Mtuseni turns 21 today. He claims to not get excited about birthdays, always brushing off talk of them in the past. Raising three kids in poverty, his mom doesn’t tend to do much for holidays. He had been typically chill about it the past month or so. But seeing his WhatsApp status line this morning, I was glad to see the flash of humor and ego from my sometimes over-serious and insecure kid:
In South African culture — or at least in Mtuseni’s Zulu culture — turning 21 is a milestone and rite of passage. As he explained to me back when his brother Moses reached that age, the family holds a big party to celebrate becoming a man. Mtuseni’s party is in a couple of weeks; his mother invited me when I talked to her in July while he was here. I wish there was a magic carpet that could carry me there in an hour so I could help celebrate; I’m not jumping on a plane for 16 hours for a birthday party. But Mtuseni is getting excited; his Facebook invite claims the bash will run from 8 pm to 7 am — and asks people to “bring beer, but no weapons.” I hope mom knows about the power of Facebook party invites!
On my end, I can’t believe it’s been almost four years since I had my first webcam chat with Mtuseni — shortly after he had turned 17 and was finishing his junior year in high school. We were both nervous — and I sort of botched it with a stiff PowerPoint showing him my home state (a suggestion in the mentor training). Still, it was my first interaction with the boy I knew only from a two-sentence description and photo provided by the nonprofit that matched us. I was captivated by that sweet smile on a kid half a world away wearing a school uniform… and wondered how this mentoring thing would all play out.
And although it truly seems like yesterday, I can’t believe it was three years ago that we “shared” a birthday cupcake on a web chat and I played Stevie Wonder’s “Happy Birthday” for him. His face lit up as he bounced to the music in his honor, knowing he would go home to no celebration. He was finishing high school and prepping for the month-long matric exams that would determine the next phase of his life. And I was beginning to think about offering to pay his tuition if by chance his exam scores qualified him for college. I can remember that half-hour birthday chat so clearly — neither of us could have imagined then the roller coaster ride that was to come.
Moses is gone now, and Mtuseni is the man of the family. He’s weeks away from finishing his last semester of school and ready to pound the Johannesburg pavement in search of an internship so he can graduate next June. When he was here, Mtuseni said that wearing a tie for his US visa interview (at my insistence) had inspired him to create a new look. “No more t-shirts,” he told me. “No more kid stuff.” So we passed by the tables of hip tees that I usually send to him and looked at chinos and button-down Oxfords and dressy shoes. We came home and he tried everything on, reveling in his own personal fashion show and sartorial upgrade. It was cool to see the transformation and his enthusiasm, though I will admit to some mixed emotions.
Despite his not-so-subtle hints the past few weeks, Mtuseni knows there’s no birthday present from me this year. The $250 to replace his third phone in June was his early gift, not to mention a trip to the US and a new duffle bag full of new clothes to take back. But I never let his birthday go unnoticed. Because sending mail to South Africa can be problematic — and I’m holding off until a Christmas package — I scanned and emailed a couple of birthday cards, telling him how proud I am of him — and how much I love him.
And as I’ve told Mtuseni many times before, no matter how old he is, deep down he’ll always be “my little yellow polo shirt boy” from the picture that started this remarkable journey for both of us. And he’s fine with that — even if he is a man now.
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