A Red Letter Day

April 11, 2015 — Leave a comment

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Mtuseni has been in nonstop training at City Year Johannesburg since the first week of February. I’ve been impressed by the broad range of ideas and people and organizations he’s been exposed to. More importantly, I’ve been a little amazed at how much Mtuseni has embraced the experience. He was on the fence his first week, and I just held back and let him find his way. Now he says that he’s learning more than he did in college and wants to work for the organization for years. He was even elected captain of his team!

Friday’s Red Jacket Ceremony marked the culmination of the training, where service leaders are officially inducted into the City Year family, which includes programs in 37 US cities and London. Mtuseni said it was one of the best moments of his life; he seemed to appreciate it even more than his college graduation. He told me it was “a beautiful thing, seriously” that gave him “a feeling of belonging.” For a settlement “shack boy” who is low on the South African social hierarchy, every experience of being welcomed and acknowledged cannot be understated.

IMG_2870I was surprised and happy to see that Mtuseni’s mom Nester attended the ceremony, even though he says she doesn’t really understand what he’s doing. I hope she realizes that the program is opening long-term career paths and connections for him; it’s a different mindset when you have little education and have only done menial work all your life to survive and raise a family. But it’s nice to see her smiling and proud next to Mtuseni; particularly when her eldest son Moses would have turned 26 on Monday. With him gone, Mtuseni is now the man of the family, and he quietly carries that responsibility and burden. Any work he does to better himself is with the hope of one day providing a better life for mom and the kids.

IMG_2876The impressive thing about Mtuseni is that — despite having so little — he’s always wanted to contribute something to the community, to make a difference in people’s lives. On Monday, when he starts working with primary school kids in Tembisa township for the next seven months, he’ll begin realizing his dream.

Whether he utilizes his college training and pursues a radio career in the future, who knows? But all a parent wants is for their kid to be happy, to feel like they matter, like they belong. Seeing Mtuseni’s deep commitment, abundant enthusiasm, and vibrant smile for his City Year experience gives me the best feeling I’ve had in a long time. My work with him is not finished, but I’ll admit to sitting back these past few weeks, letting out some major sighs and a few tears, and telling myself, “You did it. Well done.”


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Help celebrate Mtuseni’s Red Jacket Day and support his expenses during his tenure as a City Year service leader. His stipend barely covers commute costs from his remote settlement to a township school where he will tutor young children. Help me give him a robust allowance so he can buy breakfast and lunch — and maybe treat himself to a movie now and then — as this young man with so little already begins to pay it forward. Click the GoFundMe campaign icon to learn more, donate, and share. Thanks!

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Not-So-Superdad

April 2, 2015 — Leave a comment

IMG_1408When we’re young, we believe our dads are superheroes who can protect us from all types of risk and danger. As fathers, we internalize that all-powerful role. No matter how old our kids are, we like to think that we can always swoop in to their rescue. But with Mtuseni, in many ways I’ve been powerless — and it’s a constant source of stress, anxiety and frustration.

This is not to say I do nothing for him. I put him through school. I send him emergency money and boxes of clothes. I’ve replaced more phones than I care to count. I’ve guided him through academic stumbles and boosted him through crises of confidence.These are the challenges that most dads can handle; they’re part of the basic job description.

The things that are beyond my control are systemic. Being poor in South African, Mtuseni faces problems that I never anticipated and which seem to arise in ever-changing forms. Here’s a sample from the past month:

  • The strong US dollar led the South African government to jack up gas prices this week. This will surely increase Mtuseni’s commute costs, which already take up most of the City Year stipend.
  • Because he leaves so early for his two-hour commute, Mtuseni skips breakfast — and even with cash infusions from me, he can only afford a tiny lunch. He says the two-dollar nutrition bars I tell him to get for breakfast are too expensive. He’s losing weight; even his friends see it. He’s never had one ounce of fat, and I worry if this might be caused by something other than caloric intake.
  • Two weeks ago he saw a bad taxi accident on his way to Joburg and felt nervous. The taxis he rides are notorious for renegade driving, and South Africa has the worst highway fatality rate in the world.
  • After learning at City Year that asbestos is harmful, Mtuseni is afraid to sleep in his wallboard shack — because that’s what his ceiling/roof is made of, which was news to me. He wants the tiles gone, but there’s no money to replace them. Working with them would be dangerous; he built the room with his late brother a few years ago, so he’s already been exposed.

