Double Trouble

March 17, 2017 — Leave a comment

I always shut my phone off at night because I don’t want notifications to wake me up — a high risk with South Africa being six or seven hours ahead of US Eastern time. When I turned it on this morning I heard a quick series of chimes all from WhatsApp. Usually that means Mtuseni has sent me a bunch of photos.

But not this time… The first message was from Mtuseni, telling me he’d been in a “little car accident” when driving to work. (Since he normally takes jitney taxis, I’m not yet sure how this scenario occurred.He doesn’t have a car.) He said he’s “completely fine” so not to worry about him. We texted briefly this morning, and I learned it was his fault — just a rear-ender in traffic, but the car isn’t insured. I don’t know how that works in South Africa in terms of covering damage. But seeing the word “car accident” is always a bit unsettling… and roadways in Johannesburg are notoriously dangerous. He better have been wearing his seat belt!

Following that was a series of messages from Bongeka. She got a heads up about a school field trip to see a play in Pretoria. Only the first 65 students from Grades 7, 8, and 9 who pay the fee will get to attend. She asked ,”May you please pay for me because I’d like to be part of the theater.” I’ve almost always paid her school costs, or Mtuseni will pay for small things I’m not aware of. But now that I’m directly connected to Bongeka via WhatsApp, I hear firsthand about this “first come, first served” event. It was typical of her… sweet and polite.

So I woke up to a kid who got into his first fender bender and another kid asking for money for a school event. Gave me another little insight into the parenting game. (And there’s still one more kid to come!)


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For #FBF… a favorite inspirational quote that I still use with Mtuseni (and sometimes myself), And it will surely be used with Bongeka in the years ahead. #KeepSwimming

Long-Distance Dad

Cape Town+inspiation+motivation+quoteI’ve always been a collector of inspirational quotes. Sometimes a few crisp, resonant words — whether from a wise philosopher or just an average person who had a flash of brilliance — can make you stop and say, “Damn, that speaks right to me and where I am in my life.”

When I’m feeling stuck or lost or in need of some perspective beyond the muck and monsters in my head, I’ll skim through my small notebooks of quotes and always feel rejuvenated for the journey.

I’ve often shared quotes with Mtuseni to keep him motivated, lift him up, or remind him of what’s possible. This quote is a favorite that I use whenever he’s faced with being stretched past his comfort zone. And it works — he’s become much more open to taking risks and striving for far-off goals… and knows that falling short a few times is no…

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Walking the Talk

February 26, 2017 — 1 Comment

Mtuseni told me a couple years back that his sister Bongeka was smart. And he was worried about both his young siblings languishing in the underfunded, overcrowded, unheated, public farm school that he attended. Although I was hesitant about committing to put the kids through private school — for far longer than Mtuseni’s three years of college — I also knew from his stories and the media how bad South Africa’s public schools are. Still, I figured I had some time since the kids were both fairly young.

But one day Mtuseni said he found Bongeka crying outside the settlement because kids were bullying and ostracizing her because she was smart. I know all-too-well the pain of being bullied. I couldn’t let this sweet girl suffer — and certainly not for being a good student! So I quickly got her into Meridian, a private school not far from her settlement. After a rocky first term, she bounced back, lost her shyness and grew more confident, and in many classes earned grades higher than Mtuseni ever got.

But my knowledge of her first year was all second-hand — report cards and discussions with her principal. I wondered how “smart” she really was, and who I would be dealing with for the long haul toward graduation. Since being able to chat with her directly this year (and for the first time) on WhatsApp, I’ve quickly realized that I have a committed potential little star on my hands. Her texts are so articulate and have a surprisingly sophisticated and mature humor… for a girl who just turned 14. It’s like chatting with a mini-adult. By contrast, when I first connected with Mtuseni at 16, he was an immature, yet earnest, goofball — one reason I quickly fell in love with him.

