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Jobs Crisis

May 6, 2017 — Leave a comment

Just over a year ago, Mtuseni started his first job. Despite his college diploma and City Year success, this was no easy task. South Africa’s overall unemployment rate is about 25 percent and the rate for youth is over 60 percent. So getting a job, earning some real money, and gaining workplace skills and experience to put on his resume were welcome developments on his life path. A cause for celebration!

Now that initial rosy glow has worn off. As with most new graduates, working a full-time job is a cold slap in the face compared to the vibrancy and variety of college life. When I used to complain about the hamster wheel drudgery of my various jobs, my father always said dryly, “That’s why they call it work.”

Yet for Mtuseni, the dissatisfaction and disillusionment are greater. It was thrilling at first that his salary was twice what his mother makes – more than anyone in the family has ever earned. But his mother only makes about $250 a month. While the dollar-to-rand conversion always confuses me, in some respects the cost of living in South Africa is comparable to the United States. He often complains to me about rising taxi fares or being unable to pay for a movie – small amounts that should not pose a problem to someone who works so hard.

And he does work hard; he’s always tired. Living on the outskirts of Johannesburg, he wakes up at 4:30, heats bath water on a portable gas stove, then has a two-hour commute in cramped jitney taxis. He makes the same trip coming home. The job has also changed as the company constantly retools. He now spends all his time on the computer, which bothers his eyes. And he often is tasked with taking customer service calls. This makes me laugh and makes him miserable – because while Mtuseni can be incredibly charming, he can also be a surly son-of-a-bitch. He recently was passed over for a small promotion, so now he’s just going through the motions with a “whatever” attitude, knowing that labor laws make it almost impossible to fire him. This is a long fall from the teambuilding breakfast he held in his first excited, idealistic month on the job.

Mtuseni is also hamstrung by his “second” job – as man of the house and family protector. He never asked for this role; his father walked out when he was in high school and his older brother was killed six years ago. Out of love and responsibility, he feels compelled to contribute to the house and protect his young siblings from the toxic and dangerous influences of the settlement community.

And I’ve added to his burden by having him be my “ears on the ground” since Bongeka started private school. At this point, I can’t do much more than pay the tuition bills – it’s difficult for me to actively monitor and guide a 13-year-old girl half a world away who’s not much of a talker or texter and is still a relative stranger. Their mother has little interest in the kids’ schooling, so he needs to help his sister make the most of this opportunity… and my investment in her

So Mtuseni is languishing in a job that uses none of his communication or radio skills and doesn’t ignite his passion for community service. And he feels trapped by loyalty to the family. It’s admirable and logical for him to take this on, but not really fair. He’s worked hard to pursue a vision of life outside the settlement.

Ideally, what should Mtuseni’s job be? Building his own life. Having a blast. Living out loud. People my age would give anything to be 24 again. When I was in my 20s, I had unlimited energy and my head was full of ideas and possibilities. My future stretched out to infinity. I was sure I’d live forever.

Yet at 24 Mtuseni is already feeling tired and dispirited. This has been putting little cracks in my heart for months. I keep coming back to a photo of him at a City Year training. He radiates pure joy at learning and having new experiences, and his future path seems wide open and bright.

I have tons of pictures of him. Even though it’s not perfectly framed, this is one of my favorites because, well, that face. When he’s passionate and engaged and happy, Mtuseni is magic. I want to … I need to … see that bright, hopeful face again.

Because in the end… given all the external and personal obstacles facing him, helping my young champion recapture and maintain that level of satisfaction and vitality and fulfillment and happiness and hope is my job. I need to get to work.


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They say that attitude plays a big role in a person’s success in life. If this is true, then Bongeka is well on her way.

She’s working this weekend on an application essay for a scholarship at school. Getting one would be another feather in her cap after the five (!) academic awards she won last year. And of course I wouldn’t mind a break from tuition payments.

Writing with Mtuseni has always been like pulling teeth. We’re battling now about him revising his resume. When I told Bongeka to think up some ideas for her essay and work on them this weekend, I sort of let go and hoped for the best. So I was surprised when she sent me a photo this morning of a handwritten essay draft! (I’ve heard that girls are more responsible than boys. Perhaps she will be easier to deal with than Mtuseni … who tests me at every other turn.)

Her essay started a bit soft, with the strongest information buried in the center. She is, after all, only in eighth grade. I sent back some suggestions to move things around and add a couple points –and explained that the best writing comes from revising — and she said “Ok.” If I get a revised draft from her I will be stunned and overjoyed. Mtuseni never revised the writing he sent to me, despite much feedback and discussion and encouragement. He’s very sensitive to criticism and quick to put up walls. The real problem is that he was never really taught to write in high school. I’m hoping that private school will provide Bongeka this critical skill.

Regardless of whether I see a revised essay from Bongeka or if she receives a scholarship, one sentence this morning made me smile and realize that — with help and encouragement — she’ll do okay on her path.

She wrote, “I am brilliant, optimistic, successful, and obedient.”

Given her circumstances, what a fantastic attitude! That is half the battle won. Now, to just keep her safe and healthy and climbing the ladder of learning.

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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