Whats it like to live in Johannesburg - Julia Henderson

Following on from our post on Why you should get excited about moving to Joburg, we thought it would be helpful for those considering moving here to understand what other expats have loved about the city they called home (if only for a while).  

whats it like to live in Johannesburg

Tell us a little about you and your experience abroad:

I left South Africa in 2016 and returned to the UK, where I was born, to settle after having spent 37 years of my life living in 12 countries across the globe. (In addition I lived in another eight countries for short periods of 3-6 months.) I lived overseas as a child, as a diplomat and as a spouse who gave up a career to follow my husband, also a diplomat. Like many expatriate spouses, I qualified as a teacher of English as a foreign language and also worked briefly as a proofreader and editor. I also volunteered extensively.

What are some of your favourite items collected along the way:

Laotian cushion

Laotian cushion

I have so many. With mechanisation and mass production, many traditional skills are dying out and with them an insight into the culture of a particular group of people. I have enjoyed buying items which reflect some of these traditional skills and learning about their provenance. In 1980 when Laos was still a closed communist country, and long before it was on the tourist trail, I bought some colourful embroidered and appliquéd cushion covers made by the Hmong people.

Saudi evening bag

Saudi evening bag

The Palestinians have long been known for their cross-stitch work and I have a cape with a beautiful cross-stitch border which has been much admired. I love a small evening handbag from Saudi Arabia. It was embroidered by deaf girls who were learning traditional Saudi embroidery in an attempt to prevent these skills from being lost forever.

Innuit bone seal

Innuit bone seal



A kelim from Algiers with its symbols relating to domestic and family life: different motifs symbolise the three different forms of marriage (love, forced and business) as well door keys, scissors and the looms on which the women wove the carpets. Some stunning red Algerian Boumehdi pots, the red reflecting the country’s turbulent past and the touches of turquoise, the sea. Small bone carvings of a seal on a piece of wood made by the Inuit in Canada.

Egyptian necklace

Egyptian necklace




And we have pictures from virtually everywhere. I was involved with a charity in São Paulo and a lady in the community painted me a picture of young men doing capoeira, the elegant Brazilian non-contact martial art. A picture of the spirit of the Corn Mother venerated by native Americans in the United States: with her symbols of corn and corn sheaves, the Corn Mother spirit has nurturing qualities associated with abundance, fertility and children, health, energy and strength. A wood block snow scene from Japan; a black ink drawing of a Baobab tree by South African artist, Diane Weiman, a reminder for me of both Angola and South Africa; miniatures of wildlife which we bought at the Johannesburg Miniature Art Society exhibition at Hyde Park; a silver and carnelian necklace and earrings made by Egyptian craftsmen and designed by a talented Yemeni lady.





I could go on. As a friend said to me, ‘You can tell that you haven’t spent your whole life in Britain.’

When living abroad what did you miss about your home country?

Family, especially our two daughters who went to boarding school in England, and friends. When not living in the UK, I have always lived in cities and now love being able to take walks in the countryside from our home on the outskirts of Salisbury.

Have you adopted any new customs or traditions from various places you have lived?

Once a week or so in Johannesburg I used to walk for 45 minutes with a friend to a café where we had a coffee and chat before walking back home together. Many of the people that we passed on these walks greeted us with a cheery ‘Morning’ to which we responded in kind. It was the same on my weekly outings to Delta Park with the dog – virtually everyone acknowledged each other in some way as our paths crossed. Now on my daily walks with the dog, I still try to greet everyone whose eyes I meet with a smile and a ‘Hello’.

Since the children were babies in the United States each Christmas we have bought a Christmas ornament from the country we were living in: one for my husband and myself, and one for each of our daughters. Now that the girls are adults they have an interesting collection of souvenirs for their own Christmas trees and we have a set for our tree. 

In what ways have you changed personally or professionally since living abroad?

Like people everywhere, I am a product of my cultural background. Although I spent time in France and Cyprus as a child, I absorbed the British values and beliefs of my family. Exposure to a wide range of people from a variety of social, economic and faith backgrounds has, I think (and hope), made me more tolerant, compassionate and understanding of others as well as the context of their lives and beliefs. No society is perfect and there are good and bad people everywhere with all shades in between. It’s a mistake to stigmatise whole nations of people because of their leaders’ beliefs and their system of government.

During the Cold War British diplomats were not allowed to associate with citizens from countries within the Soviet bloc. With the changed environment after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, from the early 1990s onwards we counted Poles, Russians, Romanians, Bulgarians and Hungarians amongst our friends – fun, warm people who worked hard, loved their families and generally tried to do their best. And in Saudi Arabia, a country that doesn’t receive much favourable media coverage, I met highly educated, charming women who were actively involved in helping the less fortunate and changing the lives of many for the better.  

In my experience, people’s priorities everywhere are very similar: a home, a job, education for their children, access to health facilities and a desire to live in peace and security. Over the years I’ve welcomed thousands of people into our home, many of whom I was meeting for the first time, or gone to dinners and receptions where I’ve met people unknown to me previously. Sometimes it required a little effort to make conversation with a complete stranger at dinner or over a drink but, with few exceptions, it has usually been possible to connect on a subject of interest or concern. (If all else fails, Diana Cooper, in her book Trumpets from the Steep, advised to ask about people’s childhood to get a conversation going.)  I have lost count of the number of fascinating conversations that I have had unexpectedly with people from very different backgrounds from my own.

