A Thin Wire

July 29, 2012 — Leave a comment

The New York Times has an interesting article this weekend on using community- and home-based counselors to address the significant health problems in rural Mississippi. In addition to promoting a common-sense strategy, the article also has surprising parallels to issues in Mtuseni’s community. One point in the article that struck me was how one small incident can snowball into much larger problems — and with sometimes dire consequences. I am experiencing this firsthand.

bud twitter picLast week, Mtuseni told me he was “living on a thin wire.” After some evasion, he admitted that he was running out of money and wasn’t eating. As of this weekend, he would have been completely out of cash — and I don’t pay his allowance until the 15th of every month. This amount is supposed to cover buying lunch during the week as well as incidental expenses and a little pocket money for fun. Given the daily ordeal he endures just getting to and from school, and then studying and being on the student committee, he certainly deserves some cash for a movie now and then.

But last month, as part of the winter break that was a decathlon of crises, his dental and gum problems flared up. He had trouble eating and sleeping. Finally, he went to the doctor — who in light of Mtuseni’s lack of insurance or cash for appropriate care, recommended mouthwash. Mtuseni said it was too expensive. I’m working on finding a dentist for him (another tricky task from 8,000 miles away) so in the meantime I told him to buy a small bottle of anti-bacteria mouthwash and some numbing gel, and to rinse with baking soda. He says it’s helped, and I’m reviewing lists of dentists in Randburg with various fee scales.

But what I often don’t fully grasp with Mtuseni is how squeaky-tight his budget is. Every rand (about 12 US cents) is accounted for. When he told me about the money problem, I freaked out and asked how he could be out of his allowance three weeks early. He said he had to pay transport to go to the doctor, then get the mouthwash, and buy soft food so he could eat at home. And these seemingly inconsequential expenses drained his entire budget.

Mtuseni rarely asks me for money. The last time was when taxi fares were going up. He’s very proud, and feels badly being dependent on me. So last week he stopped buying lunch and was just hoping mom would come up with more money (from her $240 monthly salary) to help him get through to his August 15 allowance. The bulk of my frustration this time was due to the fact that our usual money-transfer service recently shut down and I had yet to find another one (thinking I had a few more weeks). So I scrambled and found a service called Xoom — and hope the money will be there on Monday. (Everything in South Africa seems to have unforeseen complications.)

One of the things I adore about Mtuseni is his use of language, such as the “thin wire.” People living in extreme poverty are constantly on the wire, and one small expense can put them off balance and set them tumbling. I’m not directly impacted by Mtuseni’s poverty, but given the goals I have for him finishing college and having a bright future, his circumstances keep me constantly on edge. The four weeks in June/July with Musa’s pneumonia, mom’s mystery “stroke,” shack fires in the settlement, and dental problems were mentally exhausting — too many times I saw the tipping point. And the latest one was all because of a bottle of mouthwash.

In times like these, I wonder if the billions of dollars spent every four years on athletes running in circles or playing beach volleyball to earn a shiny metal disk wouldn’t be better spent on helping people walking thin wires in South African settlements — or in the Mississippi Delta.

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