So this is the most recent slate of problems, which are layered on top of ongoing issues. Winter is coming, and Mtuseni can see outdoors through wide gaps in his walls in the unheated shack. Candles used for light have burned down local shacks in the past, and a generator recently leaked gas into his dirt floor. Despite his asbestos worries, I don’t want to tell him that the kerosene lamps they use are equivalent to smoking a daily pack of cigarettes. People in the settlement get sick and die on a regular basis. The family’s gas-powered fridge barely keeps food cool, and Mtuseni seems to have little knowledge of food-borne risks. Living in an informal settlement, there’s always the chance of a forced eviction. On Google maps, new housing developments are springing up near his tiny community; a landowner could sell to a developer and kick everybody out at any time.

I could go on, but it would throw me into despair. And besides, I’m Superdad. I’m all-powerful.

IMG_2269I want to fly in and take Mtuseni away from the shack, put him in a safe, warm house with water and electricity. I want him to have as much food as a 22-year-old guy can eat (and based on his visits to the US, he can eat!). I want to get him a car so he can avoid riding in the dangerous taxis. I want to find him a great job where he’s happy and earning a good living. I want to get his young sister and brother out of the shack and away from the risks of illness and violence. I want to fill all the public schools in South Africa with computers and libraries and qualified teachers. I want all the poor residents to have health and nutrition education and access to quality medical care. I want to ride in on a white stallion and bitch-slap the ANC government to take smart, innovative action to fix the country’s problems, rescuing not only Mtuseni but all the kids in South Africa.

But I’m only one man, and super heroes only exist in the movies. So I do the best I can for my son. In America, that’s usually enough. But when faced with the challenges of raising a kid in a developing country, I feel like the proverbial 98-pound weakling on the beach. Still, Mtuseni is ever grateful for what I do and calls me his magician. I just wish I had more rabbits to pull out of my hat.


GoFundMe widget

Help support Mtuseni’s expenses during his tenure as a service leader at City Year. His stipend only covers commute costs from his remote settlement shack to a township school where he will tutor young children. Help me give him a robust allowance so he can buy breakfast and lunch — and maybe treat himself to a movie now and then — as this young man with so little already begins to pay it forward. Click the GoFundMe campaign icon to learn more, donate, and share. Thanks!

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Clarity

March 27, 2015 — 4 Comments

bedThe past six weeks have been rather grueling for me – and not just due to Boston’s epic winter. A nagging abdominal pain turned out to be a “complicated and serious” situation that put me on IV meds in the hospital. Having faced nothing more than workout injuries up to now, I was stunned. A week later at a follow-up with the surgeon, he scheduled a test for late March to check things out and “make sure it’s not cancer.” That floored me.

Nobody ever wants to hear the C word. I put on a brave, stoic face — but inside all sorts of hidden trapdoor mindfucks were opening. I was both shocked and fascinated by how one’s body can just up and betray you. I railed against fate’s cruel hand when I’d come into this year so full of uncharacteristic confidence and optimism. I cursed myself for drunken, drug-addled, 20-something boasts that I’d probably die in my 50s – an age which at the time seemed so far away as to feel like an abstract concept that would take a century to reach. In this brutal winter there was nothing to do but sit inside with a thick stew of thoughts and emotions: fear, denial, bitterness.

But more than anything I felt deep worry over how Mtuseni would fare if I died – and a profound sadness that I wouldn’t see all the wonderful things that will happen for him, to see him finally rise out of poverty and live a happy and fulfilling life.

My concerns for him took precedence over any other responses to this health challenge, and I was completely taken aback by that. I’ve always been pretty independent in life, and figured that when I died it would suck – but then I’d be dead and oblivious. But now I’m responsible for someone else. Mtuseni depends on me – whether it’s for some extra cash or for real, trusted understanding of the doubts and dreams that he only shares with me. Faced with my own mortality, I thought not of myself but of my long-distance son. That adds a whole new layer to the meaning of parenthood for me.

This week was my follow-up test and thankfully there’s no cancer, though I’m still facing surgery. Coming out of this dark tunnel, I’m finally able to breathe again. I feel lucky – not only to not be facing cancer but to have gained such existential clarity without having to fight a life-threatening illness. There are things I’ve needed to change in my life for a very long time – and they were all shelved when a South African kid came into the picture. Now it’s time to act on those things, and more. Because I understand now that the clock can stop much sooner than expected. It sounds trite and cliché in a way … everyone knows to live for today and blah blah blah – but an experience like this makes you sit up and really get it.

