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The Better Man

February 22, 2015 — 5 Comments

City+Year+Johannesburg+South+AfricaMtuseni went to City Year training camp last week. I was holding my breath for his reaction. It’s one thing to commute to Joburg for a week of orientation; it’s another to be bunking with 100 others for training and team building. Like me, Mtuseni can be social but also needs alone time; he’s a big thinker and brooder.

So on Thursday when I got a “Guess who’s back?” text and asked him how camp went, I half braced myself for a session of griping. Instead I got adjectives like great, challenging, and fantastic. He met lots of people, his group placed second in the obstacle course, and he and other kids shared their “visions for the country.” He said he even “got the facilitator’s attention” by answering questions. I remember when Mtuseni started college, he was so shy and intimidated it took weeks of encouragement for him to speak up in class. My boy’s come a long way.

When I told him how glad I am that he’s soaking it all up like a sponge, Mtuseni said he has plans and wants to make the most of the experience. He’s clearly embracing City Year — an unfamiliar program for him and something I admittedly half-prodded him into doing. I couldn’t be happier, prouder, or more relieved.

Everyone knows that I’m a huge sentimental sap, and a well-crafted commercial or redemption piece on the news can turn me into a blubbering mess. (I need to dial back on the soy!) But I’m also a hardcore cynical Bostonian — I’m not easy to impress. Yet from the beginning I’ve been amazed by Mtuseni’s persistent drive to improve himself and his situation. By his willingness to learn and grow. By a depth that belies his age — and a spark of intangible something that makes me say, “Wow, what a great kid. How lucky I am to have him in my life.”

At times like these I think about Mtuseni’s birth father, Samuel. He walked out on the family about six years ago. He and Mtuseni have no contact. They’ve bumped into each other a few times; they say hello, nothing more. I think about all of Mtuseni’s accomplishments that Samuel is unaware of, how he’s not seeing what an incredible young man his son is becoming. And I just don’t get how as a father you can walk away from that. Yes, there’s the deadbeat dad issue of leaving a wife and three kids with no support — they are clearly being shortchanged, which is reprehensible. But Samuel is also cheating himself of experiencing a truly impressive son — as well as two other young kids who are sweet and respectful and could use the love and encouragement of their dad.

I know little about the circumstances behind Samuel’s departure, other than something to do with another Zulu wife. Maybe the guy feels happier or younger or more manly with a younger woman, but he’s missing out on some pretty great stuff with his now-adult son. And I’d say that Mtuseni, my proud, opinionated, knucklehead, Rubik’s cube of hopes and dreams and emotions — has become more of a man than the father that brought him into this world. It’s Samuel’s loss — but I feel no sympathy for him.


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A New Chapter

January 31, 2015 — 1 Comment

City YearMtuseni has been out of classes for 15 months now — and formally graduated from college for seven months. He’s had zero job interviews, although he did help some guy set up a community radio station in the Diepsloot township a few months ago. He even did a few live DJ shifts on the mic, but was disappointed to learn afterwards that the web transmission wasn’t working so he was spinning and talking to himself. He’s been very frustrated the past few months and (naively) thought he’d be employed in a great job by now. The realities of 60 percent youth unemployment are beginning to make sense to him now; the situation in South Africa is dire.

But Monday Mtuseni starts as a Service Leader with City Year Johannesburg! I’m thrilled. This was my fallback idea last year in case he couldn’t find a job; he was unaware of the program. It was founded 25 years ago in Boston and is in many cities across the country. It started in South Africa at Nelson Mandela’s request after he saw the program on a visit to Boston. The exposure to different people, experiences and training is what Mtuseni needs to set himself apart in the job market from so many others with a similar education. And it will give my still-brooding adolescent some needed emotional maturity. I checked out the program’s Facebook page and know he will thrive; I’m even a bit jealous — such a new adventure!

