Archives For economy

Not-So-Superdad

April 2, 2015 — Leave a comment

IMG_1408When we’re young, we believe our dads are superheroes who can protect us from all types of risk and danger. As fathers, we internalize that all-powerful role. No matter how old our kids are, we like to think that we can always swoop in to their rescue. But with Mtuseni, in many ways I’ve been powerless — and it’s a constant source of stress, anxiety and frustration.

This is not to say I do nothing for him. I put him through school. I send him emergency money and boxes of clothes. I’ve replaced more phones than I care to count. I’ve guided him through academic stumbles and boosted him through crises of confidence.These are the challenges that most dads can handle; they’re part of the basic job description.

The things that are beyond my control are systemic. Being poor in South African, Mtuseni faces problems that I never anticipated and which seem to arise in ever-changing forms. Here’s a sample from the past month:

  • The strong US dollar led the South African government to jack up gas prices this week. This will surely increase Mtuseni’s commute costs, which already take up most of the City Year stipend.
  • Because he leaves so early for his two-hour commute, Mtuseni skips breakfast — and even with cash infusions from me, he can only afford a tiny lunch. He says the two-dollar nutrition bars I tell him to get for breakfast are too expensive. He’s losing weight; even his friends see it. He’s never had one ounce of fat, and I worry if this might be caused by something other than caloric intake.
  • Two weeks ago he saw a bad taxi accident on his way to Joburg and felt nervous. The taxis he rides are notorious for renegade driving, and South Africa has the worst highway fatality rate in the world.
  • After learning at City Year that asbestos is harmful, Mtuseni is afraid to sleep in his wallboard shack — because that’s what his ceiling/roof is made of, which was news to me. He wants the tiles gone, but there’s no money to replace them. Working with them would be dangerous; he built the room with his late brother a few years ago, so he’s already been exposed.

So this is the most recent slate of problems, which are layered on top of ongoing issues. Winter is coming, and Mtuseni can see outdoors through wide gaps in his walls in the unheated shack. Candles used for light have burned down local shacks in the past, and a generator recently leaked gas into his dirt floor. Despite his asbestos worries, I don’t want to tell him that the kerosene lamps they use are equivalent to smoking a daily pack of cigarettes. People in the settlement get sick and die on a regular basis. The family’s gas-powered fridge barely keeps food cool, and Mtuseni seems to have little knowledge of food-borne risks. Living in an informal settlement, there’s always the chance of a forced eviction. On Google maps, new housing developments are springing up near his tiny community; a landowner could sell to a developer and kick everybody out at any time.

I could go on, but it would throw me into despair. And besides, I’m Superdad. I’m all-powerful.

IMG_2269I want to fly in and take Mtuseni away from the shack, put him in a safe, warm house with water and electricity. I want him to have as much food as a 22-year-old guy can eat (and based on his visits to the US, he can eat!). I want to get him a car so he can avoid riding in the dangerous taxis. I want to find him a great job where he’s happy and earning a good living. I want to get his young sister and brother out of the shack and away from the risks of illness and violence. I want to fill all the public schools in South Africa with computers and libraries and qualified teachers. I want all the poor residents to have health and nutrition education and access to quality medical care. I want to ride in on a white stallion and bitch-slap the ANC government to take smart, innovative action to fix the country’s problems, rescuing not only Mtuseni but all the kids in South Africa.

But I’m only one man, and super heroes only exist in the movies. So I do the best I can for my son. In America, that’s usually enough. But when faced with the challenges of raising a kid in a developing country, I feel like the proverbial 98-pound weakling on the beach. Still, Mtuseni is ever grateful for what I do and calls me his magician. I just wish I had more rabbits to pull out of my hat.


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The Next Step

February 15, 2015 — 1 Comment

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Mtuseni finished his first week of orientation at City Year, and he says every day gets better. (He’s the #ecstatic one in front of the logo above.) I’m so thrilled for him — just being out of the shack and doing things and meeting new people is always great for his spirit. But getting focused training and new knowledge is something he laps up like a thirsty mutt. He’s always been laser-focused on self-improvement. And tomorrow he heads for a four-day training camp in Hekpoort, just outside the Magaliesburg mountains. I have to say, City Year really does things right. You can follow them on Twitter and Facebook for updates. You can see the kids are excited and being honored.

So Mtuseni is settled through November, when he graduates from City Year. The next months will still bring challenges with transportation and money, but he’s going to grow so much and come away with great experience, assets, and connections.It’s a weight off my back for now. His lack of progress the past year has been unsettling — though not entirely unexpected given South Africa’s economy.

Bongeka and MusaBut the other day Mtuseni posted a WhatsApp pic of his sister Bongeka and brother Musa. I haven’t seen them since my visit three years ago. They are beautiful, sweet kids — and in the back of my mind I’ve always thought about what and when I might do something to help them. Their situation is bad. Poor farm schooling. Little food and no utilities at home. A shack-tavern next door in the settlement that is shockingly loud. There are so many risk factors facing these two kids, but they’re not statistics. They’re great, polite, well-spoken kids who call me Mr. Mike on the phone, who cherished the cards and gifts I sent back with Mtuseni after his visit last July.

