Archives For maturity

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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Cookie Power

April 26, 2015 — 3 Comments

Valtentine's-Day-heart-cookiesWhen Mtuseni and I decided to continue our relationship when the nonprofit that connected us folded, I envisioned frequent connection via numerous paths, including the mail. Because he lives in a settlement with limited, insecure mail service, I rented him a PO box at a chain of copy shops so I could send him cards and letters and small gifts. I soon learned about the corruption of South Africa’s postal service, as some cards and small parcels sent by first class mail never made it to him; they just vanished. One properly addressed card came back to me via boat, bent and tattered, eight weeks later.

I learned that the only safe option was US express mail. This is not only crazy expensive, but a logistical obstacle course. Express mail (which becomes South African service in-country) doesn’t deliver to Mtuseni’s area, so packages must be addressed to him care-of someone in Johannesburg proper. They get a slip, Mtuseni takes it to the post office, he pays a tariff, and they give him the package. If they can find it. They’ve never lost a package, but sometimes I need to call and email to figure out where the box is being held and, one time, what shelf it was on. The package usually gets to South Africa in three days — and then can float in limbo for a couple weeks. The word “express” seems to have a different meaning in there.

It’s a hassle, but worth hearing his reaction and offering something more tangible than text bytes. South African law only allows him to receive two packages from me per year, so I make the most of it … following a loose interpretation of the ridiculously low allowable rand value for items sent. The mainstay is clothes, since he has so little and can’t look like a poor shack boy out in the world. I also include cards, letters, sometimes toiletries or vitamins. Not only does this help him, but it frees up money for his mom to spend on the household or the other kids. I’ve also sent stacks of photos from his visits here, because pictures on a laptop aren’t the same as ones hung on his wall.

A few years ago, I sent him a batch of cookies. He was surprised that I had “bought so many,” and more surprised — and impressed — when I said I had baked them myself. As they have no oven in the shack, Mtuseni doesn’t get homemade cookies very often. Given that he had about six dozen cookies, I was surprised he didn’t share them with the family. I’ve learned over the years how life in the settlement is pretty much every man for himself.

Each time I get ready to send a package, Mtuseni gets very excited. But the last couple times he seemed more concerned about the cookies than the clothes. I laughed to myself and thought, “Hell, next time I’ll save a ton of money and just send cookies.”

IMG_1908A few weeks ago I sent a box with photos from last year’s trip, drawings from my nieces, pants, sweaters, and the required black belt and hats for his City Year uniform — and a big batch of his favorite oatmeal cookies with raisins, cranberries, and walnuts. He’s been so busy — and tired — with City Year that we only talked a bit about the box when he received it. It made me sad when he said that he wanted to save his cookies for “hard times.” His money has been tight with long commutes and having to buy meals, but I told him to just eat them and know I’d keep him safe from hard times, at least in terms of food. He said he would and fell asleep mid-chat, as he often does.

So the other day I asked him how the cookies were. He said, “They help me to relax and be happy.” And then I finally understood why the cookies seem to be the most important part of the package for him, and why he doesn’t share them. They’re not just sweet treats, but something I made made especially for him. Despite having real pride for and commitment to South Africa as his home, life there weighs heavily on Mtuseni — from the personal challenges of poverty to the lack of jobs for young people. With the recent xenophobia attacks and a teachers strike that has affected his City Year school, Mtuseni said last week “It’s bad in this town.” But he keeps forging on, for his future and for the country.

And when he gets home to his small bed in the unheated, wallboard shack with the dirt floor, it makes me glad to know that a few simple cookies can give him some solace and strength — and help him feel loved.


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A Red Letter Day

April 11, 2015 — Leave a comment

City+Year+Johannesburg+South+Africa+red+jacket

Mtuseni has been in nonstop training at City Year Johannesburg since the first week of February. I’ve been impressed by the broad range of ideas and people and organizations he’s been exposed to. More importantly, I’ve been a little amazed at how much Mtuseni has embraced the experience. He was on the fence his first week, and I just held back and let him find his way. Now he says that he’s learning more than he did in college and wants to work for the organization for years. He was even elected captain of his team!

Friday’s Red Jacket Ceremony marked the culmination of the training, where service leaders are officially inducted into the City Year family, which includes programs in 37 US cities and London. Mtuseni said it was one of the best moments of his life; he seemed to appreciate it even more than his college graduation. He told me it was “a beautiful thing, seriously” that gave him “a feeling of belonging.” For a settlement “shack boy” who is low on the South African social hierarchy, every experience of being welcomed and acknowledged cannot be understated.

