Here at StyleBlueprint, we are all about connecting women to their community. That’s why I took great interest in learning more about the Friends of South Africa, a social group here in town that is open to anyone in Middle Tennessee who has ties to and a love for South Africa. “Our primary goal is to support each other and welcome newcomers to the area as we go through the stages and emotions of expat life,” explains Kobie Pretorius, the group’s organizer.
Friends of South Africa, or FoSA, was founded by Lynne Siesser, Estelle Condra, Igna Fowler and Marlene Corlew in 1995. “The events portrayed in the movie Invictus, which tells the true saga of the South African rugby team’s heroic victory that year, Nelson Mandela and the birth of the Rainbow Nation were the impulse behind the group’s formation,” explains Kobie. Back then, there were no more than 40 South Africans in town; today there are nearly 400.
Kobie, who is from a town called Ermelo in the Mpumalanga Province of South Africa, moved to Nashville in 1996 with her husband, who was starting his residency at Vanderbilt at the time. When the pair arrived in Middle Tennessee, they had two suitcases, knew no one and had never even heard of the city they now called home. They were trying to navigate everything from finding a place to live to learning to drive on the opposite side of the road when, on their third day here, Kobie spotted a travel agency and walked inside. “I asked the first person, ‘Can you help me with a return ticket?’ and she asked, ‘Are you from South Africa?’ Turns out this friendly travel agent was from South Africa, too,” says Kobie. “Until this day, Simone Meyerowitz is one of my dearest friends. She told me about FoSA, and the rest is history!”
Now, 20 years after moving to Nashville, Kobie and her family, which now includes two children, are very much a part of the Nashville fabric. She takes great pride in continuing the work of FoSA as the group’s leader, a role she took over from co-founder Lynne Siesser back in 2003. She enjoys connecting her fellow South Africans to one other and to their new town. “We love and miss South Africa a lot; it’s part of our fiber,” she says, sharing a collective sentiment of her fellow South Africans, “but we also love being in Middle Tennessee, and we encourage everyone in FoSA to become citizens, vote and be part of life here in Tennessee.”
As one might imagine, leaving one life behind to start anew is not without its challenges … challenges of all kinds. “Financial, the language barrier, culture shock, etc.,” says Kobie, “but it’s mostly a challenge of the heart. It is not easy to leave your family behind. You definitely go through a mourning process. Isolation and depression are real dangers, especially for expats who come over later in life.”
That’s where a key role of FoSA comes in, and, as the saying goes, membership has its benefits. For example, one benefit is “an instant network of friends who will tell you where to buy your biltong (South African jerky), boerewors (sausage) and how to find Carnivore Market,” Kobie says, referring to the Franklin butcher shop owned by another local South African, S.J. Botha. “As you can tell, South Africans take their meat seriously!”
But more than a network of friends, it’s a group of people who are bound by — and dedicated to — the land from which they come, and Kobie’s role in that group is crucial. She helps organize events, manages the group’s private Facebook page and is one of those women who is just a natural connector. “We have at least one activity a month. Some include the whole family — BBQ’s (braais), camp-outs, picnics, wine and cheese, tea time for the ladies,” she explains. “Other activities include the wider Nashville community, such as the Cafecito with Conexion Americas or the Cumberland River Dragon Boat races.”
But let’s talk more about tea time for the ladies …
Each month, the women of FoSA gather at a different member’s home for what they call “tannies tea.” It’s a time to enjoy tea (or coffee) and treats and to reconnect. “It gives me a place to recharge my batteries, a place to connect with my roots, speak my own language,” says Kobie. “You are surrounded by friends who are living the same experiences — visas, lawyers, feelings of guilt for missed weddings, aging parents on another continent, missed funerals, holidays spent without family … we are all on this great adventure together, and it is good to know we are there for each other, even if it is just to share a good recipe, a cup of tea or a good laugh,” all of which they do at their tannies teas.
The word “tannie,” an Afrikaans word meaning “aunt,” is a title of respect given to older women, but there was no shortage of age diversity at the tea I was invited to attend in February. There were women there of all ages, but frankly age is irrelevant when the FoSA tannies gather for tea. It’s more about putting everyday life on pause and engaging — truly connecting — with friends. I would liken it to a girls’ night out, when a group of close friends who only get together every so often can pick up right where they left off. The interesting thing here, though, is that these women aren’t lifelong friends. In fact, one of the tannies who was at the tea had just arrived from South Africa only two weeks before, and yet, she was embraced by the group and joined right in the conversation as though she’d been here for ages. She’s found her people, which provides some comfort at a time when nothing else feels secure.
While most of the women have been in the United States for some time, anywhere from a year to several decades, they all speak passionately about their challenges, observations and even questions they get asked. One of the most common misconceptions they say that locals have about South African expats is about their skin color. “I get asked ‘Why aren’t you black?'” explained one tannie, and the rest chimed in in agreement; just like in America, though, South Africans come in more than one skin tone. Another point that makes them all cringe a bit? Being called “aliens.” Kobie shared how when she first got her Social Security card, boldly stamped across it were the words “Non-resident alien.” One of the other women at the tea added, “I didn’t like being called an alien!”
All of the tannies agree, though, that Americans are friendly and welcoming, and that life here is pretty good. “It’s easy to come here,” explains Sine Thieme, who is German but spent time in the United States, moved to South Africa and has since returned to the states. “Everything works! Trash pick-up, traffic lights and utilities … you can get them on fast. Stuff just works!”
Ultimately, Kobie says curiosity and questions are encouraged. “I actually love that Americans in general are very curious and will ask questions about the elephants roaming the streets of our cities, or streets paved in gold, or how can I be South African if I’m white,” she says. “So yes, ask the questions, even if you are not sure if South Africa is in South America or Africa — just ask and you will discover a brave human being, with hopes and dreams just like you, behind that funny accent.
“I think it is such a privilege to have the opportunity to live here,” she says, “and to also have a beautiful South African life as part of my story.”
If you’re curious to learn more about what life is like as an expat, check out Sine Thieme’s blog, Joburg Expat, where she sheds tremendous insight based on her own experience as well as offers tips for those who may be traveling to South Africa.