While Mtuseni was in college I marveled at how his mind could accommodate being in the luxe wealth of Sandton during the day — and then going home to a shack with no utilities. The difference was so stark when I visited that it was hard for me to reconcile. He never discussed this dual-life challenge with me, but I know it bothered him. He never wanted any of his college classmates to know how he lived; only in the last semester did his two best buddies come to his house, which made him very happy.
With classes finished, Mtuseni hasn’t been thrust into the wealth of Sandton every day. However, his boredom being home in the settlement makes him the grouchiest person on earth. His mood was always bad on school vacations and I dreaded them, but the reality of a “permanent” vacation in the shack seemed to worsen his mindset. So his finally starting an internship this month was cause for relief and celebration not only because he’d qualify for graduation in July — but because my scowl-faced boy would be happy again.
And he has been happy. The community radio station where he’s interning sounds a bit disorganized and there’s not a lot of opportunity for him to do technical stuff. But he’s spoken on air, watches how the DJs and news readers do their jobs, and is enjoying seeing a live radio station in action. He’s even started a Twitter account for his p.m. drive-time crew — and tweets during the program. Follow him here: @motc_kasiefm971
The commute from his settlement to the radio station was difficult — four hours round trip for a 3-hour shift. So last week he began staying with his pastor in Benoni, which is closer to the station. Now Mtuseni is in a nice house with water and electricity and TV, in a suburb famous for its lakes and as the birthplace of actress Charlize Theron. But he adores his little brother and sister, so he went home for the weekend… and back into the darkness.
He was so upset by the visit when we chatted during his commute Monday that I called him after his shift. There was no food in the small gas-powered fridge, and the cooking gas had run out. His mother had no cash because she’s paying off loans she took out for Zulu rituals for his brother Moses’s death and to protect her health. The bank takes money from her monthly check of $200. He was angry with her and with politicians and with apartheid and is desperate to live a “normal life with electricity and a toilet” and to have money for shoes and to get his siblings out of dangerous settlement life. As much as Mtuseni trusts me, he carries a lot inside. He’s a private person and a brooder and the burden weighs heavy. It’s times like these I just want to swoop in and take him away from all of that — but it cannot happen for many reasons.
I think of all the challenges Mtuseni faces every day just to live and to better his situation: skipping breakfast so there’s bread for his siblings to eat, skipping lunch because he doesn’t have money, fixing his shoes with duct tape, studying for exams by candlelight — and already complaining of cold in the unheated shack long before the South African winter begins. And I think of the American college football players who want to unionize because evidently being treated like rock stars on the way to a career in professional sports — with academics an afterthought — is not good enough for them. These delicate athletes are just so put upon and deprived, oh the injustice!
I’ve often said that knowing Mtuseni has completely flipped my perspective in so many ways. He steps back and forth through the looking glass on a regular basis, and it’s damn hard. Perhaps more of us should look on the other side of the glass now and again — to be grateful for all that we do have, and to maybe take action to balance the scales.