Black Expat in Saudi Arabia

The Lifestyle Concierge: Abby Banda

What happens when a Durban girl gets tired of the NYC hustle? She takes her talents to Riyadh.  Learn how Abby went from nanny to Lifestyle Concierge for the rich and (sometimes) famous.

Let’s start with your childhood. Where did you go grow up?

I was born and raised in Durban, South Africa.  The first few years of my life were spent on a farm in a little town called Stanger. My first trip out of there was basically at the back of the truck when my parents divorced.  My mom was a single parent who was constantly struggling to make ends meet. There was nothing left for a vacation.  School holidays meant getting on a train from our mom’s place to our dad’s.

My first experience with different cultures was when I began school. My mom wanted me to learn English so she took me to an Indian school. If you’re familiar with the political landscape of South Africa 30 years ago, there were separate schools dedicated to different races. At the bottom of that totem pole was the Bantu (black) education.

My mom, a teacher, decided she’d rather I went to an Indian school because it would afford me exposure to another language and allow me to appreciate a different culture. She was, indeed, ahead of her time.  It was a rough experience, trying to fit into that environment where students had little-to-no familiarity to one another. But I soldiered through. I’d say that was my FIRST immersion into a different culture, having to assimilate to something else because what I was, was simply not good enough.

What was your first expatriation move?

I was in New York for well over a decade before deciding to move to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. When I made my first move from South Africa,  I still referred to it as home. I guess it’s true that once you get African dust on your feet, it never leaves you.

My NYC move was driven by disappointment. I wasn’t happy with the direction that the “New” South Africa was going. I had followed the rules: Be a good girl, listen to your teacher, don’t chase boys, don’t get pregnant, get an education and you will lead an amazing life. I did it all, in that order.  But the amazing life was nowhere to be seen. My home was being consumed by overgrown grass and weeds. We couldn’t keep the lights on and we were collecting water from the neighbor’s house with buckets because ours had been cut off. I was supposed to get a job. There were none. I knocked on every door possible. Nothing.

So I went to an uncle, who had recently retired and had a little bit of cash from his retirement package. I asked him to lend me enough money for the plane ticket to New York and I was on the next plane out of there. I didn’t have any family members in the US. I just knew a handful of girls who had gone using an Au Pair program and that was it.

How was the move to NYC?

To say there was a culture shock would be an understatement. I landed in New York during winter. Mind you, Durban is as tropical as Miami.  I had never experienced the brutality of a New York winter. Not only did I not have any money on me, I didn’t have proper clothes for the cold weather.  I was so driven to stay and make it work that I was walking around in short dresses and flip flops. People had to constantly remind me that it was cold and I needed appropriate clothing.

Though I spoke English very well, I kept getting corrected. People would ask where the “accent” was from. I’d proudly beam and say,  “South Africa!”  By the time I finished professing that, they’d have moved on to something else. I’m still amazed by the short American  attention span. I find it hilarious. I think I do that too now, though.

And how did that move compare to the one to Saudi Arabia?

With New York, you could turn on the TV and there’s tons of programs, movies and documentaries all shot in the greatest city on earth. My Saudi Arabian move differed in a sense that I knew absolutely nothing about the country. I’d been offered to move to Saudi Arabia 2 years prior to the actual move. Contracts were signed but I was discouraged by blogs written by expats in Saudi. Every gloom and doom that was at the back of my mind was confirmed by the bloggers.

“You’re a woman!  Even worse, you’re BLACK! You simply won’t make it. You won’t survive.  Saudis are racist,” they said.

I listened to the negative voices and cancelled my first contract. So I stayed in New York for 2 years with horrendous clients who were super demanding and nothing could please them. I regretted not taking the Saudi job but thankfully an even better one came along.

What is your current career? How did you get into it?

I initially came to the U.S. as an Au Pair.  You get live with an American family & explore the culture in exchange for providing them with 40 hours of child care. It was my first job experience and I hated it so much that I quit within the first 3 months. Having no other job experience though, I was left with one option, being a nanny.

That’s when things fell apart. My visa expired.  My fiancé, who was to marry me and help me be legal again, cheated on me. I went on the nanny websites hunting for jobs. While on the verge of homelessness and by the grace of God,  I finally found a position with a very wealthy family. When I first started they had 3 kids, which was no walk in the park. And then BOOM, they had a 4th one and it got even more complicated. But I handled the situation with poise and took it for what it was – a learning experience.

I eventually got my groove and the family allowed me to manage more than just their kids.  My role became nanny AND house manager. I was paying their bills, dealing with their vendors, dealing with the landscaper, architects and everything that had to do with managing of their lives. I soon became indispensable.  Now, I am a Lifestyle Concierge. My agency only deals with the one percent. They have to be worth over $750 million (USD) to find me.

