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.


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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A Valentine’s Surprise

February 15, 2017 — 1 Comment

I awoke this Valentine’s to a WhatsApp “hello” from Mtuseni’s sister Bongeka. I’ve been grappling for six weeks to get her the mandated tablet for Grade 8 students… along with a SIM card and data plan. Having no electricity at home, she certainly doesn’t have WiFi. Her school principal said Bongeka told her she really needed data so she could “do research” at home. The principal figured it was more about her ability to chat with school friends. LOL….  teenagers!

I was also looking forward to Bongeka getting connected to have direct contact with her. Her first school year was frustrating because I had no contact and only got minimal updates about her from Mtuseni — who gets more taciturn as he gets older — and periodic calls with her principal. Knowing that their mother expresses little interest in their school activities, I’ve been eager to find out what she’s doing, how she’s feeling, and to be her champion. After all, I’m invested in her for at least the next five years through graduation.

So I was happy and excited to hear my WhatsApp chime and see her name and a little “Hi sir.” (Mom may not be big on schooling… due to her own background and illiteracy… but she certainly raises the most polite kids.) I haven’t seen Bongeka in five years. She is still very sweet but also very bright and grown up. She used big words — spelled correctly — in her texts. She is also excited about learning and doing well. As I mentioned in a previous post last year, Bongeka was being teased and ostracized in the settlement for being smart. (Dumb kids!) So I went on a mission to get her into a private school, and last year after a bumpy first term she totally blossomed at Meridian School.


So we chatted a bit yesterday, and then again this morning as she went home from school to do a project for her technology class. She needed to draw a functioning roof truss — and explained to me what a truss is. I’m excited to be hearing about her daily experiences, and hope I can fill in the support gaps for her as I did for Mtuseni. I know it will be different with a girl, but as her principal said to me today “I’m eager to see how far she flies.”

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I can’t believe it’s been almost seven years since I first connected with Mtuseni in a video chat, which I took much of the air out of by trying too hard. A “naive farm boy” as he would later describe it, back then he was kinda gawky and silly and shy — with a squeaky voice, half-baked opinions, and a typical love for cars and loud teen-boy movies. He also had dreams, drive, and a big if wounded heart.

I could never have imagined that first awkward conversation would have extended to a deep, loving relationship and greetings such as this…

dad day 2016

It’s been an amazing journey with Mtuseni, this accidental fatherhood for someone who never wanted kids and — truth be told — isn’t a big fan of the species. The rewards and satisfaction and happiness are incalculable.

But it’s difficult not being able to watch him play soccer … or see him graduate from college … or be there to offer a hug on tough days … or give him a warm, safe place to sleep during the cold South African winter.

I heard recently that having a child is like your heart walking around in the world, and you constantly worry over its safety and well-being from challenges big and small, real and imagined. That concept is crystal clear to me. And it’s much tougher when your kid is 8,000 miles away. But somehow we make it work, and can celebrate the love from my no-longer-gawky-or-shy, growing-up-too-fast son on another Father’s Day.

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fun day 1 4x6It’s been a while since my last post here — just over a year, in fact. In some ways the previous post about Mtuseni’s trip to Washington DC with City Year seemed a fitting way to conclude our story, although certainly our relationship would continue. And blogging requires considerable time and commitment; with Mtuseni somewhat on cruise control, I decided to pivot a bit and focus more on my own life.

But the journey with my son is never-ending — and as I hinted at in a previous post, my role has recently expanded. For how could I help Mtuseni forge a better life, yet not do anything for his younger sister and brother? After Mtuseni told me last December that his sweet sister Bongeka was being teased and ostracized — both at school and in the community — I had to take action. I’ve been there, at the bottom of the adolescent pecking order, and my parents putting me into private high school was one of their better parenting moments. And I know from Mtuseni and news reports how terrible South Africa’s public schools are, particularly the more rural ones. Luckily I found a big, new private school ten minutes away from the family’s settlement. Bongeka started seventh grade at Meridian Cosmo City School in January. It’s been a tricky transition, but she’s steadily finding her feet. She’s taking exams now and starts winter break in a couple weeks — already halfway through her first year!

So going forward, the Long-Distance Dad blog will share stories of Bongeka’s experiences. I’m completing the application now for Musa so he can start sixth grade at Meridian next year. And although Mtuseni has a job, his ongoing challenges and victories will be shared here. There will be many more tales to tell.

Some people have told me “You’ve done enough already with Mtuseni. You don’t need to do more.” Logically I don’t need to, but I want to. That’s just me. My years with Mtuseni have been a string of bills and a rollercoaster ride of debt, not to mention constant low-level stress given the realities of South African poverty. Perhaps I’m philanthropic beyond my means. Maybe I’m just crazy. But these three kids have become my family. And I can help them to have brighter futures. As I look at how many calendar pages have flipped through my life and sometimes wonder what it’s all been for — I know that Mtuseni, Bongeka, and Musa will be my legacy. That’s my reward. That’s why I’m here.

I hate roller coasters, and I have a feeling that the years ahead might make my time with Mtuseni seem like a merry-go-round. But I’m strapped in and have already crested that first tall hill with Bongeka and am hurtling through the early twists and turns. This e-ticket ride continues…

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