Q + A

Wanda Hennig – Editor, Writer and Life Coach, Oakland, California

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Where do you live and how long have you lived there?

I live in Oakland, California. If I jump in my car and if there’s no traffic on the Bay Bridge, I can be in downtown San Francisco in 15 minutes. I’ve lived in Oakland for nearly eight years, in an apartment with a view of Lake Merritt, which is an urban lake that has a resident bird population and seasonally, migrating birds (flocks of pelicans right now). You can walk around the lake in just under an hour, fast pace, which lots of people do.

Before Oakland, I lived for a couple of years in Walnut Creek, which is about half an hour east. An affluent, clean little city but pretty bland. I moved there for a job (editor of a regional magazine) and left soon as I lost it. Before that, I lived in the town of Sonoma in Northern California wine country. I also went there for a job (senior editor on a glossy international wine country living magazine). Sonoma is a historic town and a tourist destination. I didn’t mind living there. You really saw the seasons reflected in the vineyards and there were a number of unique and interesting characters.

The first four or five years I was in the United States, besides two extended trips back to South Africa, I lived in San Francisco, which pretty much has everything, as cities go. Good vibe, scenic, lots going on. Out of all the places I’ve lived, I like Oakland best. It’s one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the United States with a large African American population, which is one of the reasons I think I feel at home here. As a white person, you’re often in the minority.

What made you choose the US and what do you love about living there? Dislike?

Coming here was pretty random. I arrived in San Francisco with a one year return ticket.  That was 17 years ago. I had been thinking of going to London for a year for a sort of personal sabbatical, mentioned it to a friend who’d left her husband in Jo’burg for a man in San Francisco, and she said, “Why don’t you come here and we can do some work together?” I’d left Cosmo in South Africa (I was Durban bureau chief for them for five years) for a job at the Indaba Foundation, been laid off from the Indaba when they disbanded, and was seriously searching for an interesting new job or career direction.

What do I like about living here?

That I can go where I like and feel safe is probably Number One. And that Obama is President. I like the diversity of this area, racial and cultural. I like the farmers markets; the fact that I could eat at a different restaurant every night for several lifetimes; and that I’ve made friends with some pretty interesting people who like to sit around the table, eat well, drink wine and talk shit. Very South African. There’s lots to like, really.

What I don’t like?

The “hate politics” and rumor-mongering of the right. It’s scary stuff. That I am so far from my family — my mom and my daughter. That I am so far from my South African friends. Many are still in Durban; others are scattered around. Being an only child with a very small family, my friends were super-important to me in South Africa and I miss them. And 17 years later, I’m still looking for that new career direction.

You were a well known journalist in South Africa — how difficult was it to settle in a new country and how did you make inroads in your profession?

The plan to work with the friend never materialized. Before I came here, I’d been going regularly to the Buddhist Retreat Centre in Ixopo and ended up moving into the San Francisco Zen Center after about three months. I lived there, as a Zen student, for nearly four years, interrupted by two extended trips back to South Africa. I probably sewed 100 zafus (meditation cushions) and spent many days sitting on them. It was the right place to be spiritually, but not professionally.

Workwise, I had hoped to get into something broader and more challenging than magazines. But people want to fit you in a box and the first job I got, which I found listed in the Sunday paper, was as a senior editor on a super-glossy high end wine country living magazine. The magazine folded after I’d been there a year. There were subsequently other magazines and newspapers. I also worked in corporate communication for a while for a huge multinational. And I spent two years putting in sweat equity as editor of a magazine with a Nigerian publisher, who turned out to be the stereotypical Nigerian rip-off artist.

It’s been an adventure but I’ve never found the buzz or satisfaction I got working on newspapers and magazines and in other jobs in South Africa.

I trained and certified as a life coach about six years ago. More recently, I have been learning as much as I can about the web, doing lots of blogging and online work, and have started to do some coaching and consulting around social media.

I would say I haven’t settled in well professionally here. I’ve had lots of jobs but none of them have been really satisfying. I like to do work that is connected somehow with South Africa. I’ve just started writing about South Africa, along with culinary travel, for examiner.com, a national website that pays a pittance, but it’s fun being able to write and publish what I like. Yes, I can do it on my own website and blog, but I don’t have the readership.

I still find my South African friends and former editors and colleagues the people I feel closest to and most supported by. It’s funny, but I do find that friends who came to this country with partners seem to fit in better, and do better, than the women I know who came here alone.

