Boston+Media+House+graduationThroughout this nearly five-year journey with Mtuseni, there have been many circumstances that are strangely uncanny, as if fate has been a major player in this relationship. One example is his wanting to attend a South African college called Boston Media House, when I live 8,000 miles away in Boston, a most American city. A more recent (and less fun) example is the laptop that I bought specifically for our webcam chats when we were first matched by a nonprofit — which died a few hours after I dropped him at the airport this week, apparently signaling the close of this chapter in our lives.

And the most surprising coincidence is that Mtuseni’s graduation from college — our primary mission all these years — fell on the Fourth of July. For this event truly signifies independence in many ways. Like any kid leaving the relatively cloistered environment of college, Mtuseni now enters the real world on his own. I was such a typically American, vocally demanding parent-advocate for him at school that they probably have a dart board with my face in the main office. But I don’t have the same power to move the South African job market in Mtuseni’s favor, and more importantly, I shouldn’t try. The school gave him knowledge and skills, and I gave him wings. Two years ago I watched him and many other kids sing R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly” in a Cape Town karaoke bar. Now with his college diploma in hand, it’s up to Mtuseni to fly solo.

This milestone achievement also marks my own independence, which is bittersweet. In many ways I put my life on hold to make sure Mtuseni got over this finish line, a task that was much more difficult than I ever expected. While I’m excited to pivot back to my own personal journey, and will surely draw upon this experience, it feels a bit sad to relinquish something that required such intense focus and commitment. Indeed, I feel a profound sense of pride, satisfaction and fulfillment in being able to say “mission accomplished.” But the flip side is a slightly empty feeling of “Now what?”

Graduation doesn’t mean the end of Mtuseni and me, but things will change. Even during his visit here last month he seemed much more independent than last year’s visit — much to my occasional frustration and chagrin. But that only means I did my job. For his graduation is not only the culmination of fifteen years in school, it also marks his entry into adult life. And that is a cause for celebration!


Mtuseni and his proud mom Nester



Mtuseni with his best college buddy Poloko



First in the family to graduate college!


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Things have been hectic, as Mtuseni likes to say, over the past month. He just wrapped up a three-week visit here in Boston and flew back home to Johannesburg very early Monday morning. Door-to-door travel time… 26 hours. Better him than me!

It was a trip packed with many activities as well as a few challenges and new perspectives. But mainly it was a gift to celebrate the big event to come this Friday. July Fourth may be Independence Day here in America … but it’s Graduation Day for Mtuseni! To say I’m proud would be a massive understatement.

More to come later on his US visit and graduation, but for now I’ll share the picture he put up for his WhatsApp profile when he got home…


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New Directions

May 30, 2014 — 2 Comments

Almost five years after we first met, Mtuseni and I are embarking on new paths. He finished his internship and will graduate in Johannesburg on July Fourth — declaring his own understanding of independence! Then he’ll enter the “real world” to find a job in radio. It won’t be easy, and recent news reports hint at South Africa slipping into recession, but he’s excited. When I referred to him playfully as a shack boy the other day, he corrected me and said “I’m no shack boy. I’m a Boston graduate.” He’s worked hard for that.

It’s a time of changes. I’m adjusting to the empty-nest feeling of Mtuseni not needing me for every little thing. The day-to-day adventures of getting him educated academically and emotionally have dissipated, as reflected by the recent decline in blog posts here. This is not the end of our story or relationship; there will be more twists and turns ahead for sure.

But recently my creative energies have shifted to the book version of Long-Distance Dad. I’ve always seen this blog as a diary to help me capture and process events and impressions about this incredible journey. Sharing these stories and hearing your responses has been immensely gratifying — and your comments talked me off the ledge more than a few times. Now it’s time to share the story of Mtuseni and me with a much bigger audience. After weeks of delicious torment that only a writer can appreciate, the book proposal is complete and will begin making the rounds to agents.

ocean+Cape Town+ Cliffs BeachOne part of the proposal is a brief e-book sample, which draws upon the treasure trove of images and media I’ve gathered during these five years. It’s only web-based for now; if I get time I’ll create versions for readers and tablets. Click the cover image to open the e-book. Feel free to share using the Facebook and Twitter icons at the top of the book. I hope you enjoy it. There’s even a surprise for those of you who’ve wanted to hear from Mtuseni himself!


