Money’s been tight for Mtuseni and me the past year — though our individual experiences of financial hardship clearly differ. Luckily his tuition bills are winding down, which will ease the pressure on me. But the squeeze continues unabated for Mtuseni. His mom’s salary was recently cut to about $42 a week. South Africa is raising the price of gas, which will likely increase his commuting costs. And as he gets busier with school and additional activities, there is always some new bill to pay — including a wisdom tooth that needs to be pulled.
A couple weeks ago Mtuseni and I discussed his allowance and expenses — and I was dismayed to hear that, once again, he doesn’t have money to eat lunch at school. He has enough for a Coke or a hot dog, but not both. And he doesn’t eat breakfast at home, so his siblings can have bread before they go to school. With my own bills mounting, I’m looking at ways to raise his allowance once again.
But in January and February, Mtuseni had his first real job working as a campus assistant at school. Although the $10 he earned for an 8-hour day is shocking by US standards, evidently it’s acceptable there. He was happy to earn some money and get out of the settlement for summer vacation. By his standards, he had a nice chunk of cash — more than he’d ever earned before. Unfortunately some of it was earmarked for fixing his laptop, which he broke three months after I bought it. I asked him what he felt was fair to contribute to the cost, and was surprised and impressed by his suggestion of R1000 for a R2800 repair. I feel badly asking him to pay, but he’s famous for losing and breaking things. Working many days to pay for repairing something might make him think twice — or think, period — before he does something stupid like sit on a laptop!
Even with the laptop repair, he still had money left from his salary. Wanting to teach Mtuseni about financial responsibility, I had planned to talk to him about putting some away so he had a cushion for emergencies that frequently come up. Or maybe just use it to buy himself better lunches during the day so his body and mind are fueled for studying.
But before I got a chance to have this discussion with him, Mtuseni mentioned in an e-mail that he used some of his salary to buy his mom Nester a birthday gift. He was so busy in January that he forgot her birthday. That had never happened before, and he was truly distraught over it.
When we talked the other day, I asked him what he bought. Sound quality on our cell-to-cell calls can be tricky, and sometimes I have to ask him to repeat something. After a couple tries, if I can’t hear a point I let it go. So I asked what he bought for mom, and I couldn’t make out the answer at all. Second time, not much better. Being curious, I asked one more time, but all I picked up was “a pair of.” I told him I still didn’t hear but that was okay and began to shift the conversation. Then I heard loud and clear: “a pair of Converse All-Stars.”
I laughed for about a minute and Mtuseni said, “What? She likes those!” When I heard “pair” I had assumed earrings — but I guess jewelry doesn’t have much use in the settlement. Nester doesn’t go to many restaurants or red carpet events. And Converse sneakers, as an imported US brand, aren’t cheap in South Africa. I’m sure she loved this gift from her son. They have their battles, but he reveres her.
From a practical standpoint — for a kid who doesn’t have a couple bucks to afford lunch — buying a pair of sneakers for mom probably wasn’t the smartest use of his money. But you can’t fault Mtuseni’s heart on how he decided to spend his hard-earned salary. It’s not the first time I’ve been blown away by the goodness and love in this amazing kid. Sometimes I wonder if I’m worthy of him.
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