In December I adopted a mantra for this year, which seems even more fitting now. It’s a quote from the genius Lily Tomlin: “May I have the envelope please, so I can push it.”

Watch out. The pushing begins.


GoFundMe widgetHelp support Mtuseni’s expenses during his tenure as a service leader at City Year. His stipend only covers commute costs from his remote settlement shack to a township school where he will tutor young children. Help me give him a robust allowance so he can buy breakfast and lunch — and maybe treat himself to a movie now and then — as this young man with so little already begins to pay it forward. Click the GoFundMe campaign icon to learn more, donate, and share. Thanks!

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iPhones in the ‘Hood

March 17, 2015 — 3 Comments

IMG_1656I will always remember my freshman sociology professor in the late 70s talking about why blacks in the ghetto often drove fancy Cadillacs: because they wanted to look important out in the world. (It was part of a lecture on how we present ourselves in society.) The liberal but somewhat naive middle class suburbanite in me winced — intellectually accepting the concept yet still thinking it was ultimately racist. But over the years I had friends from the black community who validated that thinking. Basically, being in a nice car out in the world, nobody knows how deprived your home life is.

Today, that “Caddy in the ‘hood” concept seems to have been replaced by technology. Or at least that’s the case in South Africa. Mtuseni is always raving about Apple this and Apple that. Although I have an iPhone (mainly because the antennas are better … and I still use the phone to actually make calls), I think Apple products are overpriced and over-precious — and I was a huge Mac person from the mid-80s. But Mtuseni can’t resist the company’s endless hype — or, lately, the peer pressure.

This kid goes through phones like potato chips. In the five years I’ve known him, I’ve had to buy him three. (I’m on my third phone in 12 years.) Though I balk every time and threaten “never again,” he can’t be without a phone because it’s our lifeline. So I always buy him a new phone.

Last fall his Blackberry was dying and their cheap data plan was being phased out, so he had to get a non-Berry phone. With almost zero wifi in the country and no more easy Internet access at college, he needed to upgrade to a smart phone to answer emails. Mtuseni can’t afford a monthly contract plan, and I couldn’t cover it because South Africa no longer takes credit card numbers from out of country — and god knows how much data he’d burn through with an open contract anyway! So I had to buy Mtuseni a full-price phone. He did some research and found an inexpensive Samsung model. And he loved it — for a while. But now all his new friends at City Year, who are better off financially, have iPhones. So he’s been griping about how bad his phone is and dropping not-so-subtle hints about an iPhone. His Samsung is barely six months old!

Yesterday he texted me some new Apple program offering “discounted” old iPhones in South Africa. I snapped and told him I’m sick and tired of hearing about phones. He got pissy and went to sleep — and I felt terrible. We hit these impasses sometimes, and they’re always resolved. One of the greatest things I’ve learned through Mtuseni is that it’s possible to have conflict and maintain a relationship. Coming from a family where people haven’t spoken to each other for years over long-forgotten slights, that realization is a game changer for me.

But it doesn’t change my mind on the phone issue. Like most parents, it’s a constant juggling act for me to cover my own bills, pay off Mtuseni’s tuition debt, and contribute to his expenses. But my main concern is that he has enough money to eat nutritious meals during the day and have warm clothes in his unheated shack during the coming South African winter. Whether he has a sexy bells-and-whistles phone for all to see is probably at the very bottom of my list. I bought him more clothes last week than I’ve bought myself in five years. He’ll survive with a lowly Android phone.

Fortunately Mtuseni is not particularly materialistic; he’s much more interested in helping others and his values are in the right place. Still, he’s not completely immune from the desire to keep up with the Johannesburg Joneses.


GoFundMe widgetHelp support Mtuseni’s expenses during his tenure as a service leader at City Year. His stipend only covers commute costs from his remote settlement shack to a township school where he will tutor young children. Help me give him a robust allowance so he can buy breakfast and lunch — and maybe treat himself to a movie now and then — as this young man with so little already begins to pay it forward. Click the GoFundMe campaign icon to learn more, donate, and share. Thanks!