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Out and about: an email from Dubai

Feb 27, 2024

Out and about is the column where we chat to people who are living abroad, or who used to live and work there but have returned to South Africa. We would like to hear from anyone who would like to share their experience with us.

This week we chat to Johnny and Zonja Bray, who live in Dubai.

Hello Johnny, where in South Africa are your from and what made you decide to go live in Dubai?

I am from Middelburg, Mpumalanga, but started travelling around for work directly after completing school. Ellisras, Durban, Cape Town, etc. I also worked abroad. I landed up in Vereeniging and opened a sports bar in Meyerton. Zonja was from Meyerton and worked as a somatologist in Johannesburg. We met in Meyerton, and the rest is (a very colourful) history.   

From there on the moving never stopped. We went to Ellisras, Secunda and Pretoria, and in 2014 I had to go to Mozambique and leave my wife and two small children behind in Pretoria. I then went to Qatar, and after a long struggle our family finally managed to be together again in Doha, Qatar. I received a better offer in Dubai in 2017, and we decided we were done moving and made Dubai “home”.

How often do you see your family?

The last few years, except during Covid, our parents visited us here every year. 2019 was the last time we went to South Africa to visit, but we are going again this year, and we cannot wait. Freshwater fishing, seeing the animals in the Kruger National Park and just spending time with good old friends and family. 

There are a lot of South Africans in Dubai. Do you get together sometimes?

There are really a huge number of South Africans here. It is common to hear someone speaking Afrikaans when walking in a shopping mall or sitting in a restaurant. We sometimes joke that we will most probably encounter fewer South Africans when we are on holiday in South Africa. We have met many South Africans here and we get along very well. We will often arrange a braai at someone’s home or in the desert or go camping in the mountains or on the beach. But I have to be honest, everything is not always perfect.  

Tell us a little bit more about your work. What does a typical day look like? Is life there more relaxed and do you have more time to relax/travel?

We have to really make time to relax, because if we don’t make a conscious decision to do it, we will never stop working. I consult at two airports in Dubai and Zonja works at a British IB school. Both of our children are in an American school. On any given day we will not be within a 30 km distance of each other until we get home in the afternoons. Then there are days with the children’s sports practice, functions to attend, etc. It can really become overwhelming at times but we make things work with some good planning, and we are happy here.  

Johnny: I started Bravo Braai about 18 months ago, supplying charcoal, sekelbos wood and other braai equipment, making YouTube braai videos, and also organising braai and camping events. Bravo Braai had the honour of bringing Jo Black to Dubai in 2023 for a show, and in May 2024 Bravo Braai will be bringing Jo Black, Refentse and Bobby van Jaarsveld here for the Afrikaans extravaganza of the year.

So, with everything mentioned here things are very busy, but we are still enjoying it and making the best of every moment.

Are there any South African shops near you?

There are a few South African shops that import products from South Africa to sell here, almost like small supermarkets, but there isn’t one close to where we live. We are about 40 km outside the city, but we chose it for its quietness and tranquillity over the noise and rush of the city. One benefit of Dubai is that you can have anything delivered to you. Some products take 15 minutes, for others you may have to wait a day or two.

Are there any professional service providers (such as doctors, lawyers, dentists) close to where you live that can offer a service in Afrikaans?

There are South African doctors and dentists, and many other professions as well, however, all the places are English or Arabic. But as South Africans tend to do, we talk our language wherever we bump into each other, be it in the waiting room, at the movies or on the street.

Adjusting in a new country can be a challenge. What was the strangest thing for you to get used to abroad and what was the biggest adjustment?

Johnny: I used to travel so much for work that it didn’t really bother me. For me it feels strange having been in one place now for almost seven years. So, I will ask Zonja to answer this one.  

Zonja: It was a very big adjustment for me, especially without family. I am very close to my family. I was very sad during the first few months and there was not much of South Africa in Qatar. Everything was different and especially the weather was a huge adjustment. Had it not been for the consideration of our children’s safety, I would have moved back to South Africa. It was easier to adapt to Dubai, as it is a lot more westernised. There is a lot more of South Africa here. We have “sokkies”, beloved South African products and a lot of Afrikaans people. Summer here takes some getting used to, but after two summers here it is not as bad anymore. You climatise. South Africans are strong, we flower where we are planted.  

Is it more expensive to buy meat for a braai than in South Africa?

Most meat is imported from America, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Brazil, India, Pakistan, and of course South Africa. In general, it is a lot more expensive than what you would pay in South Africa, but over time you get to know the places and know where to get the best meat at the best prices. All the different countries’ meat also tastes different, and you have to try a few before deciding what you like. (South African meat is still the best.)

Do you still speak Afrikaans?

We speak Afrikaans all the time, except when we are at work. Our children were very small when they left South Africa, but back then they used to be fluent in Afrikaans. Today they only speak English, even though we speak Afrikaans to them. It is one of the things that we find really sad, but at least they understand the language.

How does the food in Dubai differ from that in South Africa?

The food in Dubai is international. Simply open an app on your phone and order food that is synonymous with any country in the world – it will be delivered to your door within 30 minutes. The Arabic dishes are very tasty. They like to use a lot of herbs and their desserts are the sweetest we have ever tasted. That being said, we tend to get bored by it very quickly and prefer to return to good old home-made South African food, and we braai a lot! Steak, “braaibroodjies” and potato salad.

What are your favourite memories of South Africa?

Johnny: Freshwater angling and driving 4×4 routes with family and friends are my best memories. Also, just arriving at someone’s home for coffee without an invitation – that doesn’t ever happen here. Visiting places like the Voortrekker Monument, Kimberley’s Big Hole, Magersfontein, etc. We miss the historical places a lot. But I miss the people the most.

Zonja: I also miss all the things Johnny listed, but for me it is my family and old friends I miss the most. I miss four seasons, cosmos on the side of the road and Jacaranda trees in the streets of Pretoria.

What does your Afrikaner heritage mean to you? Which traditions are you and your family still keeping alive abroad?

Zonja: We still enjoy our Afrikaans traditional dishes, the children enjoy a nice braai. We like to “sokkie” at home and the kids enjoy to join in and dance. Religion is a part of our daily life, it is something that is very important to us.

Also read: Out and about: An email from Melbourne

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Do you live abroad or have you recently returned from there? You can also write us an Out and about column. Send an email to and we will send you the questions you need to answer.

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