Kholofelo recently wrote a personal piece on moving from apartheid South Africa to the United States as a youth. Now, we learn more about this expat’s upbringing as well as how her career in law has taken her around the world.
Tell us about your background and did you go grow up travelling?
I am South African. I spent the longest time of my life (the first 12 years) in a township (the “hood)” called Mamelodi in the capital city, Pretoria. I was born in the 1980’s when apartheid was fully alive and kicking. I grew up travelling to neighbouring Botswana from a very young age to visit family – some were living there in exile. I was also a presenter on a children’s travelling TV show when I was around six and seven. I travelled to another province in South Africa and to Swaziland. I got my own passport at the age of six, but I had been travelling on my father’s for years before that.
Where are you based now and what led you to move there?
I live in Neuchâtel, Switzerland and work in Geneva. It sounds kind of cheesy but my dreams led me here. In my final year of law school in South Africa, I found out about the place where I now work. It is called the Advisory Centre on WTO (World Trade Organization) Law (ACWL). From that day onwards, I was very single-minded about achieving my goals. I came to Switzerland in 2013 to do my Masters at the World Trade Institute at the University of Bern. And in October 2015, I started my job and U-hauled myself to Geneva.
Share a little bit about your current work.
I am an international trade lawyer. I practice WTO law at the ACWL. The ACWL is an international organisation in Geneva (one of the smallest) that assists developing countries and least-developed countries (LDCs) that are WTO members with WTO law issues. We provide legal opinions, represent our members in disputes at the WTO, and do capacity building (training courses and seminars on WTO law).
Before I came to Europe, I worked in a large corporate law firm in Johannesburg, South Africa. I then moved to Bern, Switzerland for my Masters. Immediately prior to starting my current job, I was living in Nuremberg, Germany (I lived a block away from where the Nuremberg Trials took place) where I worked as a research assistant in international economic law at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg.
How has being an expat enhanced your professional career?
Well, I am an expat because of my career so I think it is rather the other way around in my case. Nevertheless, working in an international city like Geneva as a “foreigner” is great because you do not feel “foreign” because every other person on the street is from somewhere else. So, I hardly get weird looks or have people asking me “where are you really from?” because Geneva is an expat city.
How do you think your upbringing prepared you for such an international path?
I would say that there is a direct link between my upbringing and life experiences and where I am right now. I have been travelling since I was a toddler. When I was 16, my family moved to the United States for over four years. I graduated high school in Inver Grove Heights, Minnesota and started my college career at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Living in the US as a young adult shaped my outlook on life and moulded me into the person that I am today.
When family moved back to South Africa, I continued my studies and started exploring my continent, as well as other places. When I was a student, I saved every extra penny that I earned so that I could travel. Before I graduated from law school, I had managed to go to seven African countries, three European countries, and live in Argentina and travel to Uruguay from there. Between my first degree and law school, I worked at a regional organisation. It was like a mini Geneva for Africans and there I got a taste of working in an international space. I love it and hope to be in this type of environment for a long time.
This is not your first expat experience. How does this expat experience compare to the others?
I have had three expat experiences outside of Switzerland and three in different cities in Switzerland. The first two Swiss ones were during and just after my Masters. They were the “typical” student experience: a lot of fun and always teetering on the edge of brokeness!
I also lived in US for over four years, Argentina for three months, and Germany on and off for a cumulative period of a year. They were all different. I would say that living in Minnesota and Wisconsin, US was the most intense because it was the first time I lived outside of South Africa. But in many ways, it was the easiest. I was quite young so I processed things differently and adapted quicker and easier. Overall, it was a positive experience and I discovered the Kholo that I am and made my best friends for life there.
Living in Buenos Aires, Argentina was the most interesting. I did it to improve my Spanish and to get some work experience in a law firm while I was still in law school. While the city is still one of the best places I have been to and the party life is insane, it was socially tricky for me there. Argentina (at least Buenos Aires) is still very homogenous i.e. there are hardly any black people. On the one hand, some people were outright racist. On the other hand, there was no shortage of guys cat calling at me “hola morocha, mira vos!” (hi brown lady, just look at you!) on a daily basis- it was a really weird for me. I nonetheless had a blast, learnt a lot, and made good friends.
The three times that I lived in Germany were hectic. I was with my husband in three different towns in the south of Germany (Ulm, Lörrach, and Nuremberg). Except for the time I spent in Nuremberg, I was not working so the dynamic was different. I took some German classes and got pretty proficient. I also got to know the country, and learn about German culture and the people. I also have a lot of respect for how efficiently things work and how hardworking and honest people are there. I now go there every month to visit family and I appreciate the country more and more, even though I did not really feel like I belonged there when I was living there.
I think that the biggest difference between those experiences and now is that I am fully into my professional life and am putting down roots in Switzerland. Although I don’t know how long I will stay, it feels less transient and more like home. I could see myself settling here. Switzerland is a beautiful country but extremely expensive so I do sometimes wonder if it makes sense financially. Nonetheless, the Swiss, when you do meet them, are solid people. I enjoy it here more than Germany and Argentina because I feel more comfortable.
Being connected is an important part of having a successful expat move. How have you found community while living in Geneva?
I have made friends with a great group of people in Geneva. Although I do not see them often because I have moved away, they are my support system and “community”. Living in a smaller town (Neuchâtel) makes things a little bit more complicated but my husband and I have adjusted to the slower place and I am enjoying riding my bike, skiing, and jogging in the forest.
In what ways has living abroad encouraged you to assert your black (cultural) identity?
In ways that I never thought possible! I think being a black foreigner in mostly non-black spaces can be strange sometimes, especially when you come from a place where the majority of people look like you. I love where I am and the people around me, but the “hang” is completely different. To balance things out a bit, I have invested seeking out black literature, shows, movies etc. I can’t even remember when was the last time I watched a “regular” movie! All this is great for me because I am learning a lot about myself and the experience of black people all over the world.
What advice do you have for someone moving to a region they may know little about?
Research, research, and learn a local language. Find out what expat groups and activities are around and join a group or an activity so that you can make friends as soon as possible. Where possible, join the Facebook/ community groups before moving and ask many questions!
What is one must have experience while in Switzerland?
When in Switzerland, one must enjoy the mountains. It doesn’t matter whether you ski, hike, or just sit up there. It’s magic up there. Especially when it’s cold and foggy in town, going up those mountains and seeing clear blue skies and feeling the sun on your face just chases the winter blues away. There is nothing overrated about Swiss mountains.