How did your career get you to Riyadh?

One day, I was paging through American Express’ Departures magazine. I remember this because I cut out the pages and stuck it to my vision board, which I still have to this day. There was an article about butlers and estate managers. These people looked so polished and refined, yet, they were running the same errands I was. They were getting six figure salaries and I was scrambling at $1,000 a week with 4 kids on top of it. I decided to create a résumé and took a chance with agencies. As they say, the rest is history.

I registered myself as a company; I didn’t have papers, so I couldn’t get paid on the books. As a company, however, I could work as an independent vendor. Upon circulating my profile with agencies, I guess they couldn’t believe I was managing 3 mansions while taking care of 4 kids that included a baby. A few months later,  I was one of those people you see on TMZ & E! News shielding their celebrity bosses from the paparazzi. Life changed drastically for me. It was very humbling.

I started meeting potential principals from around the world and was ready to explore my career outside of New York. I work in an environment that allows better opportunities if you are willing to step outside your comfort zone. It’s more lucrative for someone who is adventurous.  A bunch of private jets and yacht rides later, here I am in Saudi Arabia.

Riyadh Sunset
Photo: Abby Banda

Why Riyadh?

My Saudi move was only well researched as far as my line of work is concerned. I follow the rich guy who is willing to live his life as luxuriously as possible. The guy without a budget. THAT is my favorite client. With the Dubai boom & the Saudi oil, it couldn’t hurt to move to the Middle East. If you truly have a service heart and want to get into being an estate manager, find the best butler school in the world. It’s only 2 months worth of training and the least amount you will make is $65,000 USD.

What has been the relationship between Riyadh and your identity as a black African woman?

I’ve dealt with a lot of curiosity: Where are you from? How are you liking our country? InshaAllah (God willing) you will stay longer and enjoy our culture.  I get this EVERY SINGLE TIME I step out to the mall or grocery store.

People in Riyadh, are starting to realize the transformation that’s taking place in their city. It’s conservative, yes, but there are a lot of businesses that are coming up and each and every one of those is bringing in expats. So it is no longer a strange phenomenon for Saudis to see an expat. We are welcome here, as long as we play by the rules.

Saudis are especially intrigued by someone who is brown. They consider themselves brown, so I feel right at home.

It’s more common to see white expats in Saudi than it is to see Black ones. So when I show up, people usually say: “we’re happy to see one of our own.”

What is the biggest misconception people (friends/family/strangers) have about you living in Saudi Arabia?

There was some fear when I first walked towards the sign Saudi Airlines at JFK. As much as there’s social media, Saudi Arabia has remained mysterious. You don’t even see a fraction of what this country looks like on the Internet. I find it charming. I love the mystery of a woman in a Hijab; it is so representative of their closed culture. You can’t really take photos in public at the old markets. You can’t take pictures inside the palaces. All part of keeping their culture protected from prying eyes.

Some people see the abaya (traditional dress worn by Saudi women) as a symbol of oppression.  The women I see are using it as a fashion statement.  Many design their own abayas  and actually enjoy wearing them! I know I do! Before you feel sorry for someone who’s fully covered up, take this into consideration: they could be wearing pajamas underneath and didn’t even feel like doing their make up, so they cover  everything up. But on a good day, there’s an $8,000 Chanel bag and $3,000 Louboutin shoes under that abaya. So while people are busy pitying the Saudis, many are just  out here living their lives.

Besides the fact that I can’t get a cocktail or go clubbing, I’d say I feel right at home. It also helps that I have an INCREDIBLE team of people around me. They appreciate the work I do and constantly profess “Hamdulilah (Thank God) for you.” So they make my life easy.

For the newbie, what’s one must have experience while visiting or living in Saudi Arabia?

Definitely the Edge Of The World and a desert party. Some countries have the beach.  Some have great walls and statues. Riyadh has its landscape. There’s nothing like watching the sunset from the desert.

Do you have any advice for someone considering becoming a globally focused entrepreneur?

The most important lesson I’ve learned is that other people’s fears will hinder you from truly living a life that you dream of. Don’t listen to people, do your own research and read from people who have had positive experiences.

Be passionate and willing to learn. Read up on the culture, learn a language if you must. Don’t go in having negative opinions about a culture, love them for who they are. Teach them your culture, don’t be defensive, even if someone is being ignorant. No matter where you go, there will be that person who will rub you the wrong way, but don’t take the bait.  Have a happy disposition. No one likes being around an angry, cranky person.

One more thing: it’s OK for someone to want to see or touch your hair. Really, it is.

 

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