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Life in Two Worlds

April 29, 2014 — 2 Comments

While Mtuseni was in college I marveled at how his mind could accommodate being in the luxe wealth of Sandton during the day — and then going home to a shack with no utilities. The difference was so stark when I visited that it was hard for me to reconcile. He never discussed this dual-life challenge with me, but I know it bothered him. He never wanted any of his college classmates to know how he lived; only in the last semester did his two best buddies come to his house, which made him very happy.

With classes finished, Mtuseni hasn’t been thrust into the wealth of Sandton every day. However, his boredom being home in the settlement makes him the grouchiest person on earth. His mood was always bad on school vacations and I dreaded them, but the reality of a “permanent” vacation in the shack seemed to worsen his mindset. So his finally starting an internship this month was cause for relief and celebration not only because he’d qualify for graduation in July — but because my scowl-faced boy would be happy again.

KasieFM+radio+station+South+africaAnd he has been happy. The community radio station where he’s interning sounds a bit disorganized and there’s not a lot of opportunity for him to do technical stuff. But he’s spoken on air, watches how the DJs and news readers do their jobs, and is enjoying seeing a live radio station in action. He’s even started a Twitter account for his p.m. drive-time crew — and tweets during the program. Follow him here: @motc_kasiefm971

The commute from his settlement to the radio station was difficult — four hours round trip for a 3-hour shift. So last week he began staying with his pastor in Benoni, which is closer to the station. Now Mtuseni is in a nice house with water and electricity and TV, in a suburb famous for its lakes and as the birthplace of actress Charlize Theron. But he adores his little brother and sister, so he went home for the weekend… and back into the darkness.

He was so upset by the visit when we chatted during his commute Monday that I called him after his shift. There was no food in the small gas-powered fridge, and the cooking gas had run out. His mother had no cash because she’s paying off loans she took out for Zulu rituals for his brother Moses’s death and to protect her health. The bank takes money from her monthly check of $200. He was angry with her and with politicians and with apartheid and is desperate to live a “normal life with electricity and a toilet” and to have money for shoes and to get his siblings out of dangerous settlement life. As much as Mtuseni trusts me, he carries a lot inside. He’s a private person and a brooder and the burden weighs heavy. It’s times like these I just want to swoop in and take him away from all of that — but it cannot happen for many reasons.

I think of all the challenges Mtuseni faces every day just to live and to better his situation: skipping breakfast so there’s bread for his siblings to eat, skipping lunch because he doesn’t have money, fixing his shoes with duct tape, studying for exams by candlelight — and already complaining of cold in the unheated shack long before the South African winter begins. And I think of the American college football players who want to unionize because evidently being treated like rock stars on the way to a career in professional sports — with academics an afterthought — is not good enough for them. These delicate athletes are just so put upon and deprived, oh the injustice!

I’ve often said that knowing Mtuseni has completely flipped my perspective in so many ways. He steps back and forth through the looking glass on a regular basis, and it’s damn hard. Perhaps more of us should look on the other side of the glass now and again — to be grateful for all that we do have, and to maybe take action to balance the scales.


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Wake-Up Call

March 28, 2014 — Leave a comment

Boston+Fire+Dept+logoI was watching news coverage of the death of two Boston firefighters in the Back Bay this week. That’s always a sad situation; it can be easy to take for granted that putting your life on the line is part of their job description every day. My roommate in the 1980s dated a Boston firefighter for a while. We were amazed at the difficult things he was expected to do. I couldn’t even walk ten feet with the amount of equipment they carry and wear on the job — today or back then! Never mind entering a burning building.

During a profile of one firefighter, they said he’s been a Big Brother to a teen for seven years. They did an interview with the boy, and I kind of lost it. I know firsthand how special and meaningful that bond can be, especially to the kid. And it made me think about the impact on Mtuseni if anything happened to me.

I worked with a client a few years back who is an estate attorney, and casually asked about the process of making Mtuseni my beneficiary. His being a foreign national means it’s complex and costly. It wasn’t high on my radar, but even then I’d been feeling a larger sense of responsibility for him and his future. Still, getting him through college was the top priority so I never followed through on estate issues. Besides, who wants to think about that stuff?

