On paper, my life in America seemed outstanding. In 2014, I was a tenured associate professor at one of the best medical schools in the nation, living in a big house on the hill; I was a paragon of privilege. Inside, though, I was crumbling. I felt unable to keep up with the university demands of teaching, mentoring, service, and above all, grant writing. I knew I needed a change, but I wasn’t sure what kind I needed. An email from ResearchGate let me know that a South African university wanted professors in my field: bioinformatics. Would I be interested in giving that a try?
Many South Africans seem to discuss moving to other nations all the time, so it might be surprising that most American citizens have never considered permanently moving to another country (though a fair few visit another country, particularly at university). My brother and parents were rather lukewarm on the idea of my moving to “Africa.” The ResearchGate email compelled me to confront a wide variety of challenging questions. Was South Africa generating the kind of data I needed to produce good papers? Would my American colleagues think I had lost my mind if I moved to a developing nation? Could I feel “at home” in South Africa with fluency in just the English language? Was South Africa moving forward or struggling? If I were able to win the job, would I be ready to take it? I began reading every book I could find and following the daily news for Cape Town. I soon felt connected to today’s South Africa, and its dramatic changes during my lifetime inspired me.
On December 1, 2015, I began a five-year contract at a prestigious school in the outskirts of Cape Town. The funding agencies that brought me to South Africa wanted me to work with students as widely as possible, even offering courses at other universities in the Western Cape. I set up a schedule where each week saw me spending Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at my home institution, Tuesday at a campus downtown and Thursday at a third campus. The job took a lot of energy, but I was intent to have a good life at home, too. I joined a choir or two. After living in South Africa for only five months, I went on my first date with the woman who became my wife in 2018. Sadly, no member of my family travelled to South Africa to attend our wedding ceremony. My brother was the only other member of my immediate family to have a passport, and he simply didn’t feel comfortable making his first intercontinental flight.
My circulation among different campuses allowed me to begin teaching even more broadly, developing curricula for biostatistics, biomarkers, biotechnology, as well as my core bioinformatics material. Early on, I began video recording each lecture and posting them to YouTube. I spent a lot of time exhausted, though I was elated that these videos were helping students who might not be able to afford graduate education. Those materials led to workshop teaching opportunities in Ghana, Malawi, and Namibia. I supervised and co-supervised students at universities in South Africa and in Malawi.
On March 15, 2020, my wife and I flew to Johannesburg to catch a flight to New York; we would visit family and attend a workshop in America. She had met my family in person for the first time in mid-2019, and we were all looking forward to more time together. As we waited to board our trans-Atlantic flight, though, we learned of a speech by President Cyril Ramaphosa made during our flight from Cape Town. The new rules about people living in South Africa on temporary residence permits worried us; we interpreted his speech to suggest that I might not be allowed back into South Africa if I travelled to COVID-19-heavy America. We felt we had no choice. We frantically signalled for our luggage to be removed from the jet, and we returned to Cape Town the next morning. The first hard lockdown began almost immediately afterwards.
COVID-19 has slurped up the funds that might have renewed my contract, and now I am again faced with challenging questions. South Africa has my heart, and this is where my wife and I want to live long-term. Because local universities are struggling to take on new personnel, though, I need to look elsewhere for employment, though other countries are also struggling to keep their economies running right now. When I saw that a colleague in my field was hiring bioinformatics staff at her laboratory in Paris, France, we were able to create an opportunity in which I can be a visiting scientist throughout 2021. [I am very conscious that this is another example of my privilege showing; I have more opportunities than a 2020 M.Sc. or PhD graduate in today’s job market.] While it will represent a substantial pay cut (and Paris is not a cheap place to live), my wife and I are excited to go. We both feel challenged to reawaken our high school lessons in the French language, and we hope that gaining fluency in French will make teaching more broadly in Africa feasible. When I can acquire some leave from work, you can be sure we will make good use of Europe’s train network (COVID-19 permitting, of course).
When coming to South Africa, I had thought that my world might become much smaller, that travel abroad would be rare. Instead, I find I have travelled far more broadly in the five years since moving to South Africa than I did in the ten years before leaving America. I worried that living 9000 miles from my brother and parents could lead to some estrangement, but I find our video calls on Skype and WhatsApp have been pretty joyful. Would I ever feel safe in South Africa? I certainly do, though not when behind the steering wheel! My wife and I look forward to continuing our South African adventure when the sun is shining on the world’s economy again.
Written by David L. Tabb