IMG_2870I was surprised and happy to see that Mtuseni’s mom Nester attended the ceremony, even though he says she doesn’t really understand what he’s doing. I hope she realizes that the program is opening long-term career paths and connections for him; it’s a different mindset when you have little education and have only done menial work all your life to survive and raise a family. But it’s nice to see her smiling and proud next to Mtuseni; particularly when her eldest son Moses would have turned 26 on Monday. With him gone, Mtuseni is now the man of the family, and he quietly carries that responsibility and burden. Any work he does to better himself is with the hope of one day providing a better life for mom and the kids.

IMG_2876The impressive thing about Mtuseni is that — despite having so little — he’s always wanted to contribute something to the community, to make a difference in people’s lives. On Monday, when he starts working with primary school kids in Tembisa township for the next seven months, he’ll begin realizing his dream.

Whether he utilizes his college training and pursues a radio career in the future, who knows? But all a parent wants is for their kid to be happy, to feel like they matter, like they belong. Seeing Mtuseni’s deep commitment, abundant enthusiasm, and vibrant smile for his City Year experience gives me the best feeling I’ve had in a long time. My work with him is not finished, but I’ll admit to sitting back these past few weeks, letting out some major sighs and a few tears, and telling myself, “You did it. Well done.”


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iPhones in the ‘Hood

March 17, 2015 — 3 Comments

IMG_1656I will always remember my freshman sociology professor in the late 70s talking about why blacks in the ghetto often drove fancy Cadillacs: because they wanted to look important out in the world. (It was part of a lecture on how we present ourselves in society.) The liberal but somewhat naive middle class suburbanite in me winced — intellectually accepting the concept yet still thinking it was ultimately racist. But over the years I had friends from the black community who validated that thinking. Basically, being in a nice car out in the world, nobody knows how deprived your home life is.

Today, that “Caddy in the ‘hood” concept seems to have been replaced by technology. Or at least that’s the case in South Africa. Mtuseni is always raving about Apple this and Apple that. Although I have an iPhone (mainly because the antennas are better … and I still use the phone to actually make calls), I think Apple products are overpriced and over-precious — and I was a huge Mac person from the mid-80s. But Mtuseni can’t resist the company’s endless hype — or, lately, the peer pressure.

This kid goes through phones like potato chips. In the five years I’ve known him, I’ve had to buy him three. (I’m on my third phone in 12 years.) Though I balk every time and threaten “never again,” he can’t be without a phone because it’s our lifeline. So I always buy him a new phone.

Last fall his Blackberry was dying and their cheap data plan was being phased out, so he had to get a non-Berry phone. With almost zero wifi in the country and no more easy Internet access at college, he needed to upgrade to a smart phone to answer emails. Mtuseni can’t afford a monthly contract plan, and I couldn’t cover it because South Africa no longer takes credit card numbers from out of country — and god knows how much data he’d burn through with an open contract anyway! So I had to buy Mtuseni a full-price phone. He did some research and found an inexpensive Samsung model. And he loved it — for a while. But now all his new friends at City Year, who are better off financially, have iPhones. So he’s been griping about how bad his phone is and dropping not-so-subtle hints about an iPhone. His Samsung is barely six months old!

Yesterday he texted me some new Apple program offering “discounted” old iPhones in South Africa. I snapped and told him I’m sick and tired of hearing about phones. He got pissy and went to sleep — and I felt terrible. We hit these impasses sometimes, and they’re always resolved. One of the greatest things I’ve learned through Mtuseni is that it’s possible to have conflict and maintain a relationship. Coming from a family where people haven’t spoken to each other for years over long-forgotten slights, that realization is a game changer for me.

But it doesn’t change my mind on the phone issue. Like most parents, it’s a constant juggling act for me to cover my own bills, pay off Mtuseni’s tuition debt, and contribute to his expenses. But my main concern is that he has enough money to eat nutritious meals during the day and have warm clothes in his unheated shack during the coming South African winter. Whether he has a sexy bells-and-whistles phone for all to see is probably at the very bottom of my list. I bought him more clothes last week than I’ve bought myself in five years. He’ll survive with a lowly Android phone.

Fortunately Mtuseni is not particularly materialistic; he’s much more interested in helping others and his values are in the right place. Still, he’s not completely immune from the desire to keep up with the Johannesburg Joneses.


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