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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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Last week I was riding my bike past the elementary school that my sisters attended. A little munchkin came out the front door wearing a backpack bigger than him. The guy picking him up asked earnestly, “So how was it? Did you like it?” It was obviously the kid’s first day; he seemed more interested in sliding down the banister of the front steps. Freedom!

I thought how that kid is embarking on a long educational adventure, and how the school surely has a fully-stocked library and computers in every room and well-trained teachers. And he’s attending school in a high-performing state. A recent New York Times article discussed the stringent public school academic standards in Massachusetts, noting that the students rank second in the world in science. That little munchkin probably has a good future.

St. Ansgars Combined SchoolAnd then I thought about the K-12 farm school where Mtuseni’s little brother and sister go. It’s a public school with no library. No computers. No heat. Mtuseni told me on his visit here that the teachers regularly use corporal punishment — even in grade 12 sometimes he got a “switch across the bum.” Girls only get a ruler across the knuckles.

If anyone needs to get whacked, it’s the South African politicians and administrators who allow the pitiful state of the country’s public education to continue.

I read a recent blog post by a guy in South Africa, who reprinted an open letter to the country’s education system. It’s sad to read — and even sadder because it accurately reflects the situation that Mtuseni and his siblings and peers face. Despite having an inquisitive and thoughtful mind, Mtuseni entered Boston Media House poorly prepared for college. And in some ways we are still playing catch-up to get him ready for life after graduation. And I have a feeling that little Bongeka and Musa are in worse shape than we was in terms of academics…

The opening to Khaya’s education post is below.

Dear South African education

August 21, 2013 (originally appeared on the Cape Times 03-26-2012)

I am an average South African student, meaning that last year I was in matric and am now in a prestigious university. I studied and worked hard in order to leave my school in the rural areas in the Eastern Cape so that I can study in a university, so that I can get a good education because I’d like a great job, which will be a first for my village.

Let me give you an idea of the school I come from. Some of the classes have broken windows and that means that we either cover the broken windows with cardboard or hardboards. But that does not prevent the cold from coming in during winter, or the wind from blowing papers all over the classroom. When it rains, the classes get wet.

Some new buildings have been added to the school but it’s the administration building and not much new with the classrooms themselves. Sometimes the teachers don’t come in class to teach and there is very little discipline in the school. My school has no library. The first time I saw a library was when I came to university. I’d seen pictures of libraries in magazines and when watching tv from one of the neighbour’s houses.

Click here to read the rest.

One comment on the post broke my heart; I hope it’s not accurate…

country is dying


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vintage+Chevy+BelAirEven though he returned almost three weeks ago, I’m still parsing the experience of Mtuseni’s visit. There is a lot to digest and try to understand — along with continuing fallout that currently has us at loggerheads like never before. I do believe my 20-year-old is finally turning 15, emotionally if not chronologically. Am I ready for the battles and pushback ahead? I don’t know. I’m not looking forward to it, that’s for sure. But if this is the necessary psycho-dynamic that must play out for him to become a man — and which he missed having no father around for most of his teenage years — then I guess I’ll strap on my whitewater gear and ride these churning rapids. As I’ve said before, I hate carnival rides!

In the meantime, the New York Times posted an interesting Room for Debate feature this weekend offering different perspectives on the future of South Africa and its economy. I found it surprising that none of the primary contributors addressed the issues of poor education and lack of Internet access — two issues I have described frequently here myself. I added my comments to the discussion. Check out the feature for some perspective on the challenges facing the country.

Source: New York Times

Click to access discussion. — Source: New York Times