Destination Johannesburg: CGHD’s Bill MacLeod describes moving his family to South Africa

August 31, 2010

Just one week ago, I moved my family to Johannesburg, South Africa, where I will be the CGHD South Africa field director, based with the Health Economics & Epidemiology Research Office (HE2RO) for the next two years. My family (myself, my wife, and our two children, ages 7 and 11) is settling in quickly and comfortably in a suburban neighborhood of Johannesburg called Parkhurst, but it took a lot of planning to get to this point.

airportMy wife, Caroline, and I had been Peace Corps Volunteers, so we had previously had the experience of living and working abroad, and we wanted to share this experience with our children. However, it is one thing to uproot and move abroad at the end of college, when you are 21 years old and can pack all of your belongings comfortably into a hatchback car, and another thing entirely when you have settled down in the same community for 14 years and have two children. Planning for this move became a serious project starting about a year ago. Some of the big issues we had to plan for were housing (both in South Africa and Boston), identifying schools for our children, selling our cars in Boston, getting visas, planning for the actual travel, and making the work transition from Boston to South Africa.

Our first priority was finding schools for our children. Caroline joined me on a work trip in October to Johannesburg, where we had the opportunity to visit different schools. We immediately found a spot for our son at Pridwin Preparatory School, which I liken to the “Hogwarts” of South Africa: it has four houses that compete against each other, head boys, prefects, and they play a sport with “wickets”, “bats”, “googlies”, and “overs” not unlike quidditch to us muggles. Finding a school for our daughter proved to be more challenging. We were able to get her on a number of waiting lists, but they were long waiting lists. Caroline returned to Johannesburg this past January on her own work trip and visited some more schools, but didn’t have any additional success in finding our daughter a spot. It wasn’t until April, during another work trip, that I visited St. Teresa’s Mercy School and our daughter finally found her educational home.

kids on the planeThe application for a South African visa requires passports, birth certificates, our marriage certificate, a CORI report (attesting to our lack of a criminal record), children’s immunization records, proof that we don’t have active cases of TB, round-trip plane tickets, two passport photos for each family member, copies of our bank statements, proof of medical insurance, invitation letters from the children’s schools, and letters of support from Boston University and the University of Witswatersrand. We began assembling these materials in early March along with requesting our CORI reports and making appointments with medical providers. I couldn’t submit the application until I could find a window of time when I wouldn’t need my passport, and this wasn’t until after I returned from a trip to India in early May. I guessed that the World Cup in South Africa in June and July would reduce productivity in the visa department. I was able to get the application materials to the Consulate prior to the opening of the World Cup, but the visas weren’t finally issued until six weeks later. Until they actually arrived, I had nightmares of us having rented our house and sold our cars, but still unable to travel.

During numerous previous trips to Johannesburg, CGHD colleagues had kindly hosted Caroline and me at their rented house in Parkhurst. They were leaving in late June, but their lease ran through the end of July. We discussed an extension of their lease with their landlords and decided that having a furnished house to call home when we arrived was a very attractive option. In making the deposit for the house, I learned more than I care to about international wire transfers.

The last six weeks in Boston preparing for the move were a whirlwind. It seemed, with each successive week, the list of things that needed to be done before we could move grew longer and longer: hire a property manager, contract with a snow-removal company, find tenants for our house, sell our cars, store our belongings, etc. We had lived in our house for just over ten years and during those ten years we accumulated a lot of belongings. In getting ready to move, we had to decide what we needed to take with us, what we would store and what we could get rid of. By the time we moved out, we were down to our maximum baggage allowance: we each traveled with two large suitcases, one carry-on and a small backpack.

The actual travel turned out to be easier than I expected. We had a short flight to Atlanta, GA, and then a very long non-stop flight from Atlanta to Johannesburg: 8,433 miles and a little more than 15 hours. Our children have always enjoyed flying, but they never enjoyed a flight more than this long trip. Each seat was equipped with a small video screen and they were able watch their favorite TV programs and movies to their heart’s content. While some trips I have been on consisted of one disaster after another—lost luggage, missing yellow fever vaccination cards, missed connections, late flights, etc.—this trip went as smoothly as one could wish for. Our driver from the transport company that we had engaged greeted our arrival, and he whisked us and 12 pieces of luggage to our new home.

first dinnerDuring this past week, it seems like we are doing some of the same things we did in Boston prior to our departure, only in reverse: unpacking (not packing) all of the belongings that we brought; filling (not emptying) our refrigerator and pantry with food, opening (not closing) bank accounts; and meeting new friends, rather than saying goodbye (for now!) to old friends. We all seem to be in the “honeymoon” phase of our life in South Africa. The kids toured their new schools and cannot wait to start.

In closing, I will share the wisdom that I have learned from this move. First, start your planning early. Second, we had the help of a great group of friends on both sides of this move. Find your support groups and use them. Third, if you can, know where you are going to land, before you arrive. Even if it isn’t a permanent solution, having a home to operate from will ease the transition, especially with children. Finally, a move like this can be stressful. Remember why you are doing it and try and keep your sense of humor.