From the beginning, there have been some strange similarities between Mtuseni and me that make us believe we were destined to meet. One of the strongest is our interest in communications and media. I studied mass communication and TV production at Emerson College in Boston. Mtuseni is studying media, with a concentration in radio — and at a college called Boston. Weird.
He’s been enjoying his studies. Mtuseni’s a curious kid, and the breadth of his classes provide windows into the world from various perspectives: from radio and TV to marketing and journalism. But now that he’s been in school for over a year, he’s recognizing the limits placed on him by his circumstances. The other day he texted that “I’m living in a media world but outside of it.” What he meant is that what happens in the media is discussed all the time in class, and on campus in general. He’s right to see that, unlike some subjects, media isn’t only theories in books — it’s happening all around us in real time. But with no electricity at home (or now in his community) and no laptop and minimal computer access, Mtuseni is not getting the same exposure. Many students at his school live in the townships, which are poor and crowded but at least have electricity. Mtuseni’s settlement is at the bottom of the economic hierarchy in Johannesburg.
In the US, we are awash in messages from television and radio and the Internet. Much of it is garbage, but it’s all part of life in the 21st century. But someone who doesn’t have electricity or Internet access is locked out of that experience, and can’t fully participate in the conversation. Having only a basic cable TV package, I get frustrated not being able to discuss the new season of Mad Men, and I flee when people want to give away spoilers before it’s released on DVD. But Mtuseni is in a virtual media blackout — while studying for a media diploma. If students are discussing a TV documentary or the value of marketing via YouTube, he can only listen and learn, but not put his two cents in. (And he has plenty of cents to put in about everything!)
Even when Mtuseni’s community had electricity, there was only a small TV showing limited channels at the creche. The public library near his college only has two computers for public use — a fact that boggles my mind given the corporate wealth that surrounds it. I’ve debated for a long time about getting him a laptop, but he has a problem with losing things and is not very computer-savvy. (Mastering his Blackberry is one thing, a laptop is a completely different level.)
This new lack of electricity and water bothers me from a health perspective — for his whole family. But studying media in a “media world” from behind a firewall impacts his success at school. And I don’t have a solution. The typical raising-a-teenager frustrations with Mtuseni I can handle. It’s the systemic issues that give me sleepless nights.
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