Archives For economy

The Thin Wire

April 6, 2019 — Leave a comment

Mtuseni huhI’ve always been enthralled with Mtuseni’s use of spoken language. I don’t know if it’s just him or is distinct to South African English. Maybe it reflects a way of thinking and translating from his native Zulu language. But in regular conversation his word choice can feel downright poetic.

I remember years ago when he was in school and was having money problems — bigger than the usual money problems he copes with. It was one of the rare times he specifically asked me for more money, in addition to the monthly allowance I gave him. In making his case, he said he was “living on a thin wire.” The phrase evoked a striking image, and was an effective way to communicate his predicament.

 

I was reminded of this image when I woke up the other day and saw his WhatsApp status on my phone:

Meter Mate status crop

Mtuseni works at Meter Mate in a dead end, low paying admin job. He hates it. He was set to have his monthly review this past week. He’d gotten several written warnings about being late for work recently. He told me that Joburg traffic was getting worse, and the rolling blackouts from the failing electric utility adds to the gridlock when traffic signals are out. After three years in the job, leaving home at 6 a.m. to make it to work on time at 8:30, suddenly he’s being hounded for being a few minutes late.

The company treats employees like children. Mtuseni has told me stories of things that management does there that would never be allowed in the US. But in an economy where people are desperate for work, you put your head down and just hope you can hold on to your crappy job. And Mtuseni finally realizes that he’s disposable; there are fifty people who would take his job in a heartbeat, and the company knows it.

Seeing his status message I immediately thought, “Uh-oh.” Surely he’d been fired. My mind went into solution mode… thinking about work alternatives and connections and how I could cover his lost salary for however long it might take him to find another job, which could be months.

And I realized then how much I live on a thin wire with Mtuseni. There’s always something to worry about with him… either a long-term risk in the background or more pressing crises that pop up on a regular basis. Something that can knock him — knock us — off the wire into the abyss.

It’s a hard way to live. It wears on me sometimes, but I only deal with it secondhand; I’m far removed from any direct consequences. I’ve seen how the struggle has affected Mtuseni; his youthful idealism has eroded into a sense of dark resignation.

I’m working on some big plans to relight that magical spark he once had. Mtuseni has always wanted more, has had higher aspirations. Like me, he wants his life to have meaning and a positive impact; that’s something I’ve loved about him from the start.

But life in poverty tends to be lived in shorter time frames, with survival as the goal.

Back to this latest episode on the high wire…

I texted Mtuseni and asked what happened at Meter Mate. There was no response for over an hour, and in that time the wheels turned in my head, thinking of how to help him find a new job, how to make sure he had enough money. Worrying about how his lost income would impact the family, and the blowback from his overstressed mom who blames everything on him. Figuring out how to put a positive spin on the situation so Mtuseni wouldn’t slide into an even darker place.

Then I heard the little WhatsApp chime and thought, “Okay, this is it.” Turns out his boss had died suddenly the night before. That’s what created the “saddest day at Meter Mate.”

His job — at least for now — was safe. But there’s no real sense of relief. Mtuseni’s still walking on the thin wire. And the wind is blowing in every direction. And as always, I’ll be there to catch him.


⇒⇒ You can also see this story — and follow all of my writing, here on Medium.

 

Down… But Not Out

September 30, 2018 — Leave a comment

Oh, the magic of being in your 20s. When life stretches infinitely in front of you and everything seems possible. You’re full of vim and vigor and hope and possibility — and nothing can stop you.

I remember when Mtuseni felt that way. When he was learning and growing in college. When he graduated. When he joined City Year and became a leader and realized his dream of advancing his community. There are pictures of him from those days when I don’t think it’s humanly possible to have a broader, brighter smile.

But that was then. Mtuseni turned 26 last week — and is now in the back half of that magical decade. In America, that age would not be significant. The energy and possibility would still be at full throttle… and progress, in some form or other, would be occurring.

Mtuseni 26But progress is not common for young people in South Africa, and Mtuseni is not immune. In the 2+ years that he’s been at his dead-end admin job, he’s gone from “I can conquer the world” idealism … to an angry young man spouting ideas of revolution … to fatigue, resignation, pessimism, and bitterness.

When we talked the other day, I acknowledged that times were tough there, from what I’d been reading in the news. And I asked him if it was because the country had tipped into recession again. He laughed and said that means nothing. In his typically poetic language he said, “It’s just the day-to-day downfalls. It’s dying times in South Africa.”

National debt. Declining currency. Terrible education. Soaring crime. Political assassinations. Collapsing state-owned utilities and enterprises — like South African Airlines, which we flew to Cape Town, and the South African Broadcasting Company, where he’s wanted to work in radio for years. The country seems like a house of cards–that’s on fire.

No, youthful energy and idealism don’t last forever. Every adult has, or will, come face-to-face with that unfair reality at some point.

But not this soon. Not for my kid. Since the day we met, I’ve been impressed by and enchanted with this inner spark that Mtuseni has. It’s what drove him as a child to master English on his own. To seek out every opportunity to learn and grow. To escape the cycle of poverty and improve his life.

Now that journey has stalled. He’s still in the shack where he moved with his family as a young boy. Still without electricity or running water. Still skipping meals and counting pennies. He’s frustrated. Disappointed. Disillusioned. Crushed.

But that spark is not out. It’s in there somewhere. And I will keep it glowing and fan it to a flame that burns brighter than before. Because the world needs Mtuseni’s spark — and he, like each of us, deserves to feel happy and fulfilled in life.

My life has also felt stalled and stale for some time. I want to recapture the sense of wonder that I had in college, when I was an aspiring filmmaker and everything was amazing and all was possible and life stretched out far beyond the farthest horizon.

NewburyportSo for my son — and for myself — there are changes ahead and big plans in the works that will lift us both up. That will bring back his million watt smile. And rekindle my sense of wonder.

Get ready world. We’re coming.

 

 

 

 

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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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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