Archives For Cape Town

A Toast to Nelson Mandela

December 5, 2013 — 5 Comments

Mandela bookEarly today Mtuseni and I had another heated exchange via text. We’re in the midst of an epic standoff as I try to get him to begin practicing self-reliance and initiative. It’s hard for me, this tough-love approach — and I don’t think I’ve ever heard him so upset at me, his mom, and life in general. But I have to start weaning him. As much as I want him to be my little boy forever, he’s 21 years old and finished with college. But my efforts are being met with resentment and rage and threats and tears. I’m not abandoning him — never will. But I can’t carry him on my shoulders forever.

We’re in rough waters. He signed off WhatsApp and went to sleep, still politely saying goodnight but awash in dark emotions. I went to the gym and could barely focus on my workout, struggling with feelings of stress and frustration and anxiety. “I need a drink tonight,” I thought, and planned to pick up some wine on the way home. As I walked out, I looked up at the bank of TVs and saw the breaking news reports that Nelson Mandela had died. I was overcome with sadness, and took back roads to the liquor store, driving in silence and only half-registering the houses decked in Christmas lights.

What an impressive figure, someone who transformed his nation and inspired the world. A man of such courage. Wisdom. Humanity. Humility. Grace. You would not find such qualities in Congress these days. Mandela always seemed a tower of strength and light; even at his advanced age it somehow felt reassuring that he was still here among us.

So the wine I had expected to ease my stress took on a different role. Sipping my favorite South African pinotage, I watched the TV retrospectives, nodding in familiarity at old news footage and recognizing places from my recent travels there.

I can clearly picture the “Stop Apartheid Now” button that was on my backpack in college. I can remember that sense of hopeful anticipation as the global tide began to turn against that horrible system of oppression — and the feeling of awe and relief when Mandela was finally released.

Fast-forward twenty years and I got my first glimpse of Mtuseni in the flesh, walking toward me past a larger-than-life bronze statue of Mandela in Johannesburg. Atop a tour bus in Cape Town, we looked from the seaside cliffs to the small spot of Robben Island where Mandela was imprisoned — and I lamented our short schedule not allowing time to visit the facility. Later, the bus stopped by an elegant yellow stucco building. The tour guide pointed out the balcony where Mandela gave his first public speech after getting out of prison, and I felt chills. Mtuseni listened intently and took photos with his phone. What thoughts were going through his head? What was he feeling? I didn’t intrude on the moment, and just felt grateful for the opportunity to bring him to this spot.

first mtgIf there is one lesson I can take from Mandela, at this moment in particular, it is patience. Mtuseni and I will survive this latest challenge, and there will be more to come I’m sure. It’s my profound honor and privilege to help this young man, born in the last vestiges of apartheid, to reach goals not dreamed by his parents.

Nelson Mandela’s focus, effort and determination helped to save a country and a people. And in some small way led to Mtuseni being in my life today. Little did I know how wearing that simple button thirty years ago would play out in my own life.

Thinking about Mandela’s twinkling eyes, lilting voice and gently powerful philosophy, a line from a movie that I can’t recall popped into my head:

Ah, how you will delight the angels.

Indeed.

Thank you, Madiba. And godspeed.


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MtuseniA few weeks have passed since the happy news that Mtuseni had received a visitor visa. Since then I was buried in a gnarly work project that consumed my life and threatened my sanity. And of course there was the usual roller coaster ride with my son. Less than 24 hours after celebrating his visa, Mtuseni dropped his phone out of a taxi, which then ran over it. So I had to shell out $250 for a new phone because that’s our lifeline. I told him it’s an early birthday present (though given the cultural significance of turning 21 in South Africa, it will likely be hard for me not to mark his day with something come September).

Now that the trip is finally happening, I’ve shifted into my default worry mode. Getting my beloved knucklehead to fly 8,000 miles into New York — when he’s never flown alone and forgets details and seems to lose something every other week — definitely cranks up the stress. I won’t breathe easy until he texts me from the plane … so long as he doesn’t leave his phone on the Gautrain to the airport! Last week I wrote him a five-page set of instructions on everything from packing and getting through immigration at JFK to dealing with turbulence. Our flights between Joburg and Cape Town last year were perfectly smooth, but on a 16-hour flight Mtuseni will definitely hit some bumps; the turbulence over Cape Verde on my South Africa flights was intense. Scary stuff if you’re flying alone the first time!

