Scott Hanselman

South Africa 2008 - Communal Living and Relatives in Close Quarters

December 14, 2008 Comment on this post [19] Posted in Africa
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image I've been driving around Johannesburg getting my head used to driving on the left side (I credit my excellent hand-eye coordination to many years of video game playing. I can "remap" very easily) and after a trip this afternoon to Makro (the South Africa "Costco" giant wholesale warehouse equivalent) I returned home to find no less than twenty souls in the house.

I am immersed in Black (mostly Zulu, but some Sotho) culture here, so I can't speak to White South African culture, but from what I can tell, when someone is in town, Black Folks come over. We had visitors from Lesotho, from Pretoria, from Zimbabwe, from all over.

All of this is a culture shock to me each time. It's at once comforting and grating. Predictable and chaotic. Here's the parts, even after nearly a decade of marriage, that I haven't gotten used to.

What's for Dinner?

Folks just show up. No call, no write, just, hey, what's for dinner? But the interesting part is that dinner is never mentioned. People arrive and sit on the couch. The meal is completely implied. We had a meal at 4pm. We'd already had lunch, and we had dinner planned, but there was a "critical mass" of humans, and food started showing up. At some point we were having a braai. Someone started looking for a goat to slaughter, while someone else starting wondering if it was allowed in city limits.

Relatives arrived, each one that showed up brought five others we couldn't quite place. So-in-so's uncle's ex-wife's daughter's sister and the like. And their three kids. And they stay. For a long time.

There are a couple of things I can hear my father saying, in my head, that would never be said in South Africa.

"Don't let the door hit you on the ass on the way out."

"You don't have to go home, but you can't stay here."

Folks may scandalize and gossip, but they'll never let you go hungry or without a place to sleep in South Africa.

Start Inflating Beds

At some point it's clear that folks aren't leaving so inflatable air beds are brought out. Blankets appear from no where. More blankets that you'd think could comfortably fit in a normal sized house. I don't know where they come from nor where they disappear to, but sleeping quarters are quickly assembled by social pecking order.

If you're a teenager, you get whatever couch or scrap of floor is left. If you're an elder, you get a proper bed. Boys under 30 on air mattresses, families in rooms, girls on couches, everyone else find a spot. Just wait until morning as folks get up earlier and earlier to try to be the first in the bath. Sucks to run out of hot water in a three bedroom house with 19 people.

Women in the Kitchen, Men in Front of the TV

At some point, like silt separating while panning for gold, the house starts to split with women in the kitchen area and men in the living area. Or, manning the braai/bbq. Grunt. Men. Fire!

Oddly, as a Sensitive White Man, it's a little unclear where I am supposed to be, so I end up flitting between the two. The women don't find me threatening, rather they find me fascinating and I'm peppered with questions. The men are disappointed to learn I can't even fake caring about soccer. Ah, the Pirates! No, Ajax! No, Bosso! Ah, whatever. Is Manchester a valid answer? Did we get a home run?

Who moved my Cheese?

My wife loves Flakes and Crunchies. You can find them in the states, but they are definitely a specialty item. Certainly not available everywhere. We try to get a box and smuggle them back to the states when we go. I bought her five Flakes today and put them in the fridge so they wouldn't melt in this oppressive Christmas weather. I went to tell her about them, and literally by the time I'd returned there was one left, and four wrappers strewn about.

In the US Judicial System you are "innocent until proven guilty" but this is reversed in many countries. In my household and in the households I've been raised in, food in the fridge is "someone else's unless you know it's yours." Here, it seems, that anything not bolted down or labeled is edible.

I have since hidden my stash of Black Cat Peanut Snacks under my pillow.

About Scott

Scott Hanselman is a former professor, former Chief Architect in finance, now speaker, consultant, father, diabetic, and Microsoft employee. He is a failed stand-up comic, a cornrower, and a book author.

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December 14, 2008 3:25
You can get Crunchies and Flakes like common place in the UK :) If you ever need a box or two then I'm sure I can sort you out.
December 14, 2008 4:36
goodness, I am loving your blog the more now. lol.

Welcome to Africa. I theorise something about the randomness of it all, creates the fufilling sense of happiness that filters thru somehow.

Dont make too much attempt trying to make sense of it all. Just accept it, you know like a 4 year old...and the shock value would start fizzling out.

good post. Hope you r having a great time.
December 14, 2008 8:17
Flakes are the best! Are you into billtong at all?
December 14, 2008 10:44
Hi Scott --

Shared my stash of Black Cat Peanut Stacks with an American traveller yesterday. Addictive, aren't they ?

-- rowan

PS South African hospitality - black or white - is pretty much legendary. The only reason that you phone a friend before visiting is if you want to save yourself a wasted drive if they are not in. I even have the access codes for a couple of friends' front gates ...
December 14, 2008 12:39
In the part of the world where I live "the middleeast", its almost the same "except for the sleepover part". If you're a visitor from abroad, relatives come to see you without any previous notice. They usually come as soon as they know you arrived, and most of the time, its on the same day you arrive, and some of them would be actually waiting for you.
When its time to leave, they don't just tell someone to drop you to the airport, they "all" go with you to the airport to say bye.
December 14, 2008 13:31
This story is sooo funny.

It happened also in Romania only decades ago, people pop up in front of your door for a visit no matter whether you were prepared or not. People were closer to each other back then, more informal and the sense of community was stronger.

Things have changed a lot since then.
December 14, 2008 14:51
Dude, Crunchies rule! I got hooked on them on my first trip to Canada, where we tried all the different candy we could find. Cost Plus sells them by the case here in the States, though semi-spendy...
December 14, 2008 21:59
You are experiencing the cultural phenomenon called "Ubuntu". (No, not the Linux distro.)

"ubuntu - A Zulu word, literally meaning "humanness." Ubuntu is a social and spiritual philosophy serving as a framework for African society. Its essential meaning can be conveyed using the Zulu maxim "umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu"—meaning, in essence, "a person is a person through other persons." The practice of ubuntu is fundamentally inclusive, involving respect and concern for one's family and one's neighbors. It also implies respect for one's ancestors, in a deeper spiritual sense. Ubuntu defines the individual as a component of a greater (inclusive) collective whole, and it stresses social consciousness and unity."
December 14, 2008 22:13
You should look around in the States for shops catering to South African ex-pats. There usually are small shops in most of the large cities with a South African population catering in stuff only found in SA. (I know there was one in the Los Angeles area once). A good example is Mrs Ball's Chuntey.

Alternatively, I know about this site, which also supplies SA products to the US. Don't know how good they are, but they do offer Flake's and Crunchies:
December 15, 2008 2:02
Got a chuckle out of this as it is exactly how it works in India. People (usually relatives) just show up. I think it's fun.
December 15, 2008 8:39
South Africa sounds more and more like India. Relatives just dropping by and coming through like a storm, leaving pure destruction in their wake. It is fun in a weird sort of way. Stuff like this really makes you start missing the calm life of the US, but once you get back to the states life just seems so much more boring!
December 15, 2008 8:58
Don't you love the hospitality and informalities that have there. They don't make you feel like sh__ if you arrive unannouced and alway offer something to eat or drink. I wish we had more of that here in US. Do you miss that (food scenes + unannouced visits) when you come back home?
December 15, 2008 16:52
Reading this I find myself appreciating SA more. I can't imagine not being able to pop in at a friends place unannounced and feel unwelcome. Sleep overs are a given if you stay further than 50km from your hosts.
December 15, 2008 21:45
flakes and crunchies are at British Pantry in Redmond - so next time on campus you can get as many as you like
December 18, 2008 5:47
Not sure about Flakes, but Crunchie is readily available in Canada... Most Cadbury products are, so I wouldn't be surprised by Flake...

Also, I think Cadbury products in the USA are made by Hershey, so the chocolate doesn't taste at all the same...
December 18, 2008 23:16
I'll try to help you with soccer. It's a pretty big deal over there in South Africa, not least because they're hosting World Cup in a couple of years. is a good place to get started. It is likely that whichever team is local to where you are will be the favorite team of most assembled, similar to when you're at the Mothership, how football talk will turn to the Seahawks. Like anywhere, this isn't a hard and fast rule.

Soccer's easy. Scoring is goals (1 point per). Two 45 minute halves per match, and then there are points (which are how they measure standings, since matches between all teams in the league aren't always played simultaneously). Three for a win, one for a draw, none for a loss.

The two you have to worry about are both in Soweto - Kaiser Chiefs and Orlando Pirates. They're bitter rivals, and lives have been lost when these two play each other. It's like Arsenal/Spurs in England, or Eagles/Giants in the US, only way more violent.

I'd shake out the room for allegiances before you declare any between Chiefs/Pirates. You might hear "Amakhosi" (ref. Chiefs) and "Buccaneers" (ref. Pirates) instead, but regardless, staying neutral (and unknowledgeable) may be the thing that keeps you safe.

Good luck!

December 19, 2008 11:49
A totally different take on AJAX :-)
December 31, 2008 18:23

I don't think that type of arrangement is conducive to success or excellence. You need to be able focus and not just somewhat but intently. I think it was schopenhauer or someone talking about schopenhauer that those who are able to make their mark have the ability to concentrate and focus with no distraction.
While western civilization is not superior in terms of giving human beings meaning and living a life worth living, It cannot be denied that Western civilization is the most successful that world has ever known on one level.

January 21, 2009 17:46
Crunchies are also available in Australia, but Violet Crumbles (a similar choc/honeycomb mix) are much better (IMO).

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed herein are my own personal opinions and do not represent my employer's view in any way.