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Double Trouble

March 17, 2017 — Leave a comment

I always shut my phone off at night because I don’t want notifications to wake me up — a high risk with South Africa being six or seven hours ahead of US Eastern time. When I turned it on this morning I heard a quick series of chimes all from WhatsApp. Usually that means Mtuseni has sent me a bunch of photos.

But not this time… The first message was from Mtuseni, telling me he’d been in a “little car accident” when driving to work. (Since he normally takes jitney taxis, I’m not yet sure how this scenario occurred.He doesn’t have a car.) He said he’s “completely fine” so not to worry about him. We texted briefly this morning, and I learned it was his fault — just a rear-ender in traffic, but the car isn’t insured. I don’t know how that works in South Africa in terms of covering damage. But seeing the word “car accident” is always a bit unsettling… and roadways in Johannesburg are notoriously dangerous. He better have been wearing his seat belt!

Following that was a series of messages from Bongeka. She got a heads up about a school field trip to see a play in Pretoria. Only the first 65 students from Grades 7, 8, and 9 who pay the fee will get to attend. She asked ,”May you please pay for me because I’d like to be part of the theater.” I’ve almost always paid her school costs, or Mtuseni will pay for small things I’m not aware of. But now that I’m directly connected to Bongeka via WhatsApp, I hear firsthand about this “first come, first served” event. It was typical of her… sweet and polite.

So I woke up to a kid who got into his first fender bender and another kid asking for money for a school event. Gave me another little insight into the parenting game. (And there’s still one more kid to come!)


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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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The Next Step

February 15, 2015 — 1 Comment

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Mtuseni finished his first week of orientation at City Year, and he says every day gets better. (He’s the #ecstatic one in front of the logo above.) I’m so thrilled for him — just being out of the shack and doing things and meeting new people is always great for his spirit. But getting focused training and new knowledge is something he laps up like a thirsty mutt. He’s always been laser-focused on self-improvement. And tomorrow he heads for a four-day training camp in Hekpoort, just outside the Magaliesburg mountains. I have to say, City Year really does things right. You can follow them on Twitter and Facebook for updates. You can see the kids are excited and being honored.

So Mtuseni is settled through November, when he graduates from City Year. The next months will still bring challenges with transportation and money, but he’s going to grow so much and come away with great experience, assets, and connections.It’s a weight off my back for now. His lack of progress the past year has been unsettling — though not entirely unexpected given South Africa’s economy.

Bongeka and MusaBut the other day Mtuseni posted a WhatsApp pic of his sister Bongeka and brother Musa. I haven’t seen them since my visit three years ago. They are beautiful, sweet kids — and in the back of my mind I’ve always thought about what and when I might do something to help them. Their situation is bad. Poor farm schooling. Little food and no utilities at home. A shack-tavern next door in the settlement that is shockingly loud. There are so many risk factors facing these two kids, but they’re not statistics. They’re great, polite, well-spoken kids who call me Mr. Mike on the phone, who cherished the cards and gifts I sent back with Mtuseni after his visit last July.

I’m still climbing out of debt from my long-distance son’s college and trip expenses … but in the future, as soon as I can, I want to help Bongeka and Musa. Because if Mtuseni calls me dad, then his sister and brother are in some way my kids too.


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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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