I’m not going away or shutting down this blog entirely; I’m sure there will be things to celebrate or gripe about now and then. But I plan on devoting a lot of time to writing a book that entertains people and inspires them to help kids in need — either down the street or across the world.

Thanks again for all your support, from both Mtuseni and me.




Mom and Miracles

May 10, 2014 — 4 Comments

One lesson I’ve learned over the years with Mtuseni is that it never gets easier. Just when things are going along pretty smoothly, some new problem always comes up. Mtuseni’s internship is going well and he’ll be finished in a couple of weeks. But we can’t lie back and bask in that happy accomplishment…

Annex roomA few days ago, it seemed last weekend’s food-and-gas drama was resolved. So when Mtuseni went home this weekend I figured all was well. But instead there was a new crisis. While he was away his mother Nester had “renovated and expanded” his room. He built the addition to the shack with his brother Moses a few years ago; it had room for his bed, a desk, and the family’s stove. He says now the space is much bigger and very cold. It was never heated, but perhaps the small size held residual heat from the stove. And now there are gaps in the walls where he can see to the outside — and the wind comes right through. It’s fall in South Africa; the temperature tonight will be in the mid-30s. And Mtuseni is worried that rain will leak and get his things wet. He has two laptops and hundreds of dollars worth of clothes from me.

Nester is a sweet woman, but sometimes I look at things she does and wonder if she’s losing her marbles. As Mtuseni said, “Nobody knows how her brain works.” Maybe she’s just stressed. Or exhausted. Given the life she’s lived, I’d have lost it years ago.

But my concern is not laying blame on Nester; it’s Mtuseni’s response to the problem. I told him he needs to find some materials and fix the walls. Winter is coming, and he can’t get sick — or have his stuff ruined. Instead, he said that “I’m not gonna fix anything. God has his plans and I’ll see what happens.” I didn’t text back the expletive that immediately came to mind.

This isn’t the first time I’ve been frustrated with Mtuseni’s passivity in the face of challenges. Perhaps he’s exhausted too. But when a problem arises he’ll just lay back and put it into god’s hands. As he said once “I just keeping pressing PRAY until it works” — which is funny but not a realistic way to live.

Personally, I think some of the entrenched poverty among South Africans is a result of this blind faith. This is not to say the people don’t face incredible obstacles. But prayer and hope aren’t a strategy for success. “Let go and let god” may be fine for alcoholics trying to avoid having a drink, but if you’re trying to rise out of deep poverty you need to do more. Mtuseni has said he wants to make a better life for the family — which is admirable and heartwarming. But if his plan consists of waitin’ on a miracle, he better get used to living in the shack with mom and the kids for a long time.

Mtuseni and I don’t talk religion much. He’s evangelical Christian and it gives him strength, and for that I’m happy. He knows that my personal take on god and religion is to just be a good person while you’re here — and he’s okay with that. I don’t go to church or believe in a formal deity, but given all I’ve done for Mtuseni he knows I’m not destined for the flames of hell.

But it’s time Mtuseni hears the gospel according to Dad. He believes that God will provide for him if he prays hard enough. Maybe that’s true, but God is pretty busy. Hopefully right now he’s focused on the prayers of the kidnapped Nigerian girls and their parents. And I believe the help God provides may not always be so obvious. Sometimes what you get is not a magic solution but a test to help you grow.

Instead of pulling up another blanket and praying for his drafty room to be magically fixed, Mtuseni needs to step up, be a man, and do the job himself. I’ve always been inspired by the simplicity and power of the quote “When you pray, move your feet,” which supposedly is an African proverb. I need to instill this philosophy in Mtuseni. Yes, he has big dreams and deep faith, but to really make progress, he needs to meet God halfway and start making his own miracles.


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Check out the sample e-book
for Long-Distance Dad!