But Mtuseni likes roller coasters and was completely enthralled with flying on our trip last year, so perhaps he’ll take turbulence all in stride. He told me that he’ll be “in space for 16 hours and you can’t get better than that!” It will be interesting to see if he still adores flying after this long haul. A 90-minute hop to Cape Town is nothing, but Joburg to New York is one of the longest flights in the world. I wanted a parachute after ten hours!

As I obsess over logistics, every so often it hits me to stop and look at this trip from Mtuseni’s perspective. Imagine being a 20-year-old college kid from Africa traveling halfway around the world for the first time, and to realize his dream of seeing the US. How excited he must be! Of course, I’m excited too. I’ll just be happy and relieved when he’s here in my house, because I’ve learned from experience that there are always surprises and speed bumps when dealing with South Africa.

Mtusnei, like me, can be a worry wart — and that holds true for the trip. But logistics don’t worry him. He’s come to have almost blind faith and trust in my ability to cover every angle of a situation and make things happen for him. (Earning this trust and following through on it has been one of my proudest accomplishments parenting him.) However, he has his own unique set of worries…

For some reason Mtuseni has not been telling people about his trip. We joked about it, but I really didn’t understand why. When I asked him yesterday he said, “there’s certain elements in society I’m avoiding, e.g., witchcraft and jealousy.” He doesn’t talk too much about the more traditional aspects of his culture, but I do know that the goats his mom raises aren’t used to make chevre for restaurants, but are sold for traditional Zulu rituals. (Mtuseni hates “those crazy goats.”) He said that people in his community will be filled with jealousy and hatred over his trip — enough to put a spell on him “to get on the grave.”

I know Mtuseni doesn’t put too much stock in this stuff, but like me he’s doing everything to make sure the trip comes off. Still… witchcraft. Wow. It’s an indicator of the difference in culture and perspective I’ll have in my house for two weeks. Maybe I’ll take him up to Salem and we’ll get a Northeast white witch’s potion to counteract the black witches’ spells at home.

I have a feeling this is gonna be a crazy trip!

MTuseni trip countdown


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Asus+laptopSo the other day — finally — Mtuseni got his laptop fixed after the infamous butt(head) incident of last October. I mean, really, it takes a supreme knucklehead to sit on an almost-new laptop and break the LED screen.

I had warned Mtuseni that buying him a laptop was a one-and-done proposition. If he broke it, lost it, or had it stolen, that was it; there wasn’t going to be another one. I said this merely to put the proverbial fear of god into him, to drive home the message that a laptop isn’t like a wallet (which he left on the bus), or an angel charm (which he lost), or a cell phone (also lost), or knock-off RayBans from Cape Town (stolen/lost). I never thought I’d be faced with following through on my threat, but so goes life with my boy/man.

In reality, I couldn’t stand by the one-and-done principle, because it is impossible in this modern age for a college student to not have a computer. But, man, I was pissed. Mtuseni was achingly apologetic for the mistake, but what lesson would he learn if I just “caved” and fixed the laptop?

Luckily, he got a summer job working as a campus assistant. I talked to the school administrator and found out what it paid (and held my tongue hearing he’d make $10 for a full day). But working for six weeks in January and February, he’d have a decent sum of money — so I told Mtuseni that he would have to contribute to the repair cost (which at R2750 … or about $295 … was almost what I paid for the thing new).

Boston+Media+House+class+laptopI had a figure in my head for how much he should pay, but I asked him what he thought was fair. Mtuseni and I have differing views on the value of money, clearly reflecting our different financial situations. He’ll freak out over 8 rand, which is only 1 dollar. But this is understandable given his level of poverty. Still, I needed his share of the repair to take a bite — not to punish him for breaking the laptop, but to take some responsibility for it and — here come the parental cliches — to understand that money doesn’t grow on trees and that I’m not an ATM machine. The few little jobs he’s had have always provided him with play money. Working long days on campus only to have it go to fixing the laptop would help him understand the value of money.

