By Eva Gilliam

Esme Els sits in Starbucks in North Austin, Texas, with her cellphone, chatting in Afrikaans. She closes her phone and it rings again.

"Ma?re, bokkie," and off she goes at full steam in conversation with another of her South African mates, one of the more than a thousand living in the Austin area and a member of the South Africans in Austin club, of which Els is the coordinator and founder.

The club counts more than 400 families in Austin, with larger and ever growing communities in Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and Waco.

While primarily of Afrikaans and English heritage,

members include expatriates from Namibia, Zimbabwe

and even Ghana.

Most cities have a club for South Africans, and it is no wonder with nearly 80 000 living in north Austin, according to the South African embassy's 2000 census.

"It is generally families that have been in the United States for less than 10 years that come to the club gatherings," explains Els.

"They miss their homeland, language and culture."

Els has two children - a 13- year-old and an 8-year-old. She and her husband, John, moved to the United States in 1996 after winning the Green Card Lottery, giving them instant residence and working rights.

John began applying to the lottery in 1994, with a group of friends, after Esme was the victim of several violent crimes in Johannesburg.

John applied for the lottery again on his own in 1995 and, when he won, the family packed up and headed off to the US.

Selling everything they had, they arrived in San Francisco with their luggage and the name

of a motel.

Two years down the line, they chose to move to Austin, Texas, a smaller city and more their style.

Since coming to the US, Esme and John have had a second child and, while they are happy with the state of security, the school system and the new life the US has to offer they lament the loss of tradition and family that has been the cost of their immigration.

"That's why the club is important and why we work so hard to bring our heritage into our homes and keep our culture strong. Walk into any of our houses and you will know that you are in a South African home."

A glance at an Austin website created by John gives information on the history, demographics and economy of SA and contains recipes for bobotie, vetkoek and mieliepap.

The website is geared for South Africans and Americans, making comparative examples such as "South Africa is roughly the size of Texas" and "mieliepap is similar to 'grits' in Texas".

There are even instructions on how to make a box for drying biltong.

Els is the co-ordinator of the SA club and she and her friends organise braais and other gatherings around SA holidays, sporting events like the rugby and cricket world cups or even melding with US traditions like Thanksgiving.

"When you are an adult you have a responsibility to know the truth," says Els.

"It is here that I read Mandela's book, Jake White's book and here that I decided to be more informed. Americans ask me every day about where I come from and its history, and I want to know what I'm talking about.

"People have asked me, 'Are you a racist'? And I have to say, 'I was raised racist, but I'm not now,' explains Els.

"I am a real boeremeisie. But, the thing about race is it's personal, and worldwide.

"I think everyone is inherently racist, because everyone is about the preservation of their own race, their own culture, their own tradition.

"South Africa, for me now, should not be about race, it is about education and positive growth.

Opportunity

"We had an opportunity - but to be honest, we do feel guilty. But mostly because our kids are far from their grandparents and that they are losing their culture. But when you have kids, you think about security in a new way."

Esme finds women in Texas particularly strong.

"They work at home and work, and participate in their children's schools. They take care of their communities and communicate well with others. They really care about other people and are happy when someone else does well."

Other members of the Austin South African community include ex-SA tennis players Elna Reinach, her sister, Monica, and Christo van Rensburg. - Independent Foreign Service