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Cookie Power

April 26, 2015 — 3 Comments

Valtentine's-Day-heart-cookiesWhen Mtuseni and I decided to continue our relationship when the nonprofit that connected us folded, I envisioned frequent connection via numerous paths, including the mail. Because he lives in a settlement with limited, insecure mail service, I rented him a PO box at a chain of copy shops so I could send him cards and letters and small gifts. I soon learned about the corruption of South Africa’s postal service, as some cards and small parcels sent by first class mail never made it to him; they just vanished. One properly addressed card came back to me via boat, bent and tattered, eight weeks later.

I learned that the only safe option was US express mail. This is not only crazy expensive, but a logistical obstacle course. Express mail (which becomes South African service in-country) doesn’t deliver to Mtuseni’s area, so packages must be addressed to him care-of someone in Johannesburg proper. They get a slip, Mtuseni takes it to the post office, he pays a tariff, and they give him the package. If they can find it. They’ve never lost a package, but sometimes I need to call and email to figure out where the box is being held and, one time, what shelf it was on. The package usually gets to South Africa in three days — and then can float in limbo for a couple weeks. The word “express” seems to have a different meaning in there.

It’s a hassle, but worth hearing his reaction and offering something more tangible than text bytes. South African law only allows him to receive two packages from me per year, so I make the most of it … following a loose interpretation of the ridiculously low allowable rand value for items sent. The mainstay is clothes, since he has so little and can’t look like a poor shack boy out in the world. I also include cards, letters, sometimes toiletries or vitamins. Not only does this help him, but it frees up money for his mom to spend on the household or the other kids. I’ve also sent stacks of photos from his visits here, because pictures on a laptop aren’t the same as ones hung on his wall.

A few years ago, I sent him a batch of cookies. He was surprised that I had “bought so many,” and more surprised — and impressed — when I said I had baked them myself. As they have no oven in the shack, Mtuseni doesn’t get homemade cookies very often. Given that he had about six dozen cookies, I was surprised he didn’t share them with the family. I’ve learned over the years how life in the settlement is pretty much every man for himself.

Each time I get ready to send a package, Mtuseni gets very excited. But the last couple times he seemed more concerned about the cookies than the clothes. I laughed to myself and thought, “Hell, next time I’ll save a ton of money and just send cookies.”

IMG_1908A few weeks ago I sent a box with photos from last year’s trip, drawings from my nieces, pants, sweaters, and the required black belt and hats for his City Year uniform — and a big batch of his favorite oatmeal cookies with raisins, cranberries, and walnuts. He’s been so busy — and tired — with City Year that we only talked a bit about the box when he received it. It made me sad when he said that he wanted to save his cookies for “hard times.” His money has been tight with long commutes and having to buy meals, but I told him to just eat them and know I’d keep him safe from hard times, at least in terms of food. He said he would and fell asleep mid-chat, as he often does.

So the other day I asked him how the cookies were. He said, “They help me to relax and be happy.” And then I finally understood why the cookies seem to be the most important part of the package for him, and why he doesn’t share them. They’re not just sweet treats, but something I made made especially for him. Despite having real pride for and commitment to South Africa as his home, life there weighs heavily on Mtuseni — from the personal challenges of poverty to the lack of jobs for young people. With the recent xenophobia attacks and a teachers strike that has affected his City Year school, Mtuseni said last week “It’s bad in this town.” But he keeps forging on, for his future and for the country.

And when he gets home to his small bed in the unheated, wallboard shack with the dirt floor, it makes me glad to know that a few simple cookies can give him some solace and strength — and help him feel loved.

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September 16, 2013 — Leave a comment

Mtuseni turns 21 today. He claims to not get excited about birthdays, always brushing off talk of them in the past. Raising three kids in poverty, his mom doesn’t tend to do much for holidays. He had been typically chill about it the past month or so. But seeing his WhatsApp status line this morning, I was glad to see the flash of humor and ego from my sometimes over-serious and insecure kid:

bday whatsapp status

In South African culture — or at least in Mtuseni’s Zulu culture — turning 21 is a milestone and rite of passage. As he explained to me back when his brother Moses reached that age, the family holds a big party to celebrate becoming a man. Mtuseni’s party is in a couple of weeks; his mother invited me when I talked to her in July while he was here. I wish there was a magic carpet that could carry me there in an hour so I could help celebrate; I’m not jumping on a plane for 16 hours for a birthday party. But Mtuseni is getting excited; his Facebook invite claims the bash will run from 8 pm to 7 am — and asks people to “bring beer, but no weapons.” I hope mom knows about the power of Facebook party invites!

mtuseni photo-walletOn my end, I can’t believe it’s been almost four years since I had my first webcam chat with Mtuseni — shortly after he had turned 17 and was finishing his junior year in high school. We were both nervous — and I sort of botched it with a stiff PowerPoint showing him my home state (a suggestion in the mentor training). Still, it was my first interaction with the boy I knew only from a two-sentence description and photo provided by the nonprofit that matched us. I was captivated by that sweet smile on a kid half a world away wearing a school uniform… and wondered how this mentoring thing would all play out.

And although it truly seems like yesterday, I can’t believe it was three years ago that we “shared” a birthday cupcake on a web chat and I played Stevie Wonder’s “Happy Birthday” for him. His face lit up as he bounced to the music in his honor, knowing he would go home to no celebration. He was finishing high school and prepping for the month-long matric exams that would determine the next phase of his life. And I was beginning to think about offering to pay his tuition if by chance his exam scores qualified him for college. I can remember that half-hour birthday chat so clearly — neither of us could have imagined then the roller coaster ride that was to come.