Watching this 14-year-old kid talk about the loss of his Big Brother — and the love they shared — was a wake-up call for me. I may not be out fighting fires, but we all know anything can happen at any time. And seeing how Mtuseni depends on me, I would never want him to be left wanting if I was gone. So I’ll add estate planning to my schedule … because when someone calls you “dad,” that’s just what you do.

Thoughts and prayers for the firefighters, their families and that poor teenage boy. Boston Strong.

And if you want to help a kid who needs some support, check out the Big Brothers, Big Sisters organization. It will change two lives for the better.


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The Wall Street Journal recently posted a video feature on the Johannesburg suburb of Sandton, calling it Africa’s Manhattan. This is where Mtuseni went to school for the past three years, at Boston Media House.

WSJ Sandton video grab

Click to access the video report.

 

When I went to visit Mtuseni last year, I stayed in Sandton, partly because his school was there. I wanted to see where he spent his days. Also, I had been warned about high crime in downtown Johannesburg and was told that Sandton is clean and safe. And, finally, there were no hotels, restaurants, stores, or much of anything near Mtuseni’s settlement — aside from a regional airport. After paying to fly halfway around the world, with my primary goal getting to spend time with and bond with my newfound long-distance son, I wanted some measure of comfort and safety — as well as fun diversions for the two of us. So Sandton seemed a logical choice.

I hated Sandton. Living in Boston, the ultimate college town, I had pictured the home of Mtuseni’s college to be similar, with lively street life and art galleries and sidewalk cafes and coffeehouses. Instead, it felt like San Jose or any other office park-city in Silicon Valley: shiny and antiseptic. And it was far from Mtuseni’s settlement. With a private driver it took us a good half hour to get there; Mtuseni’s school commute often took about 90 minutes on the minibus taxis, with a changeover in Randburg.

But the difference in miles paled in comparison to the difference in experience and lifestyle. The streets of Sandton were lined with dealerships for ultra-premium car brands, some I never even heard of. The Sandton City Centre-Mandela Square-Galleria mega-mall was an enormous, dizzying labyrinth crammed with high-end designer stores. The wealth was eye-popping. Boston is a wealthy city, but Sandton felt like Beverly Hills wealth.

Annex roomBy comparison, Mtuseni’s settlement of Drummond is a collection of about 50 cinderblock and tin-roof shacks along a dirt road in the middle of a sweeping field near the highway and Lanseria airport. No electricity, no plumbing. No opportunities. Although it was wonderful to meet Mtuseni’s family and finally see where he was during our lengthy text chats and phone calls — inside it made me very sad. It’s one thing to see poverty like that on TV, it’s another to experience it firsthand — and then to know it’s the daily life of somebody you love and care for.

Mtuseni had been staying with me during my visit, but I returned to the hotel alone after visiting his family because he had a major church function the next day. Back in Sandton, my heart and mind couldn’t process the contrast of wealth and poverty I had experienced. It was jarring and I felt a hollow mixture of guilt and despair and grief. I always wondered how Mtuseni handled that dual life the past few years. It was like going from Dorothy’s black-and-white Kansas world to the Yellow Brick Road and Technicolor Oz — and back again. Day after day. I can see why Mtuseni always got grouchy and depressed on school breaks — and with classes over for good, I’m worried about his mood, which can go very dark very quickly. It’s completely understandable.

And yet, this contrast of rich and poor is not necessarily separated by great distances. Sandton’s luxe malls are only a couple miles away from Alexandra — a dense township of nearly 200,000 people in tightly packed shacks on narrow alleys. It’s been there a long time; I was surprised to read about it in Cry, the Beloved Country, which was published in 1948. My driver took me past Alex on the way to my hotel from the airport when I first arrived. It felt like it went on forever. Some of Mtuseni’s friends from school lived there — and they had electricity and even Internet access. I used to tell him to “borrow” some electricity and Internet from them for school work, but Mtuseni said his mother didn’t like him going there because of the crime. On times he did go there, he was made to feel like an intruder; being from a rural settlement, Mtuseni is viewed as lower class by some township folks. And from the streets of Alex you can see the gleaming towers of Africa’s Manhattan. They are not far-off … yet they are worlds away.