However, Mtuseni is somewhat measured in his response. He was wowed and took tons of photos when we toured City Year headquarters in Boston last summer and met with the VP. But now that he’s in, my impression is that he thinks the program is somehow a step back. Indeed, it’s not a job, though he does get a small monthly stipend. For someone who so desperately wants to escape the settlement and have a normal life with utilities and TV and food and safety… he really wants a job. Yesterday. But so do millions of his peers. I’ve been trying to help him see that the City Year experience will open so many doors for him, will make his resume stand out from others. He gets it on some level, but for someone in his situation — and for any 22-year-old — life can’t move fast enough for all the things he wants.

But he signed his contract and got fitted for his City Year uniform — and after a few weeks training will be assisting at a primary school in Soweto. It will be grueling; it’s full-time and he has a very long commute on Joburg’s packed taxis. He’ll be nervous at first, then fall into his usual mix of cocky and grouchy and committed and thrilled. I’m reminded of the old Peace Corps slogan: “the toughest job you’ll ever love.”

But the ten months will fly and then he’ll join the elite group of City Year alumni at graduation in November, It’s a big deal. Last year the US ambassador to South Africa was there. I will be there, too. Brimming with pride at how far my shy boy in the little yellow high school uniform has come in these few years! And getting ready for another chapter.


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Boston+Media+House+graduationThroughout this nearly five-year journey with Mtuseni, there have been many circumstances that are strangely uncanny, as if fate has been a major player in this relationship. One example is his wanting to attend a South African college called Boston Media House, when I live 8,000 miles away in Boston, a most American city. A more recent (and less fun) example is the laptop that I bought specifically for our webcam chats when we were first matched by a nonprofit — which died a few hours after I dropped him at the airport this week, apparently signaling the close of this chapter in our lives.

And the most surprising coincidence is that Mtuseni’s graduation from college — our primary mission all these years — fell on the Fourth of July. For this event truly signifies independence in many ways. Like any kid leaving the relatively cloistered environment of college, Mtuseni now enters the real world on his own. I was such a typically American, vocally demanding parent-advocate for him at school that they probably have a dart board with my face in the main office. But I don’t have the same power to move the South African job market in Mtuseni’s favor, and more importantly, I shouldn’t try. The school gave him knowledge and skills, and I gave him wings. Two years ago I watched him and many other kids sing R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly” in a Cape Town karaoke bar. Now with his college diploma in hand, it’s up to Mtuseni to fly solo.

This milestone achievement also marks my own independence, which is bittersweet. In many ways I put my life on hold to make sure Mtuseni got over this finish line, a task that was much more difficult than I ever expected. While I’m excited to pivot back to my own personal journey, and will surely draw upon this experience, it feels a bit sad to relinquish something that required such intense focus and commitment. Indeed, I feel a profound sense of pride, satisfaction and fulfillment in being able to say “mission accomplished.” But the flip side is a slightly empty feeling of “Now what?”

Graduation doesn’t mean the end of Mtuseni and me, but things will change. Even during his visit here last month he seemed much more independent than last year’s visit — much to my occasional frustration and chagrin. But that only means I did my job. For his graduation is not only the culmination of fifteen years in school, it also marks his entry into adult life. And that is a cause for celebration!

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Mtuseni and his proud mom Nester

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Mtuseni with his best college buddy Poloko

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First in the family to graduate college!


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Things have been hectic, as Mtuseni likes to say, over the past month. He just wrapped up a three-week visit here in Boston and flew back home to Johannesburg very early Monday morning. Door-to-door travel time… 26 hours. Better him than me!

It was a trip packed with many activities as well as a few challenges and new perspectives. But mainly it was a gift to celebrate the big event to come this Friday. July Fourth may be Independence Day here in America … but it’s Graduation Day for Mtuseni! To say I’m proud would be a massive understatement.

More to come later on his US visit and graduation, but for now I’ll share the picture he put up for his WhatsApp profile when he got home…

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