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The Lying Game

May 27, 2017 — Leave a comment

Back in my early days with Mtuseni, I thought I had caught him in a lie. I can’t recall what the situation was, but it didn’t make me happy. I’d recently committed to paying for his college, guiding him to a better future — basically I was all in for the long haul. But if he was not going to be truthful with me, then we had a major problem. Lying signals disrespect, and that was unacceptable given the sacrifices I was making and was prepared to make for him.

I confronted him about it on a phone call, because this was too important for texting. He became upset and insulted. He explained the situation and said earnestly, “I will never lie to you.” And in all these days, he hasn’t.

It’s very hard to guide a child who’s half a world away. Having mutual trust is important, and I’ve always had that with Mtuseni. So I was upset — and surprised and disappointed — when I became aware that Bongeka has likely been lying to me the past few months. Last year in her first year of private school we didn’t have direct contact; I just paid the bills and got updates from Mtuseni and the principal. But this year, having bought her a tablet for school and a data plan, we’ve been able to chat on WhatsApp.

It’s different than with Mtuseni. He and I first met via webcam chats, so we had the electronic face-to-face, next-best-thing-to-being-there experience. That allowed us to build a strong bond so that when the webcam program ended, we were comfortable chatting via text. By comparison, Bongeka only knows me through text exchanges — and meeting once when she was little.

She doesn’t chat with me often, but it’s been great to hear how much she’s grown up and how she likes to learn. She comes across as bright and curious and polite, with a sharp sense of humor. I’ve been pressing her to take advantage of everything the school has to offer, especially the after-school activities, from sports to clubs to extra-help sessions. Any opportunity she has for new learning experiences is good. And every minute away from the settlement and her unheated shack is also a plus.There were no extra activities in her public school; I want her to benefit as much as possible from private school, and for me to get my money’s worth.

So last term I looked at the activity calendar and told her I wanted her to join at least two, plus some help sessions. She agreed, but then always had an excuse when I followed up — usually saying the club never opened or somehow blaming the school. When second term began I told her again that I expected her to do an activity every afternoon; they are only about 45 minutes. I told her it’s important to try new things and meet new people. She agreed and told me what she would join. When I checked in last week, she said that they still hadn’t opened.

Then I saw photos of the school science fair on Facebook, and which had been listed on my second term calendar. I asked why she wasn’t in the science fair. She said she never heard about it. If I knew about it 8,000 miles away, there’s no way she never heard about it. Judging by the photos, it was a big to-do. And Bongeka likes science!

When I emailed the principal to get some clarification, she told me that the club Bongeka said she would join was already in full swing. And that the science fair was promoted throughout the school. And that she probably was “not being truthful.” To put it bluntly, she was lying to me.

I was pissed. I’m still kinda pissed. When she texts to ask for money for field trips, I send it. I make sure she has extra money to buy snacks and lunches at school so she doesn’t feel different from her friends. (There are not many kids in her school who live in shacks with no electricity.) Now, knowing that I expect her to join clubs, she lies to me. Repeatedly.

The principal said she’d discuss it with her and we could Skype about it. She told me this is a tricky age, when kids’ hormones are going crazy and they’re trying to figure out who they are. I forgot what it’s like to be 13. Looking back, I was a basket case. And I have no idea what it’s like to be a 13-year-old-girl. Thrown into a school where families have more money and resources than her uneducated mother. Trying to hold her own as a “shack girl” among peers that go home to electricity and TV and indoor plumbing. Mtuseni still struggles with that, keeping his “shack identity” a secret from his colleagues at work.

I met Mtuseni at 16, a goofball but with a strong sense of integrity…one step into manhood. Bongeka is a young adolescent, a girl, a child standing at the foot of a long rickety bridge to adulthood. Am I happy that she’s been lying to me? No. But with the principal’s help we’ll get her back on track. The principal told me that if Bongeka makes the right choices now, she’ll be fine when she comes out of this phase … at around 16 or 17. That seems like a long way off. But Bongeka’s a smart dork — like I was once. I wish someone had offered support and guidance to me at that age. Parenting was different back then. I flailed for years.

This lying game has to stop — and I need to steel myself for a long walk with Bongeka across that bridge.


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Jobs Crisis

May 6, 2017 — Leave a comment

Just over a year ago, Mtuseni started his first job. Despite his college diploma and City Year success, this was no easy task. South Africa’s overall unemployment rate is about 25 percent and the rate for youth is over 60 percent. So getting a job, earning some real money, and gaining workplace skills and experience to put on his resume were welcome developments on his life path. A cause for celebration!

