Islamabad to Gaborone: Sara Sullivan’s global family

As the director of communications for a large regional donor-funded development project working to improve economic growth in southern Africa, Sarah Sullivan is a busy woman. She’s also a parent. Born in the USA and initially basing herself in Islamabad, Sara and her family now live in Botswana’s capital city Gaborone. She briefed Aerostorie about what it’s like to be a family on the move.

How long have you been living abroad and what do you miss most about your birth country?

Six years. The number one thing I miss about living in America is the opportunity to live near my extended family, to get together with them on birthdays and holidays and any old time. I also miss Trader Joe’s.

Can you describe your current home, how is it different from your previous homes?

Gaborone is hot and dry, a city in the middle of the African bush. It has been in a serious drought ever since I moved here, and Botswana itself is a land-locked country. I definitely miss living next to the ocean as I have in California in earlier years. On the other hand, the average home in the city is a large, sprawling affair with multiple bedrooms and a swimming pool. That’s quite a change from the tiny apartments I had while living in Washington DC and Boston during my 20’s.

How has your work situation changed since moving to your current city?

During the first few years of my job here, it was like taking a time machine back to the 1990s. There was no reliable external email, so all work had to be done physically in the office between the strict hours of 7:30 am to 5:00 pm, and people primarily called your landline at your office desk to reach you. No one worked in the evenings or on the weekends, but there was also very little flexibility if you had to pick up your kids from school or run any other errands during the day. Over the years, the office changed with the times and now we have webmail like everyone else in the world and are connected to office matters 24/7 (there are pros and cons to this of course).

Did you move solo or with a partner? How has this affected your experience?

I moved to Botswana with my husband and my daughter, who was a baby at the time, and since living here we have added another baby boy to the family. It is a very different experience moving abroad with a family. When I moved to Pakistan in 2009 on my own, I was able to pack a huge suitcase full of my work clothes and goodies from home and still feel like I was traveling light, and I watched movies and read novels at a leisurely place during the entire 30-hour journey to arrive in Islamabad. Traveling with children, especially babies, feels like mounting a camping expedition up a steep hill where everything you need has to be carried with your own two hands while adorable but rascally bear cubs claw at your legs.

You also use completely different measures to determine the livability of a foreign country when you have kids. I wasn’t unduly concerned about the threat of a terrorist attack in Pakistan because, even though they do occur, your individual chances of being in the wrong place at the wrong time are low. But with kids, your anxiety level about potential danger goes up instantly. I like Botswana as a family post because even though Gaborone is small and not the most exciting city in the world, it is politically very peaceful and relatively safe.

Where do you consider ‘home’?

That’s such a good question. In my previous life in academia I wrote an entire dissertation about the concept of “home” and how elusive it is. I think that was good preparation for becoming an expat. I suppose I consider California home: it’s where I was born, went to college, and where I went back to have my first child. That being said, I’ve only spent one year living there in the last 20 years. But it still has a hold on my heart.

What’s different about day-to-day life in Gaborone, versus your previous homes?

Day-to-day life in any city when you have an office job assumes a strange kind of familiarity. Wake up, mobilize, breakfast, get to work to see what you need to accomplish for the day. Sit in front of a computer, check your phone, send lots of emails. You then deal with the same questions faced by working parents all over the world: who’s going to do the preschool pick-up at noon, what’s for dinner tonight, can we get home on time and sneak in a workout at the gym somewhere in the schedule too?

Whether my commute has passed by shopping centers full of big-box stores (a Los Angeles suburb), stately mosques chanting the call to prayer (Islamabad), or cows ambling on the side of the road munching grass (Gaborone), the rest of my day as one of the world’s office workers has felt oddly similar no matter where I was. One of the challenges of the expat life is to break out of that routine, have uniquely local experiences full of the sights and sounds of your adopted country.

What are the best things about being an expat in your current city? And the worst?

There are several great things about being an expat in Botswana. For one, the people are very friendly and the pace of life is very comfortable. The mood of the city is peaceful and harmonious, and you quickly learn to adopt this attitude too. Rudeness and visible impatience even at long waits or inconveniences are frowned upon: that kind of attitude won’t get you anywhere. So it’s a good place for your blood pressure. 

It’s also right in the middle of some of the most remote and amazing geography in the world: real National Geographic stuff. Less than a ten-minute drive from my house I can see zebras, ostriches, impala, and monkeys in the Gaborone Game Reserve, and it costs less than one dollar per person to drive through the reserve in your own car. Forty-five minutes away in the Madikwe Game Reserve, you can see lions, rhinos, giraffes, and majestic elephants a few feet away from your safari jeep. My daughter saw more amazing wildlife before the age of three than most Americans ever will. Of course, that’s why she now gets excited about seeing a squirrel when we visit America but didn’t bat an eyelash when we tracked a leopard for half an hour on one of our Madikwe trips.

The hardest things about living in Gaborone include the drought the city is in currently, as well as interrupted electricity service during the winter. Three or four times a week the water in the taps slows to a tiny drizzle for most of the day, making showering or washing dishes impossible. And if you don’t have a generator, during power outages you will need to get very comfortable with eating by candlelight and using the grill outside to cook dinner.

What are some of the logistical considerations you’ve had to face?

Getting settled overseas always requires more paperwork than you wish it did. Americans entering Botswana automatically receive a 90-day stay, but after that you need a permit to live here, which your company needs to procure for you. This can take a couple of months and can be a complicated process.

On the other hand, finding a home was relatively easy. There are many real estate agents who can drive you around and show you good options; then it’s just a matter of signing a lease. Opening a bank account and other basic settling-in activities are not overly difficult, but they usually require a trip to a physical location and sometimes a wait in a slow-moving line. Not as much can be done over the internet as I was accustomed to from my years living in the U.S.

One of the most difficult basic items to iron out upon my arrival here was getting a simple phone landline for the house. Believe it or not that took a couple of weeks and required lots of scanning and signatures on the part of both myself and our landlord.

In hindsight, if I could have met myself at the airport upon arrival three and a half years ago, I would have told myself to take everything in stride and just do it the African way (which is also, incidentally, the California way)—relax, take it easy, enjoy yourself, check out the view. Everything will work out in the end.