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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.

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Walking the Talk

February 26, 2017 — 1 Comment

Mtuseni told me a couple years back that his sister Bongeka was smart. And he was worried about both his young siblings languishing in the underfunded, overcrowded, unheated, public farm school that he attended. Although I was hesitant about committing to put the kids through private school — for far longer than Mtuseni’s three years of college — I also knew from his stories and the media how bad South Africa’s public schools are. Still, I figured I had some time since the kids were both fairly young.

But one day Mtuseni said he found Bongeka crying outside the settlement because kids were bullying and ostracizing her because she was smart. I know all-too-well the pain of being bullied. I couldn’t let this sweet girl suffer — and certainly not for being a good student! So I quickly got her into Meridian, a private school not far from her settlement. After a rocky first term, she bounced back, lost her shyness and grew more confident, and in many classes earned grades higher than Mtuseni ever got.

But my knowledge of her first year was all second-hand — report cards and discussions with her principal. I wondered how “smart” she really was, and who I would be dealing with for the long haul toward graduation. Since being able to chat with her directly this year (and for the first time) on WhatsApp, I’ve quickly realized that I have a committed potential little star on my hands. Her texts are so articulate and have a surprisingly sophisticated and mature humor… for a girl who just turned 14. It’s like chatting with a mini-adult. By contrast, when I first connected with Mtuseni at 16, he was an immature, yet earnest, goofball — one reason I quickly fell in love with him.

But Bongeka is much more serious and focused. What kind of eighth grader posts this as their social media status?…

go and get success

 

And when I asked her on Friday if she had a fun weekend planned, I got this response.

saturday school

Hmmmm… Saturday school wouldn’t seem to be at the top of any kid’s fun list.

Bongeka told me the name of the school and I looked it up. It’s a pretty swanky private school nearby. This morning she told me that they learned about atoms and molecules yesterday. But it’s not just for science. It’s also for English and math. This extra Saturday school is free, runs for several weeks, and is not associated with her regular school. Her mother didn’t sign her up. Going to school on Saturdays “for more learning” was Bongeka’s idea!

This kid is gonna go far. I’m eager to see where that energy and commitment will lead. The challenge will be keeping Bongeka healthy, safe, and secure in the horrible settlement environment. Looks like more rollercoaster times for me ahead…


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The Last Child

February 19, 2017 — Leave a comment

It’s common knowledge that the first kid in a family is lavished with attention and has hundreds of photos documenting their every waking moment. And the last child in the pack gets almost nothing in comparison because the parents are exhausted, life gets busy, and that initial thrill is gone. TV family sitcoms often joke about this: It’s funny ‘cuz it’s true.

Which brings me to Musa — the youngest of the Mdletshe kids who just started sixth grade. As Bongeka gets more involved in school and ventures deeper into that “teenage girl” phase, she’ll have less space for a pesky little brother. Mtuseni is exhausted from work and a grueling commute, so he’s paid less attention to Musa lately.

He sent me a photo of a letter Musa wrote to him for Valentine’s Day. Mtuseni said he was more shocked by the handwriting than the sentiment. Mtuseni said it’s the first thing written by Musa — a rambunctious kid who disdains school and reading — that he could actually decipher.

musa-letter-2017

The handwriting is beautiful. But what struck me was the message. Their father walked out when Mtuseni was 16. Musa was only 2, so he’s never really known having a father in the home. The oldest son Moses left with the father. He returned about two years later, which likely was fun for Musa. But a few months later Moses was killed by a car — a victim of poor education, unemployment, and alcoholism. Another loss for a small boy.

What I get from Musa’s letter is a lot of honest love, which is universal in that family. But I also hear a small voice saying, “Please don’t desert me.”

Mtuseni feels torn. He desperately wants to leave the shack and start building his own adult life. The environment in the settlement is terrible, worse than it was even a few years ago. He’s nervous about the kids getting caught up in stuff if he leaves. He told me of girls Bongeka’s age who are pregnant by adult men — and boys Musa’s age who quit school and drink and smoke dope. He wants to shield them, to save them from these risky influences. He feels he should be the father to them, the man of the house. But the strain is wearing on him; I see it and hear it all the time now.

I’ve told Mtuseni that he can’t sacrifice his own life for the kids, and that mom will be able to manage them; parenting is her job, not his. But she’s 53, working a physical job for a pittance, living without electricity or water, and struggling to pay for food as inflation takes its toll. Even in the best situations, most parents lose focus with the last child. For Mtuseni’s sake, I want him to leave the settlement as soon as possible. For the kids’ sake, I kinda want him to stay.

musa cosmo fundayI had planned to get Musa into private school with Bongeka this year. But after completing my section of the application, the family never completed it despite my repeated reminders. So I let it slide. Bongeka’s first year at Meridian was more complicated and expensive than I anticipated — and I wasn’t eager to double the effort with another kid.

But seeing Musa’s heartfelt letter … remembering how he shyly clung to me when we met several years ago … seeing that munchkin’s grin at Bongeka’s school fair last June … and knowing the risks he faces — makes me realize that I need to get him into that school and on a focused path next year. I cannot let him fall victim to his community — or to “forgotten last child” syndrome.

On sitcoms, and in real life, the last kid usually turns out okay. But in South Africa, being a forgotten child is a recipe for disaster. Sadly, Moses wasn’t able to escape it. I have to make sure that my little man Musa does.


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A Valentine’s Surprise

February 15, 2017 — 1 Comment

I awoke this Valentine’s to a WhatsApp “hello” from Mtuseni’s sister Bongeka. I’ve been grappling for six weeks to get her the mandated tablet for Grade 8 students… along with a SIM card and data plan. Having no electricity at home, she certainly doesn’t have WiFi. Her school principal said Bongeka told her she really needed data so she could “do research” at home. The principal figured it was more about her ability to chat with school friends. LOL….  teenagers!

I was also looking forward to Bongeka getting connected to have direct contact with her. Her first school year was frustrating because I had no contact and only got minimal updates about her from Mtuseni — who gets more taciturn as he gets older — and periodic calls with her principal. Knowing that their mother expresses little interest in their school activities, I’ve been eager to find out what she’s doing, how she’s feeling, and to be her champion. After all, I’m invested in her for at least the next five years through graduation.

So I was happy and excited to hear my WhatsApp chime and see her name and a little “Hi sir.” (Mom may not be big on schooling… due to her own background and illiteracy… but she certainly raises the most polite kids.) I haven’t seen Bongeka in five years. She is still very sweet but also very bright and grown up. She used big words — spelled correctly — in her texts. She is also excited about learning and doing well. As I mentioned in a previous post last year, Bongeka was being teased and ostracized in the settlement for being smart. (Dumb kids!) So I went on a mission to get her into a private school, and last year after a bumpy first term she totally blossomed at Meridian School.

bongeka-first-text

So we chatted a bit yesterday, and then again this morning as she went home from school to do a project for her technology class. She needed to draw a functioning roof truss — and explained to me what a truss is. I’m excited to be hearing about her daily experiences, and hope I can fill in the support gaps for her as I did for Mtuseni. I know it will be different with a girl, but as her principal said to me today “I’m eager to see how far she flies.”


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