I’ve always been enthralled with Mtuseni’s use of spoken language. I don’t know if it’s just him or is distinct to South African English. Maybe it reflects a way of thinking and translating from his native Zulu language. But in regular conversation his word choice can feel downright poetic.
I remember years ago when he was in school and was having money problems — bigger than the usual money problems he copes with. It was one of the rare times he specifically asked me for more money, in addition to the monthly allowance I gave him. In making his case, he said he was “living on a thin wire.” The phrase evoked a striking image, and was an effective way to communicate his predicament.
I was reminded of this image when I woke up the other day and saw his WhatsApp status on my phone:
Mtuseni works at Meter Mate in a dead end, low paying admin job. He hates it. He was set to have his monthly review this past week. He’d gotten several written warnings about being late for work recently. He told me that Joburg traffic was getting worse, and the rolling blackouts from the failing electric utility adds to the gridlock when traffic signals are out. After three years in the job, leaving home at 6 a.m. to make it to work on time at 8:30, suddenly he’s being hounded for being a few minutes late.
The company treats employees like children. Mtuseni has told me stories of things that management does there that would never be allowed in the US. But in an economy where people are desperate for work, you put your head down and just hope you can hold on to your crappy job. And Mtuseni finally realizes that he’s disposable; there are fifty people who would take his job in a heartbeat, and the company knows it.
Seeing his status message I immediately thought, “Uh-oh.” Surely he’d been fired. My mind went into solution mode… thinking about work alternatives and connections and how I could cover his lost salary for however long it might take him to find another job, which could be months.
And I realized then how much I live on a thin wire with Mtuseni. There’s always something to worry about with him… either a long-term risk in the background or more pressing crises that pop up on a regular basis. Something that can knock him — knock us — off the wire into the abyss.
It’s a hard way to live. It wears on me sometimes, but I only deal with it secondhand; I’m far removed from any direct consequences. I’ve seen how the struggle has affected Mtuseni; his youthful idealism has eroded into a sense of dark resignation.
I’m working on some big plans to relight that magical spark he once had. Mtuseni has always wanted more, has had higher aspirations. Like me, he wants his life to have meaning and a positive impact; that’s something I’ve loved about him from the start.
But life in poverty tends to be lived in shorter time frames, with survival as the goal.
Back to this latest episode on the high wire…
I texted Mtuseni and asked what happened at Meter Mate. There was no response for over an hour, and in that time the wheels turned in my head, thinking of how to help him find a new job, how to make sure he had enough money. Worrying about how his lost income would impact the family, and the blowback from his overstressed mom who blames everything on him. Figuring out how to put a positive spin on the situation so Mtuseni wouldn’t slide into an even darker place.
Then I heard the little WhatsApp chime and thought, “Okay, this is it.” Turns out his boss had died suddenly the night before. That’s what created the “saddest day at Meter Mate.”
His job — at least for now — was safe. But there’s no real sense of relief. Mtuseni’s still walking on the thin wire. And the wind is blowing in every direction. And as always, I’ll be there to catch him.
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