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Distance

December 4, 2013 — 3 Comments

Things have been a bit rocky with Mtuseni since he finished classes a couple weeks ago. While he’s always done well when tasks are mapped out for him, as in a school situation, the process of getting an internship — which is all on him — has been marked by epic stumbles and inaction. He’s having difficulty with the transition from 15 years of school and familiar routine to the “lion’s den” of the real world, where he needs to begin charting his own course and sailing the ship. I can only do so much from this side of the world, and even if I could do more it is critical that he become focused, proactive, and self-reliant.

So we butted heads last week and — as happens with us now and then — went off to neutral corners to take a breather from each other. This transition process, this letting go, is also difficult for me. Mtuseni said last week that it feels like I’m pushing him off a cliff. No… I’m pushing him out of the nest, and I expect him to begin flapping his wings and taking flight. And of course I’ll be on the ground to catch him if he falls. But damn it, stop whining and start flapping!

Days ticked by with no communication between us. While my head appreciated having a little more space to focus on my own life, radio silence from him is always a bit unsettling. There are just so many risks he faces on a regular basis — from health issues and violence to unsafe minibus taxis and house fires — that having a daily check-in helps alleviate my worries.

mtuseni nov 2013So early yesterday morning Mtuseni sent me a text asking for my Skype number, because he was online. We had talked before about Skyping via his little USB laptop modem, but with a pay-as-you-go data plan and no money, he really didn’t have the bandwidth. Maybe enough for a voice call, but certainly not a video call. So after some back and forth getting set up, I heard the familiar Skype ring tone and answered his call. He said, “I can’t see you.” I was surprised he was doing a video call, so I clicked the camera button and suddenly there he was.

As always, there’s that brief sense of “wow” when you do a video call with people far away. It’s still not Jetsons quality, but actually our connection was pretty crisp. Mtuseni said he was in a community center a short walk from home, using their new wifi. This is a promising development, not only for him but for people — especially kids — in the settlement to have Internet access. The digital divide there is a serious impediment. I want to know more about who is sponsoring the center’s technology.

Unfortunately the center was closing for the day and Mtuseni had to sign-off. That’s one drawback of South Africa now being seven hours ahead of US time. Our call lasted only three minutes, so there was no real substance. Just that sense of closeness and connection you get from face-to-face contact, much more than can be achieved through text, emails or phone calls.

I realized after we hung up that it was the first time I had seen Mtuseni “live” since we said goodbye at the airport in New York, when he went back home after his trip here in July. Those three minutes on Skype reminded me how much I miss that kid. And that no matter how many bumps we hit on this journey together, the “distance” factor of being a long-distance dad is sometimes the hardest part.


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Rounding the Turn

November 1, 2013 — Leave a comment

South Africa matric resultsIt’s hard to believe that three years ago this week Mtuseni was starting his national matric exams to graduate from high school and hopefully score high enough to qualify for tertiary school. We had also just ended our weekly webcam sessions as his nonprofit program was shut down — and were entering the uncharted waters of a mentoring relationship conducted mainly through phone texts. I’d told him a few weeks earlier that I would pay for his college and was in it for the long haul, but in the back of my mind lurked an understanding that it could all be a lot shorter than my idealistic visions. If he failed his matrics, it could be over in a few weeks.

And now here we are — in the closing days of Mtuseni’s final semester.

We’ve weathered many storms along the way. Like the grade of 20 on his first college test, which shocked him and made me think “Uh-oh.” The lonesome first semester that Mtuseni called “the darkest days of life,” when my shy little man had no friends in school and wanted to quit. The meltdown failure in his Excel class, which led to the out-of-the-blue savior of Jacquie’s weekend class and her continuing support for both him and me. And the ongoing money challenges, health scares, and family tragedies which I’ve learned come with the territory of Mtuseni’s life in poverty.

When you live in an environment that has little understanding of your experience and aspirations, it can lead to self-doubt, insecurity, and second-guessing. Mtuseni’s mom doesn’t ask about school, only whether he passes each semester. People in his settlement community seem to resent his new life experiences and wider circle. And the complex dynamics of racism — which are slowly being revealed to me as layers peel back — take a toll on him. I’ve given him so many pep talks there should be a varsity sweater and set of pom-poms in my closet. Still, I was surprised when early this year Mtuseni said he wanted to switch majors to journalism for his last year. He’s a good writer (when he applies himself — ahem!) and writing can be a valuable skill in so many career paths. But his dream since our early webcam sessions was to work in radio.

