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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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Mtu1Last week Mtuseni was chatting with me about City Year and how much he was enjoying it — and I told him how happy that made me. Then he shifted gears and said “But part of me gets nervous.” When I asked why, he said he was worried about diverging from his radio career path by joining the program. I assured him that the door to radio hasn’t been locked shut forever, and that City Year will give him new skills and a broader network for whatever his career might be. I told him to just ride this raft down the river, take in the scenery, and enjoy the experience. He agreed that he would, and seemed to feel better.

Later, I thought about his simple statement to me… “I get nervous.” I could never have said that to my father, or to my mother, at his age or at any age. Growing up in my family, any expression of vulnerability was brushed off, squelched, or criticized. Not that my parents were trying to somehow toughen us up, but just that they couldn’t be bothered. So as a short, chubby, brainy, fey, shy boy, I learned to stuff all my fears, hurts, and insecurities inside. It wasn’t until a couple decades later that I was finally able to let all those dark feelings out in a therapist’s office. But for years, they weighed me down like Jacob Marley’s chains.

I’ve watched Mtuseni grow so much. We’ve had many open, heartfelt talks over the years about his fears and worries, stemming from personal self-doubts to feeling “less than” living in a shack settlement. He’s made enormous strides in terms of confidence; I don’t hear much of the nervous boy I first met. Even though he’s brimming with young 20-something bravado these days, I’m glad that he trusts me enough to share his vulnerabilities. Just being able to express them — and have them validated — can make them float away. I wish I’d had that option at his age.

As always, I feel profoundly blessed that I can share Mtuseni’s moments of success — and his moments of weakness. It reminds us both that not only are we men trying to forge a path through life, we’re merely human. And that’s okay.


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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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Magic Year(s)

September 16, 2014 — 1 Comment

NewburyportLast week I was reading a blog I wrote for a university as an MBA student. The first two posts were written weeks before I met Mtuseni; it was a weird glimpse into my life just before everything changed. My focus then was finally getting a master’s degree — and I was also gonna do this mentoring thing with some kid in South Africa. That seemed like an interesting and noble diversion at the time.

The MBA adventure lasted one semester … not my cup of tea on many levels. And five years later, that “South African kid” is the center of my world.

And he was a kid… barely 17 when we first met. Mtuseni turns 22 today! I can’t believe it. When we talked about his birthday last weekend, Mtuseni said he was getting old. Much as I’d give anything to be 22 again (without today’s twerking, texting, and monotonous hip-hop), he’s right. He’s much older now. He was naive, sheltered, and insecure when we first met… and the guidance and opportunities I’ve provided have helped him to grow and mature in many ways. (Though like any male his age Mtuseni can qualify for a Mr. Knucklehead crown on most days!)

But he is different from five years ago. I’m different. And our relationship is changing. His visit to the US in June made that clear… and we’ve had a bumpy summer of adjustments. For me it’s about letting go, allowing him to sink or swim. For Mtuseni it’s about stepping up and stretching himself even farther, as he takes his college diploma into a dismal South African job market. Two months after graduation, he’s already surprised and frustrated at “how long it’s taking.” Welcome to the real world, son!

But as I told Mtuseni, double-digit birthdays only come around every eleven years — so being 22 is a magic year. I think good things are ahead — for him and for me (although my double-digit birthday comes next fall). Mtuseni’s next adventure may be with a South African chapter of City Year, the US community service program. We met the program’s vice-president at the headquarters here in Boston. Mtuseni was impressed, and he recently met with a program manager in Johannesburg. Applications are due next month. I think he’ll benefit from the leadership training, and will enjoy tutoring kids in the public schools — because he’s always wanted to inspire young people and help make a better future for his country. Could I ask for a better kid young man?

Looking back to that earnest, shy, squeaky-voiced shack boy I met on glitchy video chat way back when, I’d say these past five years have been pretty magic, too!


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