But Bongeka is much more serious and focused. What kind of eighth grader posts this as their social media status?…

go and get success

 

And when I asked her on Friday if she had a fun weekend planned, I got this response.

saturday school

Hmmmm… Saturday school wouldn’t seem to be at the top of any kid’s fun list.

Bongeka told me the name of the school and I looked it up. It’s a pretty swanky private school nearby. This morning she told me that they learned about atoms and molecules yesterday. But it’s not just for science. It’s also for English and math. This extra Saturday school is free, runs for several weeks, and is not associated with her regular school. Her mother didn’t sign her up. Going to school on Saturdays “for more learning” was Bongeka’s idea!

This kid is gonna go far. I’m eager to see where that energy and commitment will lead. The challenge will be keeping Bongeka healthy, safe, and secure in the horrible settlement environment. Looks like more rollercoaster times for me ahead…


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The Last Child

February 19, 2017 — Leave a comment

It’s common knowledge that the first kid in a family is lavished with attention and has hundreds of photos documenting their every waking moment. And the last child in the pack gets almost nothing in comparison because the parents are exhausted, life gets busy, and that initial thrill is gone. TV family sitcoms often joke about this: It’s funny ‘cuz it’s true.

Which brings me to Musa — the youngest of the Mdletshe kids who just started sixth grade. As Bongeka gets more involved in school and ventures deeper into that “teenage girl” phase, she’ll have less space for a pesky little brother. Mtuseni is exhausted from work and a grueling commute, so he’s paid less attention to Musa lately.

He sent me a photo of a letter Musa wrote to him for Valentine’s Day. Mtuseni said he was more shocked by the handwriting than the sentiment. Mtuseni said it’s the first thing written by Musa — a rambunctious kid who disdains school and reading — that he could actually decipher.

musa-letter-2017

The handwriting is beautiful. But what struck me was the message. Their father walked out when Mtuseni was 16. Musa was only 2, so he’s never really known having a father in the home. The oldest son Moses left with the father. He returned about two years later, which likely was fun for Musa. But a few months later Moses was killed by a car — a victim of poor education, unemployment, and alcoholism. Another loss for a small boy.

What I get from Musa’s letter is a lot of honest love, which is universal in that family. But I also hear a small voice saying, “Please don’t desert me.”

Mtuseni feels torn. He desperately wants to leave the shack and start building his own adult life. The environment in the settlement is terrible, worse than it was even a few years ago. He’s nervous about the kids getting caught up in stuff if he leaves. He told me of girls Bongeka’s age who are pregnant by adult men — and boys Musa’s age who quit school and drink and smoke dope. He wants to shield them, to save them from these risky influences. He feels he should be the father to them, the man of the house. But the strain is wearing on him; I see it and hear it all the time now.

I’ve told Mtuseni that he can’t sacrifice his own life for the kids, and that mom will be able to manage them; parenting is her job, not his. But she’s 53, working a physical job for a pittance, living without electricity or water, and struggling to pay for food as inflation takes its toll. Even in the best situations, most parents lose focus with the last child. For Mtuseni’s sake, I want him to leave the settlement as soon as possible. For the kids’ sake, I kinda want him to stay.

musa cosmo fundayI had planned to get Musa into private school with Bongeka this year. But after completing my section of the application, the family never completed it despite my repeated reminders. So I let it slide. Bongeka’s first year at Meridian was more complicated and expensive than I anticipated — and I wasn’t eager to double the effort with another kid.

But seeing Musa’s heartfelt letter … remembering how he shyly clung to me when we met several years ago … seeing that munchkin’s grin at Bongeka’s school fair last June … and knowing the risks he faces — makes me realize that I need to get him into that school and on a focused path next year. I cannot let him fall victim to his community — or to “forgotten last child” syndrome.

On sitcoms, and in real life, the last kid usually turns out okay. But in South Africa, being a forgotten child is a recipe for disaster. Sadly, Moses wasn’t able to escape it. I have to make sure that my little man Musa does.


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