Moses is gone now, and Mtuseni is the man of the family. He’s weeks away from finishing his last semester of school and ready to pound the Johannesburg pavement in search of an internship so he can graduate next June. When he was here, Mtuseni said that wearing a tie for his US visa interview (at my insistence) had inspired him to create a new look. “No more t-shirts,” he told me. “No more kid stuff.” So we passed by the tables of hip tees that I usually send to him and looked at chinos and button-down Oxfords and dressy shoes. We came home and he tried everything on, reveling in his own personal fashion show and sartorial upgrade. It was cool to see the transformation and his enthusiasm, though I will admit to some mixed emotions.

IMG_0298Despite his not-so-subtle hints the past few weeks, Mtuseni knows there’s no birthday present from me this year. The $250 to replace his third phone in June was his early gift, not to mention a trip to the US and a new duffle bag full of new clothes to take back. But I never let his birthday go unnoticed. Because sending mail to South Africa can be problematic — and I’m holding off until a Christmas package — I scanned and emailed a couple of birthday cards, telling him how proud I am of him — and how much I love him.

And as I’ve told Mtuseni many times before, no matter how old he is, deep down he’ll always be “my little yellow polo shirt boy” from the picture that started this remarkable journey for both of us. And he’s fine with that — even if he is a man now.


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I’ve written before about how much stuff American kids have — and for many it’s never enough. They want more. The same can be said of many US adults. People throwing punches and trampling each other to score a midnight bargain on Black Friday. Packs of idiots… I mean “early adopters”… spending the night on the sidewalk to buy the latest overpriced, overhyped i-whatever because they have to have it. They want it, right now, before anyone else.

By comparison, Mtuseni — and his family — have virtually nothing. Yet he never complains. The many things he lacks don’t even fall into the category of wants; they’re needs. If anybody had a rationale to ask me for stuff 24/7, it’s him. But it doesn’t happen. I send him two boxes of clothes each year, and he’s always thrilled and grateful. I’d send much more if South African law would allow it — just to see him happy, to know he’s dressed warmly, to help him make a good impression as his world expands.

So I was surprised to get his brief e-mail this week asking for clothes. The request itself didn’t surprise me; he knows I shop the end-of-season sales now to get him things for the approaching fall and winter in South Africa. What struck me was how the request was framed: “Bud, I need a favour from you. Can you please not give me allowance this year. I just need jeans please.”

Here’s a kid who has very little, offering to give up his allowance so I can get him some pants. Mtuseni knows money has been very tight on my side the past year, although I’ve made sure that it’s never affected him. I can pass up movies and pricey meals and new clothes and other “wants” for a short time while I pay his tuition and expenses and cover some critical needs, like the dentist. That’s what parents do, and I feel richer for the experience. But just the fact that Mtuseni made this offer is one more confirmation of what an incredible kid he is. When I asked how he would function without the allowance (there’s no way he could) Mtuseni said he would “be strong and sacrifice.”

teen-Lucky-brand-t-shirtThe yearly amount I spend on his allowance far exceeds the price of a few pairs of jeans… even if, as he told me last year when shopping, they “must be Levi’s.” 🙂 And I actually bought all his clothes a couple weeks ago. I’ll send the package as I usually do in April as summer fades away down there, or hopefully bring the stuff with me on a visit. So I told him “Don’t worry. You’re covered for clothes. And allowance. Just focus on your work, you have a busy year ahead.”

Along with pants and sweaters (which he loves), I got Mtuseni a thick winter jacket marked down 80% that will keep him warm, but drive the Express Mail charges through the roof. Still, maybe I’ll pick up a couple more pairs of jeans. Because, unlike the kids I see here every day whining about their wants, a kid willing to sacrifice the little he has to get his needs met deserves something more.


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My first image of Mtuseni came from a photo supplied by the organization that matched us for mentoring. He’s sporting a yellow public school uniform shirt, clutching a bookbag and wearing the sweetest smile you’ve ever seen. He says he was 16 when it was taken, shortly before we met. He looks so young in it, more like middle-school age.

I can get teary-eyed when I look at that photo, pinned over my desk. Little did I know what an incredible personal journey would unfold for both of us when I was first captivated by that smile. In some ways, he’ll always be “my little yellow polo shirt boy.”

But in a few short years the boy has quickly become a man — albeit with the typical knuckle-headedness of a male approaching 20.

The behavioral changes I expect. If they weren’t happening, I wouldn’t be doing my job. But what surprises us both is a recent growth spurt. He’s always been about low-average height, at least by American standards. But recently, he’s grown a couple inches. Last month I had to buy him new pants because his were too short and he felt embarrassed at school.

Teen-in-Lucky-brand-shirtWhen I saw Mtuseni in January, I teased him about the 14 whiskers on his chin, which he would absently twist when focused on something, like a crusty old professor or budding philosopher. He also had the soft shadow of a mustache then — so I was shocked four months later to see in photos how dark it’s become. He doesn’t like the mustache, and I told him it might be time to buy a razor. His first shave should take about 25 seconds.

I don’t know where this sudden growth is coming from. I thought boys finished developing by age 16. Maybe it’s spurred by exposure to a more dynamic world and greater responsibilities at school. Maybe it’s my pestering him to eat better and take the vitamins I bought. Or maybe it’s simply genetics.

Of course, mustache aside, Mtuseni is proud of his growth. He told me the other day that one of his best friends is now “too short.” (Ahh, the competitive posturing of males.) And I’m impressed too. Maybe it’s the dad in me talking, but he’s become a handsome young man — who not only has more physical stature, but as he says can “stand tall.”

From Day One, kids want to grow up. That’s their job, and Mtuseni is no different. Unlike most parents, I didn’t have the bittersweet privilege of watching a child transform all-too-quickly from first steps to first driver’s license. Still, the change from my little yellow polo shirt boy to confident young man has been amazing to watch… and far too fast.

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