Archives For MXit

Asus+laptopSo the other day — finally — Mtuseni got his laptop fixed after the infamous butt(head) incident of last October. I mean, really, it takes a supreme knucklehead to sit on an almost-new laptop and break the LED screen.

I had warned Mtuseni that buying him a laptop was a one-and-done proposition. If he broke it, lost it, or had it stolen, that was it; there wasn’t going to be another one. I said this merely to put the proverbial fear of god into him, to drive home the message that a laptop isn’t like a wallet (which he left on the bus), or an angel charm (which he lost), or a cell phone (also lost), or knock-off RayBans from Cape Town (stolen/lost). I never thought I’d be faced with following through on my threat, but so goes life with my boy/man.

In reality, I couldn’t stand by the one-and-done principle, because it is impossible in this modern age for a college student to not have a computer. But, man, I was pissed. Mtuseni was achingly apologetic for the mistake, but what lesson would he learn if I just “caved” and fixed the laptop?

Luckily, he got a summer job working as a campus assistant. I talked to the school administrator and found out what it paid (and held my tongue hearing he’d make $10 for a full day). But working for six weeks in January and February, he’d have a decent sum of money — so I told Mtuseni that he would have to contribute to the repair cost (which at R2750 … or about $295 … was almost what I paid for the thing new).

Boston+Media+House+class+laptopI had a figure in my head for how much he should pay, but I asked him what he thought was fair. Mtuseni and I have differing views on the value of money, clearly reflecting our different financial situations. He’ll freak out over 8 rand, which is only 1 dollar. But this is understandable given his level of poverty. Still, I needed his share of the repair to take a bite — not to punish him for breaking the laptop, but to take some responsibility for it and — here come the parental cliches — to understand that money doesn’t grow on trees and that I’m not an ATM machine. The few little jobs he’s had have always provided him with play money. Working long days on campus only to have it go to fixing the laptop would help him understand the value of money.

Given his perspective, I fully expected Mtuseni to offer about R100 towards the R2750 repair — and for me to counter with a lecture about money and responsibility and other obnoxious dad stuff. So I was stunned and impressed when he offered to pay R1000! For a kid who was in crisis mode last year when his daily taxi fare was raised R4 — 48 US cents — this was a huge sum of money. I didn’t make a big deal out of his offer, but simply accepted it and said it was fair.

(A couple weeks later, when his mom’s salary was reduced from R2000 to R1500 … $168 a month … I cut back Mtuseni’s share of the repair to R500. That’s still about $50 and a week’s pay from his campus job… enough to sting.)

So after a typical SA slow-motion service experience with Asus, Mtuseni finally took the laptop in last week. I wired him my share of the repair fee, and he paid cash and picked it up yesterday. And I woke up to the following message from him on Mxit…

Hey bud, thank you very much for bailing me out. Now I know the feeling of paying up. I feel like u have given me a responsibility. I actuali feel proud.

That response to shelling out a lot of his own money to fix a broken laptop is not something you’d hear from most of today’s spoiled and entitled youth. Set aside the knucklehead stuff that’s rampant among boys his age, and Mtuseni continues to amaze me with his integrity and honor and growing sense of maturity. Was this an expensive lesson? Yes, for both of us. But I think it helped move him another step closer to the upstanding man I know he will be. And, as always, I’m proud of him too.

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Twist and Shout

February 10, 2013 — Leave a comment

This morning Mtuseni and I were chatting on Mxit, our primary mode of dynamic, immediate conversation. We were discussing “the laptop situation” — which after taking six weeks to get a damn repair quote, the amount with VAT is so high the strategy is just to get him a new one. Then, as I told him, we can figure out how to set him up with a G3 attachment so he can go online — and hopefully finally we can video chat on Skype.

As Mtuseni said, “It feels like years since we’ve seen each other.” I agree. It’s only been a year since I was in South Africa, but often I miss him terribly. I told him how video chatting erases the sense of distance. And he replied, “It also minimizes the shouting.” When I asked what he meant, he said “You never shout at me during video conferences.”

This struck me funny… for a couple of reasons. First, all of the “shouting” he alludes to occurs via Mxit. It’s interesting how he reads my stern directions and criticisms as “shouting” — and I don’t even USE ALL CAPS, which is text vernacular for yelling. He can get very upset when I’m firm with him, sometimes responding with anger or frustration and sometimes with heartfelt contrition. Mtuseni’s very sensitive, and I always have to tread a fine line with him — blending unconditional dad love with the high demands and expectations of a coach before the Big Game.

But what really caught me this time is how he links our text chatting with shouting — and he remembers our long ago video chats with no shouting. Indeed, this is true — but the circumstances have changed markedly.

In our several months of weekly video chats three years ago, we were just getting to know each other. He was in high school, and I had little understanding of his plans or  situation. (It took over a year before he opened up about the extent of his poverty.) So it was all just easy social bonding, which continued and strengthened over long Mxit chats when the video program shut down.

But fast-forward two-plus years, and there’s a lot on the line. Mtuseni is entering his last year of college, and I’ve been trying to prepare him for the world of job hunting and employment. Partly out of him just being a 20-year-old, know-it-all knucklehead — and partly out of South African culture issues — this hasn’t been going as well as it should. It’s frustrating and worrisome. American college kids have solid academics and face a competitive but not impossible job market. Yet they still push to network, craft solid resumes and practice interview skills to improve their chances after graduation.