I’m still climbing out of debt from my long-distance son’s college and trip expenses … but in the future, as soon as I can, I want to help Bongeka and Musa. Because if Mtuseni calls me dad, then his sister and brother are in some way my kids too.


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A New Chapter

January 31, 2015 — 1 Comment

City YearMtuseni has been out of classes for 15 months now — and formally graduated from college for seven months. He’s had zero job interviews, although he did help some guy set up a community radio station in the Diepsloot township a few months ago. He even did a few live DJ shifts on the mic, but was disappointed to learn afterwards that the web transmission wasn’t working so he was spinning and talking to himself. He’s been very frustrated the past few months and (naively) thought he’d be employed in a great job by now. The realities of 60 percent youth unemployment are beginning to make sense to him now; the situation in South Africa is dire.

But Monday Mtuseni starts as a Service Leader with City Year Johannesburg! I’m thrilled. This was my fallback idea last year in case he couldn’t find a job; he was unaware of the program. It was founded 25 years ago in Boston and is in many cities across the country. It started in South Africa at Nelson Mandela’s request after he saw the program on a visit to Boston. The exposure to different people, experiences and training is what Mtuseni needs to set himself apart in the job market from so many others with a similar education. And it will give my still-brooding adolescent some needed emotional maturity. I checked out the program’s Facebook page and know he will thrive; I’m even a bit jealous — such a new adventure!

However, Mtuseni is somewhat measured in his response. He was wowed and took tons of photos when we toured City Year headquarters in Boston last summer and met with the VP. But now that he’s in, my impression is that he thinks the program is somehow a step back. Indeed, it’s not a job, though he does get a small monthly stipend. For someone who so desperately wants to escape the settlement and have a normal life with utilities and TV and food and safety… he really wants a job. Yesterday. But so do millions of his peers. I’ve been trying to help him see that the City Year experience will open so many doors for him, will make his resume stand out from others. He gets it on some level, but for someone in his situation — and for any 22-year-old — life can’t move fast enough for all the things he wants.

But he signed his contract and got fitted for his City Year uniform — and after a few weeks training will be assisting at a primary school in Soweto. It will be grueling; it’s full-time and he has a very long commute on Joburg’s packed taxis. He’ll be nervous at first, then fall into his usual mix of cocky and grouchy and committed and thrilled. I’m reminded of the old Peace Corps slogan: “the toughest job you’ll ever love.”

But the ten months will fly and then he’ll join the elite group of City Year alumni at graduation in November, It’s a big deal. Last year the US ambassador to South Africa was there. I will be there, too. Brimming with pride at how far my shy boy in the little yellow high school uniform has come in these few years! And getting ready for another chapter.


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Weight of the World

November 23, 2014 — 3 Comments

Mtuseni Nov 19, 04It’s hard to pinpoint when I reached that state of parenthood where every picture of my kid fills me with love and emotion. It doesn’t matter whether Mtuseni looks happy or grouchy or sick or bored: when I see a new photo of him my heart melts. But the photo he posted on WhatsApp the other day hit me another way. He just looks sad, and it nicked my heart. I asked him later if everything was okay and he said “I’m well” as he almost always does. But I know that with my taciturn son the still waters run very deep. Mtuseni looks like he has the weight of the world on his shoulders — and in many ways he does.

He’s been out of college classes now for a year — and it’s been almost five months since he graduated. He’s shocked that he can’t find a radio job. Not even an interview. Hell, not even a Christmas job. What shocks me is that he somehow thought he’d be handed a job ten minutes after graduation. I’ve told him that college grads in the US don’t even find jobs that quickly, but somehow he thought the very-real accomplishment of finishing college would carve a golden path through the mess of South Africa’s 60 percent youth unemployment rate.

Young people want everything right now, if not yesterday. And when you’re living in a shack, in a settlement where people resent you for opportunities you lucked into, that desire for quick change becomes desperation. There’s no more money from mom — just food and a bed — so his expenses all fall on me, which gnaws at his pride. The nearby community center where he could go online and job hunt no longer has Internet, and there are no library computers or wifi spots around. There’s no secure mail, so that application option is out.He seems to be more cut off just as he needs to be reaching out and branching out.

He’s frustrated and said he feels like South Africa is becoming a joke of the world. I don’t see things there getting much better any time soon. Was I naive and misleading to put him through college, telling him he’d have better opportunities? Even if a great job is far off, the experience helped him grow in so many ways that it was clearly worthwhile. And he’s resourceful and driven. He’s been helping set up a new community radio station in Diepsloot township… for free, but it’s experience. And we’re waiting to hear on his upcoming interview with City Year-South Africa. We met with the VP and toured the headquarters this summer in Boston, and Mtuseni was impressed with the people and the organization’s philosophy.

I’m lobbying hard for him to join City Year because it will greatly expand his network, give him more maturity (and a monthly stipend), and will add an impressive credential to his resume. Mtuseni told me that kind of thinking is a middle-class American luxury, and that when you’re living on the edge you just need a job now.

Because it’s tough being young and carrying the weight of a hard world on your shoulders.


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