Why do you think someone should live abroad?

Living abroad is an opportunity to learn, grow and challenge yourself. The experience provides an insight into how other societies operate and how other people live as well as encouraging the exchange of ideas. In addition to enjoying the landscape, climate, different food, music, theatre and film, it can lead to a greater appreciation of your own society. Here in Britain we largely take for granted the provision of water, sewage and electricity. These services are not so reliable in other places. Sometimes my skin, eye and hair colour have not been the same as the majority of people who live in a country, giving me a sense of what it must be like to be part of a minority anywhere.  It’s also an opportunity to develop new interests. I did a lot of wildlife photography in Africa, learnt to scuba dive in the Red Sea, flew microlights and skied in Canada, and rode in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. 

If you could wind back time, is there anything you would do differently?

I speak French and Portuguese but wish that I’d learned Arabic. Neither my husband nor I were interested in working in Africa or the Middle East when we met. But we were sent to Angola in 1992-93 during the civil war and then on to Egypt in 1994. The two assignments completely changed our view of the continent, an indication that you don’t always know what you want or will like until you’ve tried it.  As my husband was not an Arabic speaker, we thought that Cairo would be a one-off posting in that part of the world but we subsequently went to Saudi Arabia for three years and later to Algeria for a further three years. Arabic is a difficult language to learn to speak well and, in Egypt, I decided that I didn’t want to commit two years of my time to learning it. If I’d had a crystal ball, I would have made that commitment as a language not only makes it possible to speak to a wider range of people but also opens up a whole new world of literature and understanding of the culture.

Another major regret was that we did not go to Syria on holiday when we were based in Egypt. We thought we couldn’t afford it and that our daughters were too young to appreciate it. Truly a missed opportunity. 

What advice would you give to someone about to move?

Be curious, be open to change and possibilities, and cultivate patience! Processes and bureaucratic systems will be different from wherever you are living at present, so be wary of making assumptions and don’t be afraid to ask questions.

Be brave, be flexible and don’t worry if at first things don’t always go according to your plan. Look out for unexpected opportunities. Living in another country can offer insights way beyond those to be gained from visiting as a holidaymaker. From the outset, grasp every opportunity to travel, explore and get to know people from the country in which you are living whether it be in the workplace, by taking a course or by volunteering. Three or four years can seem a long time at the beginning of an assignment but it is surprising how quickly the time passes.

Make sure that you pack something in your suitcase or have a project in mind to do in your spare time in the early days before your heavy baggage arrives and when you are not busy looking for accommodation, furniture, a car, a television etc. For example, organise the 6,000 photos on your laptop into folders; delve into those books you haven’t had time to read; do some craftwork or have a pack of playing cards to hand. 

In the initial weeks say ‘yes’ to every invitation that you receive to go to a social event or if someone offers to help you in some way. If no-one reaches out to you, reach out to them. Look up groups to join on the internet. If you are dealing with a real estate agent who is helping you find a home, pick their brains for possible contacts or groups.  Some towns in the USA have newcomers’ groups; cities in other parts of the world have international groups; sign up to do a wine tasting course in South Africa! You may be fortunate and hit it off immediately with some people you meet soon after arrival, but often it takes time to make friends. Once made, though, these friendships can be deep and enduring, providing support in the absence of family and friends from your previous life.

Keep a diary, at least in the early days – it is a good way of noting down what it strange, new and amusing before it becomes commonplace as well as recording your progress (‘After three weeks we’ve got internet – hooray!’) and frustrations. Looking back at it after a year or two helps you to realise how well you have adapted and what you have achieved. And be kind to yourself. The initial euphoria of arriving in and exploring a new country can give way to a period of regret about what you have left behind. Missing your previous life while you carve out a new one is a common experience and part of the transition process.    

Tell us more about your favourite Joburg places: 


Wombleswww.wombles.co.za - great food and service with African ambience.


The Island Bar at the Southern Sun Hotel at Hyde Park or, in October and November, The Four Seasons Westcliff bar, overlooking Jo’burg's beautiful jacaranda.

Day trip:

Roodeplaat Dam and Nature Reserve: www.roodeplaat-reserve.co.za An away-from-it-all place for a walk and picnic. The nature reserve is on the south side of the dam. There is an easy 7 km walking trail on which you sometimes see a variety of non-predator animals (warthog, kudu, impala, zebra, wildebeest etc).

Must see:

Tours of Braamfontein and CBD Johannesburg: Superb walking tours of downtown Johannesburg by enthusiast Gerald Garner: gerald@joburgplaces.com and info@joburgplaces.com Details are on the website: www.joburgplaces.com. Tours can be tailored to an individual’s circumstances or interests. 

Also Liliesleaf: www.liliesleaf.co.za The Rivonia farmhouse where Nelson Mandela lived for a while and which was used to plan ANC operations. It was raided in July 1963 and the leaders of the anti-apartheid resistance movement arrested. Many were subsequently sent to Robben Island. Beautifully laid out and very informative. Nice coffee shop.

Coolest shop/brand:

I love the Rain range of beauty and bath products.

Best entertainment:

The Market Theatre: www.markettheatre.co.za Small, intimate theatre in Newtown, converted from an old fruit and vegetable market. Some interesting productions (often about South Africans coming to terms with their past in one way or another) at reasonable prices.

Favourite way to stay fit:

Walking - good for the mind and the body

Favourite holiday destination: