Anna and her children, aged 9, 6 and 2.

Anna Stopes is 34. Last year, she and her partner, Harry, and their three children aged 9, 6 and 2, left Manchester to go travelling for six months before relocating for a further year to Transkei, rural South Africa. 

The way we were
Harry and I met while we were both volunteering on a year-long health education programme in Zambia, in 2006. We had known for years that we wanted to travel or live abroad with our children, and had some opportunities to travel when our oldest was a toddler (she had been to South Africa, Swaziland, India, Nepal and France by the time she was two). But then the long slog of Harry’s medical training to become a doctor that kept us grounded for a while…

When Harry finished his GP training, we were living a very ‘normal’ life in a four-bed house in Manchester, near my parents; our kids in nice schools, a lovely local community etc… It was a life we could have perfectly reasonably continued living, but we just hankered after that adventure. Suddenly, we were free to do what we wanted, and we wanted to re-capture the adventure, excitement and the challenges of travelling and living abroad that we had experienced before – and this time share it with all our children.

South Africa chose us, really. We knew Harry needed to work to make a longer-term stay affordable – a family of 5 can’t live on a voluntary stipend! So it had to be somewhere where a British doctor can work easily enough. My own work history is patchy and chequered and isn’t a ‘career’ as such… I’ve done everything since having kids: worked full-time, part-time, and been a stay-at-home mum. I left my most recent part-time job three months before we left for travelling. I don’t have a work visa here, but there also isn’t really the childcare available for me to work anyway, while high unemployment here means families rely on informal childcare networks when both parents are working.

We didn’t do any formal schooling while travelling, but now we are settled we are taking a more formal approach. I don’t do anything with the two-year-old, and I have about an hour of more formal sit-down time with the nine year old and about half an hour of the same with the six year old. Then we do the rest more informally as it fits in around the two year old (who sadly doesn’t nap). I read aloud a lot. I’m mostly conscious that my nine year old will return to secondary school in the U.K. (according to our current plans!) so I don’t want her to have a big gap in maths – I feel like the rest is fairly fluid, really. We are actually considering trying out a school for them here, so that they can meet more children and have more of a culturally immersive experience, although the schools here are very different to at home.

Making it work
There’s an NGO that assists foreign doctors in gaining jobs in rural South African government hospitals, which are desperately under-resourced and under-staffed: so that’s how we ended up here. We didn’t chose the job location within South Africa, it’s just what came, handed down from the Department of Health. There were many hoops to jump through for Harry to be able to be registered with the South African equivalent of the GMC, get the job contract, and so on. We all had to apply for visas complete with medical reports, chest X-rays and five copies of everything. Once we had the job, we knew we had the house in place, too. We left most other stuff to arrange once we got here. Including schools. We are home-educating the children at the moment (there are no international schools anywhere near here) but I think they will eventually go to school locally just for the social immersion. It’s on my to-do list.

Our life in Manchester was one we could have perfectly reasonably continued living, but we just hankered after that adventure

We can function OK here just in English, but as we live in a rural area the more Xhosa we knew the better. Harry has to have a translator for many of his patients at work, but while we tried to learn a little before we came we didn’t find many resources for learning.

The way we live now
We arrived in South Africa on the 26 March 2017, after spending two months in the U.K. following our stint of travelling. We spent a week staying with my uncle in Cape Town, bought a car and then drove up here with two overnight stops and a meeting with the Department of Health on the way. It’s a long way! We arrived at the hospital on 3 April.We had an interlude of six months of travelling (Indonesia, Myanmar, Sri Lanka) between Leaving Manchester and arriving here, so in a way our lives have been transitory and full of change for a while. It’s nice to feel settled again now, though. The kids can collect belongings around them again, we have brought some familiar objects out of storage. Now they have outside toys and neighbouring kids to play with, which are all familiar things.

We have a routine to our lives again and to be honest, much of it feels very familiar. But instead of living in a friendly, creative part of South Manchester we live in a two-bed house in the grounds of the rural government hospital Harry works at. This is one of the poorest areas of South Africa; the children Harry looks after at work are suffering malnutrition, TB, HIV, so there is also a lot that is different, too.

I tend to say we live in a compound but I’m not sure if that conjures up the wrong image for people! We live on site, in the hospital complex. Our front drive is the main hospital gate by A&E, to get home we drive past the other hospital entrances (outpatients, maternity, paediatrics, the mortuary), past some workshops and some nurses’ accommodation, then there’s a little cluster of houses and we live in one of those. There’s also the hospital laundry where we take our washing…

The highs
One of the nice things about living on-site is that Harry has no commute. He will often be home around 5pm, and then we have some time to potter around – we are doing a bit of gardening and building a chicken coop. Or we play on the tennis court (this hospital was originally a mission hospital so there’s also a little chapel filled with rotting hassocks and bat poo; and the tennis court dates from those days, I assume…).

It isn’t up to tennis anymore but it makes a good space for other games. There is another British doctor working here who sometimes joins us, too, and sometimes two neighbouring children as well. Then it’s the usual supper/bath/bed routine while we chat about the day or Harry reads up on the medical emergency he’s had to deal with that day. Then I read or prepare for the next day. We have no WiFi and data for our phones is expensive so it’s a great disincentive to wasting hours on the internet idly as we used to do.

At weekends, if Harry isn’t on call, we go away, often camping. I think we probably always will do this throughout the year. There are lots of lovely places within a three-hour drive, particularly along the coast, and it’s nice to have a change of scene. One of our aims for this year is to do lots of surfing. We are really enjoying our opportunities for exploring the beautiful part of the country we live in, the Wild Coast is spectacular. It’s exciting to have the opportunity to get to know somewhere new with some depth. Travelling for six months before moving here, though, was a stroke of genius (suggested by my brother) as it allowed us to have already changed the pattern of our lives and be used to living in different ways as demanded by our particular situation.

We miss our friends and family, knowing where you can get things – like PVA glue and pesto

The lows
On a personal level, we miss our friends and family, knowing where you can get things (like PVA glue and pesto) and not having to drive an hour to the shops. I miss bookshops and Amazon already.We’ve been surprised by the number of organisational strikes and the violence. Of course South Africa has a reputation for violence, but the area we are in is generally more quiet and safe. Yet we’ve arrived in the midst of an ongoing battle between rival taxi drivers (in SA, taxis are not the same as the U.K; rather they are mini-buses that travel up and down certain routes collecting and dropping off passenger.) Police have occasionally closed down some of their routes as a result, and a few times the nearby big town has been closed down by strikes and protests. Hopefully it will settle down soon.

Top tip
My advice to others planning a similar trip or relocation would be ready to go with the flow! It won’t be the same, some things are bound to be worse but some things will be better… you’ve got to be open to it all! And if you’re moving to South Africa bring lots of stuff with you as it is all expensive here and there’s no IKEA…

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