Given his perspective, I fully expected Mtuseni to offer about R100 towards the R2750 repair — and for me to counter with a lecture about money and responsibility and other obnoxious dad stuff. So I was stunned and impressed when he offered to pay R1000! For a kid who was in crisis mode last year when his daily taxi fare was raised R4 — 48 US cents — this was a huge sum of money. I didn’t make a big deal out of his offer, but simply accepted it and said it was fair.

(A couple weeks later, when his mom’s salary was reduced from R2000 to R1500 … $168 a month … I cut back Mtuseni’s share of the repair to R500. That’s still about $50 and a week’s pay from his campus job… enough to sting.)

So after a typical SA slow-motion service experience with Asus, Mtuseni finally took the laptop in last week. I wired him my share of the repair fee, and he paid cash and picked it up yesterday. And I woke up to the following message from him on Mxit…

Hey bud, thank you very much for bailing me out. Now I know the feeling of paying up. I feel like u have given me a responsibility. I actuali feel proud.

That response to shelling out a lot of his own money to fix a broken laptop is not something you’d hear from most of today’s spoiled and entitled youth. Set aside the knucklehead stuff that’s rampant among boys his age, and Mtuseni continues to amaze me with his integrity and honor and growing sense of maturity. Was this an expensive lesson? Yes, for both of us. But I think it helped move him another step closer to the upstanding man I know he will be. And, as always, I’m proud of him too.


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Cape+Town+South+AfricaOne night in beautiful Cape Town, Mtuseni and I were in a pizza place on Long Street — a funky strip of cafes and clubs with ornate balconies that has a New Orleans feel. We’d been getting on each other’s nerves that day, a product of being together 24/7 for nearly a week after just meeting in person for the first time. Surprisingly for this Boston-New York pizza snob — the thin-crust, brick-oven pie was really good, so I focused on that while Mtuseni ate his curry. And we both watched a guy in front fussing with a laptop and the widescreen TV.

After a while I realized he was setting up for karaoke. When I told Mtuseni, he had no idea what that meant. Even though I’d never done it, I explained to him how it worked. He seemed vaguely intrigued beneath the teenage ambivalent face he’d been wearing all day. I was grateful there would be a bit of entertainment to enjoy, rather than watching him stare at yet another soccer game on TV back in our hotel suite.

The place started to fill up, mainly with college-age kids and some middle-age folks. It was a pretty diverse crowd, more so than I had seen in Joburg. The first woman who sang was astounding, and we all whooped and hollered. Mtuseni was into it, and I was relieved and happy to see a wide grin on his face.

The night continued with a procession of “singers” of varying degrees of talent ranging from “wow, he’s good” to “damn, she’s brave” to “shit, he’s drunk.” A posse of college boys sang loud backup, cheering their buddies on. A black woman at the next table grooved with me to some classic old soul that Mtuseni never heard. And everybody sang along with folks and laughed and offered good-natured support.

We had a long session of sightseeing and a trip back to Joburg the next day, so I kept checking my watch. But Mtuseni, who usually can’t stay awake past ten, kept telling me to have another beer. I knew I’d regret it later, but why spoil the fun by playing Mr. Responsible Dad? When was Mtuseni gonna be at a bar in Cape Town again? When would I?

So the DJ announced there were only two slots left. No… this tale is not going to end with me and Mtuseni getting up and singing “You’ve Got a Friend.” Neither of us took the mic that night. But a boy got up and started singing the R. Kelly song “I Believe I Can Fly”

He was really good. And I read the lyrics on the screen, and realized that every kid in the place, including Mtuseni, was singing along at full volume. It felt like the last hour of an old church revival meeting.

“I believe I can fly. I believe I can touch the sky.
If I can see it, then I can be it.
If I just believe it, there’s nothing to it.”

Victoria+Wharf+Cape+Town+South+Africa+ferris+wheelThe song is such an anthem of self-affirmation and inner strength, pride and empowerment. Watching, hearing, being among all these young South Africans — each carrying dreams of success and a better life in the face of crushing odds — singing, “I can fly!!” at the tops of their lungs… well, I had to keep my head turned from Mtuseni so he wouldn’t see the tears streaming down my face.

As I sang along through my sobs, in that moment I knew I was doing — and would do — all that I could to help Mtuseni fly. And once he’s off the ground, I’d like to do something bigger to help more of these vibrant kids who want, and deserve, to reach their highest potential.


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