A life abroad – but South Africa will always be my home

2014-04-20 15:00

It was yoghurt that gave the Wolmarans family wings.

Multinational yogurt manufacturer Danone had been involved in South Africa’s most popular yogurt brand since 1998 and Johan Wolmarans, chief quality controller, had caught the eye of his French bosses.

They wanted him in Paris, not Boksburg.

Two months later, Johan, his wife Maretha and their two daughters were on a plane to a new life.

The Wolmaranses are part of a growing band of South African families finding better opportunities abroad, but who don’t want to leave South Africa behind. They will vote in this year’s election if they can find somewhere to do it.

“I miss speaking Afrikaans and South African humour, friendliness and the openness of the people of all cultures,” Maretha says. “I miss my family and friends. I miss my country.”

Johan, a Sharks supporter, curses both the internet connection and the ref when he streams rugby matches on his computer. Maretha fills her petrol tank herself and scans her own groceries.

She shovels slush off the stoep when their house in Ohio – the family has now settled in America – is snowed in.

She walks her kids to the yellow school bus every morning, then checks the time to see if her mother is still awake in South Africa for a WhatsApp chat.

It was never a difficult decision for the family to leave South Africa. Maretha, a high school maths teacher, was growing tired of juggling the needs of her two small daughters and the demands of helping her students through matric.

Johan wanted to spread his wings.

“We saw it as the chance of a lifetime,” Maretha says. “My biggest concern about moving countries was the kids because I wanted the move to be for the benefit of every family member. And it was – the kids adore our new life.”

It was not love at first sight. The long grey winters were a constant battle. It was in France that little Amelie was born and where she nearly died from pneumonia when she was only two months old.

But Paris is a temptress, despite her moodiness, and slowly the family fell in love with their new home.

Johan also had a travel budget included in his package, so they were constantly hopping off to destinations all over Europe.

In her six years, middle child Kayla had seen more of the world than some people have in an entire lifetime.

Then one day they had to pack up and move to the States – to Troy, a small town in Ohio, about six hours from Chicago. Settling in was easier this time, and there was no language barrier.

While their circle of friends in France consisted mostly of other expats, their American neighbours arrived on their first day in town with a batch of freshly baked cookies.

“It feels very much like the South African platteland here,” says Maretha. “It’s a great town to raise kids and there are many family-orientated activities and festivals. Life here is easier than life in France, but I have to admit it also doesn’t have the excitement.”

Danita (9), the eldest, speaks almost fluent French and it took her exactly two weeks in the US to acquire an American accent.

South Africa’s crime rate still weighs heavily on Maretha and Johan’s hearts. They are avid readers of Beeld newspaper and the constant reports of violent crime worry them.

In Troy, there is no fence around their house and no alarm system or panic button.

“The windows don’t have bars and I often leave without locking the door. The cars have no tracking device or alarm installed,” she says.

Still, it’s good to come home. “We go back home every December to spend Christmas with family and every time I walk out of that plane and smell the earth, feel the heat, hear Afrikaans and see my family, I get this warm feeling that I am home now.”

Johan has become a senior executive in Danone and even better opportunities await.

So there will be more travelling, possibly more ­countries – but in the end, the Wolmarans family hopes to make their beloved South Africa their ultimate ­destination.

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