascertained that there was still a children’s library in the “Old Library” at the university, & was also able to tell me about the municipal library in the centre of town which we will try next week. She sent me off again to the Old Library, 3rd Floor, a few minutes away, so we made our way there to find a small room, occupied by student librarians preparing for exams, who had been told by the administrator to arrange for me to borrow some books. I think the library was essentially mothballed some years ago, but while small it is actually very well stocked with good quality English literature, reference works etc… and also readers in Xhosa should we ever get that far!

It was interesting roaming around the university campus briefly – most if not all of the South African doctors Harry works with trained there – it was lively with lots of students doing that glorious mix of activities that take place on student campuses everywhere – revising, chatting, watching films, snacking, flirting etc! I can’t find much information out about it online, & my sense of architectural history is non-existent, but it’s a striking collection of modernist buildings, possibly built in 1970s when it was founded as the University of Transkei? No idea, happy to be corrected! We will be back next week!

I think I mentioned in my last post that we were going to Coffee Bay for the weekend. We set off on Friday – there was some disruption to our journey because the taxi drivers (not private taxis as in the UK, but minibuses that run regular routes & pick/drop passengers up along them) in Mthatha were fighting, both with each other & with the police (I think – my understanding of this situation is embarrassingly unclear). So the taxi drivers had gone on strike & blockaded the road, & while “as the crow flies” to Coffee Bay from here does not take you through Mthatha, “as far as possible on the tar road” does… So we had to change plans & take the dirt roads instead. All went well as we went rattling & bouncing along the roads, but we really rather foolishly followed our TomTom as it diverted us from the main road. In retrospect it was clear from the moment we turned off that this wasn’t a main route, but we persevered as the road changed from a deeply rutted road to a set of tracks through long grass to a single footpath descending into the valley through a thicket of trees… We had gone too far to turn back so we rattled onwards through the trees, splashed through a small stream & up again as the rabbit path (as the children christened it) turned back into a track through the grass & headed up the hill to meet the “main road” again… I’m sure it saved us time, thanks TomTom, but no thanks next time.

We stayed a little way out of the main Coffee Bay stretch (not that it is a particularly crowded place!) at a great little campsite above a quiet beach. The absolute highlight of the weekend was as we casually gazed out to sea, actually on our way to get the surfboards, & spotted a pod of dolphins. There were just a few of them at first, but quickly more & more appeared, & began surfing & leaping in the waves! It was a beautiful sight, & so special to stumble upon it organically in that way. Nina said she just needed to see a whale & a great white shark for the weekend to be perfect… hmm!

So all good here, & it’s practically nearly the weekend again, right? Harry is on call again on Friday night/Saturday morning, so we are going to spend the weekend in a local nature reserve where we have booked a chalet. We have the utmost confidence it is going to be beautiful 😀

PS The kids would love post if anyone fancies writing a postcard. It takes a long time & is reputedly unreliable, but if anyone wants to test it out, write to Dr Cormack, St Barnabas Hospital, PO Box 15, Libode, 5160, Eastern Cape, South Africa. Don’t send anything of any great importance!

Mmm-tha-tha, Mmm-tha-tha, chim chim cheree…

We’ve been living at St Barnabas for just over a week now… Much to say so I will just type away ad hoc.

We seem to have spent a lot of time in Mthatha at the various malls tracking down necessary items and baulking at the price of them. The cost of items is generally comparable or even a little bit more than in the UK, and the quality is sometimes much worse… which grates. As a result we’ve half furnished the house – only bought curtains for the bedrooms, using our camping fridge which came with the car (this is becoming really frustrating & we definitely need a freezer so will just have to suck it up & buy a full size fridge/freezer – not sure how I will get it home in the back of bakkie but I’m sure there will be a way!) etc in a possibly misguided attempt to space out costs. We spent what felt like days driving around Mthatha – in reality it must have only been 2 days – & some of the villages between us & Mthatha looking for a decent table & chairs… we assumed that somewhere somebody would be making them out of straightforward ordinary wood, but if they are we did not stumble upon them, & ended up buying flat pack imported from China crap…

Our house is well supplied with built in cupboards so we have been able to unpack most stuff EXCEPT the books I brought with us – we cannot find a bookcase anywhere in the shops. We have had a few possible leads though. There’s a little rough stone built chapel on site here at St Barnabas – I assume left over from the foundation as a mission hospital in the early 20th century – which has been totally mothballed. The floor is covered with bat droppings, the altar remains with a wooden candlestick on it, and pushed against the wall is a bookcase! Most exciting until we investigated it further and realised just how many mice & spiders were nesting in the long forgotten hassocks crumbling away on the shelves. And at the laundry building, next door to the chapel, I spotted another bookcase – I think possibly liberated from the chapel as it had a couple of disintegrating Afrikaans hymnals rotting upon it. I couldn’t quite bring myself to ask the laundry ladies for it but I am going to go back tomorrow! The laundry is amazing – huge machines churning away, around 4 or 5 women folding washing/sewing scrubs etc. There’s an ordinary domestic machine in there for staff use so we seem to be in and out of there a lot! And if that fails, a man with a hardware shop in nearby Libode says he can make a bookcase if we draw him a picture of one.

