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Boston+Media+House+graduationThroughout this nearly five-year journey with Mtuseni, there have been many circumstances that are strangely uncanny, as if fate has been a major player in this relationship. One example is his wanting to attend a South African college called Boston Media House, when I live 8,000 miles away in Boston, a most American city. A more recent (and less fun) example is the laptop that I bought specifically for our webcam chats when we were first matched by a nonprofit — which died a few hours after I dropped him at the airport this week, apparently signaling the close of this chapter in our lives.

And the most surprising coincidence is that Mtuseni’s graduation from college — our primary mission all these years — fell on the Fourth of July. For this event truly signifies independence in many ways. Like any kid leaving the relatively cloistered environment of college, Mtuseni now enters the real world on his own. I was such a typically American, vocally demanding parent-advocate for him at school that they probably have a dart board with my face in the main office. But I don’t have the same power to move the South African job market in Mtuseni’s favor, and more importantly, I shouldn’t try. The school gave him knowledge and skills, and I gave him wings. Two years ago I watched him and many other kids sing R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly” in a Cape Town karaoke bar. Now with his college diploma in hand, it’s up to Mtuseni to fly solo.

This milestone achievement also marks my own independence, which is bittersweet. In many ways I put my life on hold to make sure Mtuseni got over this finish line, a task that was much more difficult than I ever expected. While I’m excited to pivot back to my own personal journey, and will surely draw upon this experience, it feels a bit sad to relinquish something that required such intense focus and commitment. Indeed, I feel a profound sense of pride, satisfaction and fulfillment in being able to say “mission accomplished.” But the flip side is a slightly empty feeling of “Now what?”

Graduation doesn’t mean the end of Mtuseni and me, but things will change. Even during his visit here last month he seemed much more independent than last year’s visit — much to my occasional frustration and chagrin. But that only means I did my job. For his graduation is not only the culmination of fifteen years in school, it also marks his entry into adult life. And that is a cause for celebration!

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Mtuseni and his proud mom Nester

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Mtuseni with his best college buddy Poloko

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First in the family to graduate college!


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Mom and Miracles

May 10, 2014 — 4 Comments

One lesson I’ve learned over the years with Mtuseni is that it never gets easier. Just when things are going along pretty smoothly, some new problem always comes up. Mtuseni’s internship is going well and he’ll be finished in a couple of weeks. But we can’t lie back and bask in that happy accomplishment…

Annex roomA few days ago, it seemed last weekend’s food-and-gas drama was resolved. So when Mtuseni went home this weekend I figured all was well. But instead there was a new crisis. While he was away his mother Nester had “renovated and expanded” his room. He built the addition to the shack with his brother Moses a few years ago; it had room for his bed, a desk, and the family’s stove. He says now the space is much bigger and very cold. It was never heated, but perhaps the small size held residual heat from the stove. And now there are gaps in the walls where he can see to the outside — and the wind comes right through. It’s fall in South Africa; the temperature tonight will be in the mid-30s. And Mtuseni is worried that rain will leak and get his things wet. He has two laptops and hundreds of dollars worth of clothes from me.

Nester is a sweet woman, but sometimes I look at things she does and wonder if she’s losing her marbles. As Mtuseni said, “Nobody knows how her brain works.” Maybe she’s just stressed. Or exhausted. Given the life she’s lived, I’d have lost it years ago.

But my concern is not laying blame on Nester; it’s Mtuseni’s response to the problem. I told him he needs to find some materials and fix the walls. Winter is coming, and he can’t get sick — or have his stuff ruined. Instead, he said that “I’m not gonna fix anything. God has his plans and I’ll see what happens.” I didn’t text back the expletive that immediately came to mind.

This isn’t the first time I’ve been frustrated with Mtuseni’s passivity in the face of challenges. Perhaps he’s exhausted too. But when a problem arises he’ll just lay back and put it into god’s hands. As he said once “I just keeping pressing PRAY until it works” — which is funny but not a realistic way to live.

Personally, I think some of the entrenched poverty among South Africans is a result of this blind faith. This is not to say the people don’t face incredible obstacles. But prayer and hope aren’t a strategy for success. “Let go and let god” may be fine for alcoholics trying to avoid having a drink, but if you’re trying to rise out of deep poverty you need to do more. Mtuseni has said he wants to make a better life for the family — which is admirable and heartwarming. But if his plan consists of waitin’ on a miracle, he better get used to living in the shack with mom and the kids for a long time.

Mtuseni and I don’t talk religion much. He’s evangelical Christian and it gives him strength, and for that I’m happy. He knows that my personal take on god and religion is to just be a good person while you’re here — and he’s okay with that. I don’t go to church or believe in a formal deity, but given all I’ve done for Mtuseni he knows I’m not destined for the flames of hell.

But it’s time Mtuseni hears the gospel according to Dad. He believes that God will provide for him if he prays hard enough. Maybe that’s true, but God is pretty busy. Hopefully right now he’s focused on the prayers of the kidnapped Nigerian girls and their parents. And I believe the help God provides may not always be so obvious. Sometimes what you get is not a magic solution but a test to help you grow.

Instead of pulling up another blanket and praying for his drafty room to be magically fixed, Mtuseni needs to step up, be a man, and do the job himself. I’ve always been inspired by the simplicity and power of the quote “When you pray, move your feet,” which supposedly is an African proverb. I need to instill this philosophy in Mtuseni. Yes, he has big dreams and deep faith, but to really make progress, he needs to meet God halfway and start making his own miracles.

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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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A Few Words On Love

February 16, 2014 — Leave a comment

Valtentine's-Day-heart-cookiesThe last few weeks were clouded by a real rough patch for Mtuseni and me — which I eventually realized had far more to do with me than with him. Things are back on track, although the ride from here on out will be a little different…and there may be a new face in the driver’s seat. There’ll be more on that later as I sort it all out in my head.

But a brief exchange between us on a chat the other day let me know the train hasn’t gone off the rails. I was teasing Mtuseni about why there was no girl for him to be celebrating Valentine’s Day with. The rare times we touch on his dating life are always marked by a kind of shy false bravado from him — a Casanova in his own mind, perhaps. Which is what I expected in response to my good-natured ribbing.

Instead, he caught me off guard with his reply: “I love you and mom too much. There’s no space for anyone else.” Personally, I haven’t received such nice Valentine’s Day sentiments in a long while, and it was heartwarming to hear after this dark stretch and in the midst of an especially miserable Northeast winter.

Then this weekend Mtuseni posted a new status line on his WhatsApp profile:

“Sometimes I think about people that need my help.”

This from a kid who has almost nothing, and who needs all the help he can get. It was paired with a pensive selfie — one of those rare photos that almost accidentally reveal Mtuseni’s quiet soul. Sometimes I almost feel unworthy of him. At the core — beneath all the brash, crazy, confused, early-20s maleness — is a deeply thoughtful and caring person who often talks about making a real difference in the world. How could anyone not love this kid? (Not that there was any doubt on my part.)

These years with Mtuseni have taught me a lot about love. And ironically that four-letter word played a large role in the last few troublesome weeks. But I guess that’s how love works: It’s a messy, bumpy ride sometimes, but you don’t jump off the train. If you hold on and stick with it, there can be new landscapes and warm sunshine just around the bend.


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