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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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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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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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