Anyway, so you can kind of buy everything you need in Mthatha as long as you don’t need books or furniture to put books upon. I haven’t found any sort of whole food/organic produce either yet but I may not have looked in the right place yet. That’s the funny thing about moving country – you don’t know what you don’t know! I’ve also realised that whereas over our 6 months of travelling in Asia it was generally obvious to local people that we didn’t belong there – because we are white -, and I think you get granted some lee-way as a result, here people must assume that we are white South Africans who are just remarkably ill-educated. I had a long conversation with a woman mending a road who was convinced I must understand Afrikaans & clearly thought I was an imbecile as I kept repeating “English only! English only!” (My isiXhosa hasn’t got much beyond greetings, and the odd word for pain/body part that Harry brings home from work…)

I’ve signed the kids up for swimming lessons, having carried out my usual practice of reading supermarket noticeboards (always interesting) and spotting an advert. I nearly cried with excitement. We haven’t made any decisions about schooling but it has quickly become apparent to me that it would be really nice to have one or two activities in a week that take us off site…. Swimming is of course in Mthatha. Locally, our activities are: going to the ruined tennis court & playing there, walking out to the corner shop at the gates (the “spaza”) to pick up bread/airtime – this shop stocks an amazing & bizarre (to me) range of foodstuffs & sells 5kg bags of flour but no fresh milk, flogging the kids down the hill/up the hill (it is very hilly) for a walk. I am sure we will come up with more.

I’m feeling a conflict over our relative wealth & privilege. We’ve come with bikes for the kids, bought them roller-skates in the mall, a new football, a badminton set etc. To me these feel like necessary “normal” items to keep them entertained, & a nice use of hopefully more clement weather. But I’ve noticed that no kids here have these items. Footballs maybe. But not shiny new ones. No bikes. Two boys followed Greta on her bike desperate to have a go on it, which was what made me realise that I hadn’t seen any kids biking around. As I pointed out to her, if they had bikes or their friends had bikes, they wouldn’t have been so overjoyed to have a turn on a slightly too small for them bike with a chain that kept falling off. Although quite a few houses have DSTV satellite dishes – these boys had one at their house. But I’m already finding our outside space a challenge – I just took for granted that wherever we lived in a rural setting would have outdoor space available for the kids, but actually our house opens on to a small triangle of mud – not really a playing space. So do we get them a trampoline as the best use of a limited space, or do we not??

Harry was on call on Sunday – 8am Sunday to 1pm Monday – so we spent Saturday at Port St John’s, the nearest coastal town to us. We had a lovely day – stumbled across a flea market staffed by friendly locals who it was nice to connect with – had lunch at a backpackers on the hill, and went on to Silaka nature reserve which we had practically to ourselves, apart from the standard Transkei cows on the beach & a local man gathering oysters. You can rent little chalets there for the night so I think we will go back one day & spend the night there. This weekend we are off to Coffee Bay for a surfing camping trip! Hopefully the sun will shine on us.

Recommended reading: Jonny Steinberg’s Three Letter Plague. Just finished it. Set in an area not very far away from here all & so interesting on AIDs/healthcare/health seeking behaviours/masculinity/cultural life/spiritual life etc!

We’ve been listening to musicals in the car as we drive between home & Mthatha, and now we keep singing along to Chim Chim Cheree – with our own words…

Moving to the Transkei, gonna eat me a lot of naartjies

We have fully arrived!

We spent 3 days driving up from Cape Town to St Barnabas hospital In our massive new car – complete with bikes strapped to the roof tent (we benefited massively from visiting my uncle at the same time as he cleared out his garage!). We took the famous “Garden Route” up the coast, which is really beautiful – scenery changed from the dry arid Western Cape to wooded hills around Knysna & the green rolling hills of the Transkei.

We camped en route, since we had the roof tent & a little ground tent that also came with the car. The first campsite, in Knysna was pretty full up for the Easter weekend, & we were totally overshadowed by all the well kitted up South Africans as we cobbled together a semblance of a camping set up! The second campsite, in East London, was run by the local council (I think), which may be why it was much quieter – there was only one other tent there. But there was hot water in the ablution block & the quieter & less well kempt set up meant we saw lots of wildlife there – dassies, ha-dee-das, muntjack deer! The kids loved it.