By comparison, Mtuseni has a substandard high school education, marginal computer skills, extremely limited access to media and information, a less-than-stellar junior tech college program — and is facing a truly dire youth employment situation. The clock is ticking. He should be doing the additional prep work that his US peers do, and then some. He thinks going to college is enough. It isn’t in the US, and it sure isn’t in South Africa. Every country has college graduates who never manage to grab the brass ring.

I’ve got too much time, money, and heart invested in Mtuseni to watch him falter and become a disillusioned unemployment statistic. So for now I press and push and “shout.” And if he doesn’t step up, he’ll hear — and see — some shouting via webcam. Hopefully he’ll get on track before we get his G3 service up and running.

Do I long for those early, easy days of “shout-free” webcam chats? Of course. But for right now, Mtuseni and I have much bigger issues to address. And some day, when our hard work and focus have resulted in him having a good job, I can put away my Bad Cop uniform… and I can listen to him gripe about being shouted at by his boss!

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The closet science geek in me is always fascinated by the fact that, living in different hemispheres, Mtuseni and I experience opposite seasons. Right now South Africa is in the height of summer, while New Englanders anticipate Groundhog Day as the first milestone toward the end of winter’s wretchedness. No, I am not a fan of the cold … and neither is Mtuseni, who will complain about it come July.

Each summer that I’ve known Mtuseni has been a different experience for him… and for me. Three years ago, shortly after we were matched by the mentor group, he was on break before senior year and had no access to the webcam — so we had a long stretch without contact. The next year, before he started Boston Media House, was our first summer after the webcam program shut down, but with the freedom of 24/7 chatting on Mxit. We literally spent hours a day chatting, and with the East Coast being seven hours behind South Africa during our winter months, he’d sometimes catch me at midnight as he was waking up and we’d chat until I couldn’t keep my eyes open. That first Mxit summer solidified our relationship as we got him prepped for college.

Last summer, after his freshman year, was different. Once Mtuseni became accustomed to a more vibrant college life in wealthy Sandton, his breaks from school were marked by crabby boredom at home all day in the settlement. I dread school breaks — even the short ones — because he’s a bear to deal with. But last summer we had long chats every day. I filled his time with development tasks for his allowance and we got his Bhekani’s Views blog started. We even read a book together, which was great fun. And this time last year I was flying off to meet him and his family, and enjoy a great time bonding as Mtuseni discovered the ocean, air travel, and Cape Town karaoke.


Boston Media House 2013 Open Day Campus Team

Now it’s his last summer before finishing school. Mtuseni had a productive and successful second year, being named to the Student Committee where he managed a number of sport tournaments and was involved in other school activities. But he’s also having a very busy summer. He spent a few weeks with family in the coastal city of Durban for the Christmas festive season. And shortly after New Year’s he began his job as a campus assistant. He works all day five or six days a week. (I won’t get into the pitiful pay they give him; I don’t understand SA wage policies at all.)

When I visited his school last year, a campus assistant took me into the main building. I hoped back then that Mtuseni would get one of these positions, as it looks good on the CV. And sure enough, based on his work on the Student Committee, he’s now a campus rep. He just worked the BMH Open Day for prospective students last weekend. It seems just yesterday he attended both Open Days two years ago before he started at BMH — eager to begin college life. And now, in his words, he’s “big on campus and having a pretty fun time.”

I couldn’t be more happy to hear these words — or feel more proud of him. (He’s come a long way from the first semester of poor early grades, bitter loneliness, and wanting to quit.) But at the same time, as he enjoys a South African summer of work and fun, I feel a good dose of virtual empty nest syndrome. He’s so busy that we really haven’t chatted much the past couple months. I had hoped we could read another book together, but the weeks slipped away from us — and he’s exhausted by the time he gets home to his sweltering shack. I miss the long talks we had the past two summers, and know on some level they won’t happen again as his life gets fuller and busier. But again, this means I’m doing my job correctly.

My shy settlement boy has become Big Man on Campus. It’s what I hoped and worked for. I just wish I’d had a little more nest time.

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Mational Mentoring Month

I’m a bit late to the party, but I just learned that January is National Mentoring Month in the US. Click the logo to visit the program web site and find local mentoring opportunities in your area.

To quote from the National Mentoring Month web site:

“To be a mentor, you don’t need special skills, just an ability to listen and to offer friendship, guidance and encouragement to a young person. And you’ll be amazed by how much you’ll get out of the experience.”

I can certainly attest to this. I am continually amazed by where my journey with Mtuseni has taken us, and by how much we both have grown. My involvement and investment have expanded beyond the basics of just “being there” as a mentor to become more father, nag, coach, and benefactor. But on the rare occasions when my South African son gets a little lazy or petulant or veers far off course, I remind him to think about what mentoring is all about… and he snaps right into line.

Funny… just the other day, before I knew about mentoring month and after a tough but ultimately fruitful conversation with Mtuseni, he posted this status line on his Mxit chat program:

mentor thank god

Mentoring can be hard work sometimes. It can also be pretty amazing. And make people feel invincible.


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