When I asked why he wanted to switch, Mtuseni said he was nervous about learning the Pro Tools and Logic sound editing software, and felt more comfortable and safe doing writing. I acknowledged his writing ability, but assured him he could learn the software; it was no different from his early confusion learning PowerPoint. I told Mtuseni that the decision on a major was entirely his to make, and I’d support him either way. But that the important thing was to not make a decision based on fear and doubt. To ask himself honestly what his dream was — not his fear — and to act on that. A couple days later he decided to stay on track with radio.

He’s been a busy bee this semester — resulting in almost total “radio silence” with me the past few weeks. His class did a Hell Week assignment where they “ran” a live radio station within the school. This week Mtuseni was assessed by his instructor as he worked in the booth. Today he did a group presentation, “applying” for a new radio station license from ICASA — South Africa’s version of the FCC. The group just needs to record the application’s sample programs and they’re finished. Then I think he takes his Entrepreneurship exam in a week or so, and is all done with classes.

We still have a lot of work ahead. Mtuseni needs to do an internship before graduating in June. (Anyone with leads in the Johannesburg radio industry is free to review Mtuseni’s LinkedIn profile and make contact.)

But most of the hard work is finished. And Mtuseni, of course, did the vast majority of it. I just paid the bills, cracked the whip, and shook those pom-poms. He sent me some pics a few weeks ago taken during Hell Week. Whenever I see Mtuseni’s bright smile in any photo, my heart simultaneously swells and melts. But given our journey these past few years, this smile just feels a bit more special.

Boston+Media+House+radio

Boston+Media+House+radio

 

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I’ve written before about the deplorable state of libraries and schools in South Africa. Although Mtuseni is out of the public school system, his little sister and brother still attend St. Ansgar’s — what he calls a “farm school” with no heat, computers, or library. Sadly this lack of resources is the norm, not the exception.

One of my LinkedIn contacts who runs an education-focused organization in South Africa recently posted this TV commercial for a business magazine. It’s short, powerful and to the point. Not to mention sad.

As Mtuseni transitions into more independence and a job, I hope to explore ways to address the needs of South African kids on a larger basis. Helping Mtuseni is fulfilling, but it’s not enough to make a dent in the larger problems that face the country and its people. I want — and need — to do more.

 


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Last week I was riding my bike past the elementary school that my sisters attended. A little munchkin came out the front door wearing a backpack bigger than him. The guy picking him up asked earnestly, “So how was it? Did you like it?” It was obviously the kid’s first day; he seemed more interested in sliding down the banister of the front steps. Freedom!

I thought how that kid is embarking on a long educational adventure, and how the school surely has a fully-stocked library and computers in every room and well-trained teachers. And he’s attending school in a high-performing state. A recent New York Times article discussed the stringent public school academic standards in Massachusetts, noting that the students rank second in the world in science. That little munchkin probably has a good future.

St. Ansgars Combined SchoolAnd then I thought about the K-12 farm school where Mtuseni’s little brother and sister go. It’s a public school with no library. No computers. No heat. Mtuseni told me on his visit here that the teachers regularly use corporal punishment — even in grade 12 sometimes he got a “switch across the bum.” Girls only get a ruler across the knuckles.

If anyone needs to get whacked, it’s the South African politicians and administrators who allow the pitiful state of the country’s public education to continue.

I read a recent blog post by a guy in South Africa, who reprinted an open letter to the country’s education system. It’s sad to read — and even sadder because it accurately reflects the situation that Mtuseni and his siblings and peers face. Despite having an inquisitive and thoughtful mind, Mtuseni entered Boston Media House poorly prepared for college. And in some ways we are still playing catch-up to get him ready for life after graduation. And I have a feeling that little Bongeka and Musa are in worse shape than we was in terms of academics…

The opening to Khaya’s education post is below.

Dear South African education

August 21, 2013 (originally appeared on the Cape Times 03-26-2012)

I am an average South African student, meaning that last year I was in matric and am now in a prestigious university. I studied and worked hard in order to leave my school in the rural areas in the Eastern Cape so that I can study in a university, so that I can get a good education because I’d like a great job, which will be a first for my village.

Let me give you an idea of the school I come from. Some of the classes have broken windows and that means that we either cover the broken windows with cardboard or hardboards. But that does not prevent the cold from coming in during winter, or the wind from blowing papers all over the classroom. When it rains, the classes get wet.

Some new buildings have been added to the school but it’s the administration building and not much new with the classrooms themselves. Sometimes the teachers don’t come in class to teach and there is very little discipline in the school. My school has no library. The first time I saw a library was when I came to university. I’d seen pictures of libraries in magazines and when watching tv from one of the neighbour’s houses.

Click here to read the rest.

One comment on the post broke my heart; I hope it’s not accurate…

country is dying


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