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…
A 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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