Being the Wall Street Journal, the report gushes about Sandton’s wealth and growth. Only toward the end is the topic of poverty in such close proximity raised, in an indirect reference to Alexandra. The white South African woman in the video matter-of-factly says “Oh, we’ve grown used to living amongst such conditions of poverty.” It didn’t seem to faze her. She doesn’t talk about fixing it. Maybe you have to turn your mind off to it, living there every day. I can’t seem to do that back here.


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Rounding the Turn

November 1, 2013 — Leave a comment

South Africa matric resultsIt’s hard to believe that three years ago this week Mtuseni was starting his national matric exams to graduate from high school and hopefully score high enough to qualify for tertiary school. We had also just ended our weekly webcam sessions as his nonprofit program was shut down — and were entering the uncharted waters of a mentoring relationship conducted mainly through phone texts. I’d told him a few weeks earlier that I would pay for his college and was in it for the long haul, but in the back of my mind lurked an understanding that it could all be a lot shorter than my idealistic visions. If he failed his matrics, it could be over in a few weeks.

And now here we are — in the closing days of Mtuseni’s final semester.

We’ve weathered many storms along the way. Like the grade of 20 on his first college test, which shocked him and made me think “Uh-oh.” The lonesome first semester that Mtuseni called “the darkest days of life,” when my shy little man had no friends in school and wanted to quit. The meltdown failure in his Excel class, which led to the out-of-the-blue savior of Jacquie’s weekend class and her continuing support for both him and me. And the ongoing money challenges, health scares, and family tragedies which I’ve learned come with the territory of Mtuseni’s life in poverty.

When you live in an environment that has little understanding of your experience and aspirations, it can lead to self-doubt, insecurity, and second-guessing. Mtuseni’s mom doesn’t ask about school, only whether he passes each semester. People in his settlement community seem to resent his new life experiences and wider circle. And the complex dynamics of racism — which are slowly being revealed to me as layers peel back — take a toll on him. I’ve given him so many pep talks there should be a varsity sweater and set of pom-poms in my closet. Still, I was surprised when early this year Mtuseni said he wanted to switch majors to journalism for his last year. He’s a good writer (when he applies himself — ahem!) and writing can be a valuable skill in so many career paths. But his dream since our early webcam sessions was to work in radio.

When I asked why he wanted to switch, Mtuseni said he was nervous about learning the Pro Tools and Logic sound editing software, and felt more comfortable and safe doing writing. I acknowledged his writing ability, but assured him he could learn the software; it was no different from his early confusion learning PowerPoint. I told Mtuseni that the decision on a major was entirely his to make, and I’d support him either way. But that the important thing was to not make a decision based on fear and doubt. To ask himself honestly what his dream was — not his fear — and to act on that. A couple days later he decided to stay on track with radio.

He’s been a busy bee this semester — resulting in almost total “radio silence” with me the past few weeks. His class did a Hell Week assignment where they “ran” a live radio station within the school. This week Mtuseni was assessed by his instructor as he worked in the booth. Today he did a group presentation, “applying” for a new radio station license from ICASA — South Africa’s version of the FCC. The group just needs to record the application’s sample programs and they’re finished. Then I think he takes his Entrepreneurship exam in a week or so, and is all done with classes.

We still have a lot of work ahead. Mtuseni needs to do an internship before graduating in June. (Anyone with leads in the Johannesburg radio industry is free to review Mtuseni’s LinkedIn profile and make contact.)

But most of the hard work is finished. And Mtuseni, of course, did the vast majority of it. I just paid the bills, cracked the whip, and shook those pom-poms. He sent me some pics a few weeks ago taken during Hell Week. Whenever I see Mtuseni’s bright smile in any photo, my heart simultaneously swells and melts. But given our journey these past few years, this smile just feels a bit more special.

Boston+Media+House+radio

Boston+Media+House+radio

 

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