It took us around 16 hours in the car to get here, which is longer than Google maps says it should, be warned. I will just boast briefly about the kids who really coped extremely well with it. We arrived at St B in the dark which is not recommended, the roads are mad enough in the day time (people overtaking, animals & people in the road, bends/hills/speedhumps), then a mist descended, & we weren’t really sure where we were going… But we made it! They were expecting as at the hospital but this hadn’t translated to there being any beds in our house – never mind, we’ve been camping anyway so we just set up the kit in the house…

We get into the hospital through a sort of back entrance – the car is stopped every time to check who is coming/going – past the A&E entrance, maternity, the “gateway clinic”, up the hill past the mortuary, round the corner by some long low buildings (not sure what they are), probably nurses hostels, & in a muddy little patch there stand a few semi detached bungalows – we have a two bed house with a kitchen/living room against the perimeter fence. It’s all been recently refurbished & is well kitted out with cupboards etc. Today we were supplied with 3 single beds & we think that tomorrow we will get a double bed too & be all set up! Nina & Greta have a big room to share so they have space to play, & the rest of us will share the smaller room – should be able to squeeze in!

Today Harry had to go to the South African Revenue Service to be issued with a tax number. The office is in Mthatha, about a 45 min drive along the mad roads – it isn’t a pleasant drive really because of the all the unexpected hazards on the road – so we dropped him off there & spotted “China Mall” in the same complex – kids & I spent 1.5 hours there buying kitchenware etc. Mthatha is busy & chaotic & I don’t really have a sense of the geography of it at all, the main roads are full of minibuses & pedestrians & all a bit unpredictable, & TomTom sends you the wrong way down one-way streets/has no idea where anything is…  I expect we will get used to it but at the moment it is a bit of a challenge! I’m hoping that in the small town nearer to us we will be able to meet most of our grocery needs etc and only need to go there for bigger items/the library (I am in high hopes of there being a library there although I may be deluded).

In theory Harry is supposed to be starting work tomorrow, but we still don’t have any furniture – he spent all day at the tax office & I spent all day buying kitchenware & food – & I don’t really want to drive around Mthatha by myself trying to find a fridge, table, chairs etc! So hoping that there will be some lee-way.

The kids have loved “nesting” in their bedroom. We’ve been able to unpack a fair bit of stuff as there are built in cupboards, so they’ve been putting things away & sticking posters up on their walls. Although I’ve brought masses of books for home educating them here I think that would be a very lonely experience – there aren’t any kids living on the compound that I have seen although I am told one doctor has children of a similar age – so we may go visit some of the local schools to see if we could possibly send them there/go for sports/come to some sort of arrangement.

PS “naartjies” is the South African word for satsumas, & we bought bags of them on the side of the road for pennies – delicious. I just googled this out of interest & found out that it comes from the Tamil word “nartrei” meaning citrus, huh.

PPS I know that all this blogging stuff is supposed to come with pictures, I might manage that one day, but for now if you want to see pics please refer to my Instagram account which is simply under my name.

Oooh oooh, we’re halfway there

We’ve done it! We’ve made it to South Africa, with our 3 children, 1 carseat, 11 suitcases & most of our nerves.  We even survived the long haul budget flight (an interesting concept). We aren’t yet at our final destination, having flown into Cape Town to spend time with family and buy a car, but tomorrow we will set out on the 1000km drive up to our home for the year.

We are heading up along to the coast to the Eastern Cape, the area formerly known as the Transkei, where Harry has a job in St Barnabas Hospital, on the tarred road between Mthatha and Port St John’s (if you want to get your google on). This is one of South Africa’s poorest provinces – lots of unemployment and subsistence agriculture. It’s also a beautiful area, with a diverse landscape including the Wild Coast by where we will be situated – beaches, hills, forests & surfing! And it’s where Nelson Mandela is from, so we’ve got at least one educational day trip planned…

It’s exciting to be here. At the moment we are in a honeymoon/holiday phase, enjoying the sunshine & feeling relaxed. We’ve achieved our two big jobs for arrival – buying a car and opening a bank account – so we feel ahead of the game! I’m really looking forward to reaching the hospital – which includes our new home, as we will be living in hospital accommodation on site – and seeing what it will all be like…

P.S. The title of this blog is a joke for a handful of people from Stretford. Stretford – St Retford – geddit? And St Barnabas is the name of the hospital we are going to. Harry & I nearly wet ourselves laughing when we came up with that one.