How accepting were locals?

I guess pretty accepting. Although I’ve never felt really and truly home here and I don’t think I ever will.

What do you miss most about South Africa?

My friends and my family. Being closer to my mom and my stepdad, in Durban. I talk to my mom every week at least once, and usually for at least an hour. I miss being closer to my daughter and her husband and, would you believe (I can’t) four children. I thought she would be living overseas and I’d be living in South Africa. What happened there? I miss the support — people who knew me through thick and thin and when I did really crazy and stupid things and who still like me and accept me. People I have a history with. South Africa — I think if you’re from there, you’ve had it. You’re just committed to always being South African.

What is your favourite holiday destination?

Ideally, I would like a small apartment on the Durban beachfront and to spend three or four months of the year there. I like Durban for holidays. I also like going to new places. Any new place, really. Not ice hotels, though. I spent a night in the ice hotel in Quebec last winter. It was a nightmare. I don’t like cold. I love going to London or Europe anytime. And I love South East Asia. I like going off with a backpack and no agenda anytime at all. I loved going two years ago to Poland and seeing where my dad lived as a young man. I don’t like to go “on holiday” as in going and sitting somewhere to “relax”. I like adventures, and hanging out in places, and engaging with the people, and eating their foods, and learning about them, and taking photos and writing about them.

What do you do for relaxation? Hobbies?

I like to write and take pics and I do these things as much for hobby as for work. I like to spend time at the Zen center, either in San Francisco or Berkeley, and remain a pretty committed Zen student. I love to walk around the lake and to play tennis. I love to spend a day reading my New Yorker, my Saveur, my Esquire and my Wired (magazines). I love going to movies. I love to cook for friends and sit around the table drinking wine and eating with people I enjoy. I love to feel fit. I don’t relax much. I always think relaxing is something I will do when I’m too incapacitated to do anything else.

Any favourite restaurants?

One of the good things here is that there are so many, and so much competition, that no restaurant can’t afford to be mediocre. I love that I could go out for several lifetimes and try a different restaurant each time and I do like to try new ones. I discovered Ethiopian cuisine here and enjoy that a lot. I love restaurants that focus on fresh, local and seasonal. I like fresh, seasonal and trying the artisanal foods wherever I am. I am a Slow Food supporter/advocate. I love, best, to eat at the homes of my friends who cook, be it here, in South Africa, or anywhere else in the world.

Favourite shop/shops?

I’m not much of a shopper. I avoid malls or department stores if I possibly can. I like to shop in food stores and at farmers markets. And I love consignment stores and goodwill outlets for clothes.

Where to next?

Next? I wouldn’t mind moving somewhere new. I am living with a musician so have got fairly settled, but if I had a good reason, I’d be up to trying a new place tomorrow. I’d love to find something really challenging to get my teeth into workwise — something big that felt worthwhile. Otherwise, I’d like enough of an income that I could spend my time doing my own writing. What I want to be writing is a memoir-self-help. The story of my five job layoffs and what I’ve learned. The story of overcoming compulsive eating and depression and chronic introversion and what I’ve learned. The story of all the funny things I see going on around me. I’d like to be able to indulge myself and spend my time writing about those things.

And — I’d like to end with a disclaimer. Ask me these questions again tomorrow, or next week, or next month, or on an especially good day, or on a day I got out on the wrong side of the bed, and guaranteed, you’ll get a different set of answers. Equally true answers. But, you know how it is, what we’re thinking, how we see things — the view — changes day by day. Thank god I’m not a politician!

One of your favourite quotes?

‘Life is either an adventure, or it is nothing’ — Helen Keller

To find out more about Wanda’s adventures, services in writing, coaching and living a delicious life visit  WandaLUST

Her South African travel and culinary travel stories are captured on:



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The sun sets over San Francisco Bay and a section of harbor along Oakland’s waterfront, view from Jack London Square.
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Lois Nicholls is an Australian freelance journalist. She is also the author of "Aussie, Actually," which captures her heartfelt experiences as a South African migrant living in Australia. Her second book, "Bye-bye Bikini", published in August 2018, is a series of frank and humorous essays navigating everyday life from the perspective of a fifty-something former newspaper and magazine journalist. Her first children's book, "What Dog is That?" available in hardcopy from www.beekindpress.com was published in May 2019. Her books on Amazon: https://amzn.to/2qRUY0c