Archives For Olympics

A Thin Wire

July 29, 2012 — Leave a comment

The New York Times has an interesting article this weekend on using community- and home-based counselors to address the significant health problems in rural Mississippi. In addition to promoting a common-sense strategy, the article also has surprising parallels to issues in Mtuseni’s community. One point in the article that struck me was how one small incident can snowball into much larger problems — and with sometimes dire consequences. I am experiencing this firsthand.

bud twitter picLast week, Mtuseni told me he was “living on a thin wire.” After some evasion, he admitted that he was running out of money and wasn’t eating. As of this weekend, he would have been completely out of cash — and I don’t pay his allowance until the 15th of every month. This amount is supposed to cover buying lunch during the week as well as incidental expenses and a little pocket money for fun. Given the daily ordeal he endures just getting to and from school, and then studying and being on the student committee, he certainly deserves some cash for a movie now and then.

But last month, as part of the winter break that was a decathlon of crises, his dental and gum problems flared up. He had trouble eating and sleeping. Finally, he went to the doctor — who in light of Mtuseni’s lack of insurance or cash for appropriate care, recommended mouthwash. Mtuseni said it was too expensive. I’m working on finding a dentist for him (another tricky task from 8,000 miles away) so in the meantime I told him to buy a small bottle of anti-bacteria mouthwash and some numbing gel, and to rinse with baking soda. He says it’s helped, and I’m reviewing lists of dentists in Randburg with various fee scales.

But what I often don’t fully grasp with Mtuseni is how squeaky-tight his budget is. Every rand (about 12 US cents) is accounted for. When he told me about the money problem, I freaked out and asked how he could be out of his allowance three weeks early. He said he had to pay transport to go to the doctor, then get the mouthwash, and buy soft food so he could eat at home. And these seemingly inconsequential expenses drained his entire budget.

Mtuseni rarely asks me for money. The last time was when taxi fares were going up. He’s very proud, and feels badly being dependent on me. So last week he stopped buying lunch and was just hoping mom would come up with more money (from her $240 monthly salary) to help him get through to his August 15 allowance. The bulk of my frustration this time was due to the fact that our usual money-transfer service recently shut down and I had yet to find another one (thinking I had a few more weeks). So I scrambled and found a service called Xoom — and hope the money will be there on Monday. (Everything in South Africa seems to have unforeseen complications.)

One of the things I adore about Mtuseni is his use of language, such as the “thin wire.” People living in extreme poverty are constantly on the wire, and one small expense can put them off balance and set them tumbling. I’m not directly impacted by Mtuseni’s poverty, but given the goals I have for him finishing college and having a bright future, his circumstances keep me constantly on edge. The four weeks in June/July with Musa’s pneumonia, mom’s mystery “stroke,” shack fires in the settlement, and dental problems were mentally exhausting — too many times I saw the tipping point. And the latest one was all because of a bottle of mouthwash.

In times like these, I wonder if the billions of dollars spent every four years on athletes running in circles or playing beach volleyball to earn a shiny metal disk wouldn’t be better spent on helping people walking thin wires in South African settlements — or in the Mississippi Delta.

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Girly Stuff

July 24, 2012 — Leave a comment

As one of the sports co-chairs on the college student committee, Mtuseni is organizing a soccer tournament this Friday to mark Nelson Mandela’s 67 years of service. I asked him if his co-chair, a female student, was helping out. He said “Nope, I’m not doing girly stuff.” We had a similar conversation a few months back when he organized an “intense” foosball tournament. I asked if it was guys and girls, and he said that girls aren’t interested in that.

Funny… I remember a female engineering student in my early UMass days who could drink anybody under the table and kick anyone’s ass in foosball. I think she even played rugby.

From what I hear, women in South Africa might play netball — a wimpy-sounding version of basketball that, based on a UK friend’s experience, seems to involve some half-hearted passing and shooting until everyone decides to go have beers. As for other South African female participation in sports… I don’t know. Maybe jump rope? Hop scotch?

This year the US is marking the 40th anniversary of Title IX, the law that mandated equal participation in and support of activities at any federally-funded public school. The biggest impact always noted from the law has been the huge growth of girls’ sports programs and activities. Over these four decades this has led to women’s soccer teams, a professional basketball league, women playing hockey on ice (not just on a field in goofy skirts), softball domination in the Olympics, and a wide array of sports for girls and women from elementary school through college and beyond.

I’m not really a sports guy myself aside from tennis, and I’ve never really paid attention to the periodic social commentary on Title IX. But when I think of all the opportunity for self-discipline and teamwork and healthy activity that American girls have through equal access to sports — and hear about places like South Africa and the United Kingdom where girls’ sports are limited — the value in promoting gender parity in sports is clear.

Mtuseni and I have had some go-rounds about chauvinistic attitudes toward women. Thinking back to how he was a couple years ago, “he’s come a long way, baby.” Still, I’m working a back channel to get that student committee to do something to bridge this male-female sports gap.

Girly stuff. Ha!

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