Now that initial rosy glow has worn off. As with most new graduates, working a full-time job is a cold slap in the face compared to the vibrancy and variety of college life. When I used to complain about the hamster wheel drudgery of my various jobs, my father always said dryly, “That’s why they call it work.”

Yet for Mtuseni, the dissatisfaction and disillusionment are greater. It was thrilling at first that his salary was twice what his mother makes – more than anyone in the family has ever earned. But his mother only makes about $250 a month. While the dollar-to-rand conversion always confuses me, in some respects the cost of living in South Africa is comparable to the United States. He often complains to me about rising taxi fares or being unable to pay for a movie – small amounts that should not pose a problem to someone who works so hard.

And he does work hard; he’s always tired. Living on the outskirts of Johannesburg, he wakes up at 4:30, heats bath water on a portable gas stove, then has a two-hour commute in cramped jitney taxis. He makes the same trip coming home. The job has also changed as the company constantly retools. He now spends all his time on the computer, which bothers his eyes. And he often is tasked with taking customer service calls. This makes me laugh and makes him miserable – because while Mtuseni can be incredibly charming, he can also be a surly son-of-a-bitch. He recently was passed over for a small promotion, so now he’s just going through the motions with a “whatever” attitude, knowing that labor laws make it almost impossible to fire him. This is a long fall from the teambuilding breakfast he held in his first excited, idealistic month on the job.

Mtuseni is also hamstrung by his “second” job – as man of the house and family protector. He never asked for this role; his father walked out when he was in high school and his older brother was killed six years ago. Out of love and responsibility, he feels compelled to contribute to the house and protect his young siblings from the toxic and dangerous influences of the settlement community.

And I’ve added to his burden by having him be my “ears on the ground” since Bongeka started private school. At this point, I can’t do much more than pay the tuition bills – it’s difficult for me to actively monitor and guide a 13-year-old girl half a world away who’s not much of a talker or texter and is still a relative stranger. Their mother has little interest in the kids’ schooling, so he needs to help his sister make the most of this opportunity… and my investment in her

So Mtuseni is languishing in a job that uses none of his communication or radio skills and doesn’t ignite his passion for community service. And he feels trapped by loyalty to the family. It’s admirable and logical for him to take this on, but not really fair. He’s worked hard to pursue a vision of life outside the settlement.

Ideally, what should Mtuseni’s job be? Building his own life. Having a blast. Living out loud. People my age would give anything to be 24 again. When I was in my 20s, I had unlimited energy and my head was full of ideas and possibilities. My future stretched out to infinity. I was sure I’d live forever.

Yet at 24 Mtuseni is already feeling tired and dispirited. This has been putting little cracks in my heart for months. I keep coming back to a photo of him at a City Year training. He radiates pure joy at learning and having new experiences, and his future path seems wide open and bright.

I have tons of pictures of him. Even though it’s not perfectly framed, this is one of my favorites because, well, that face. When he’s passionate and engaged and happy, Mtuseni is magic. I want to … I need to … see that bright, hopeful face again.

Because in the end… given all the external and personal obstacles facing him, helping my young champion recapture and maintain that level of satisfaction and vitality and fulfillment and happiness and hope is my job. I need to get to work.


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Walking the Talk

February 26, 2017 — 1 Comment

Mtuseni told me a couple years back that his sister Bongeka was smart. And he was worried about both his young siblings languishing in the underfunded, overcrowded, unheated, public farm school that he attended. Although I was hesitant about committing to put the kids through private school — for far longer than Mtuseni’s three years of college — I also knew from his stories and the media how bad South Africa’s public schools are. Still, I figured I had some time since the kids were both fairly young.

But one day Mtuseni said he found Bongeka crying outside the settlement because kids were bullying and ostracizing her because she was smart. I know all-too-well the pain of being bullied. I couldn’t let this sweet girl suffer — and certainly not for being a good student! So I quickly got her into Meridian, a private school not far from her settlement. After a rocky first term, she bounced back, lost her shyness and grew more confident, and in many classes earned grades higher than Mtuseni ever got.

But my knowledge of her first year was all second-hand — report cards and discussions with her principal. I wondered how “smart” she really was, and who I would be dealing with for the long haul toward graduation. Since being able to chat with her directly this year (and for the first time) on WhatsApp, I’ve quickly realized that I have a committed potential little star on my hands. Her texts are so articulate and have a surprisingly sophisticated and mature humor… for a girl who just turned 14. It’s like chatting with a mini-adult. By contrast, when I first connected with Mtuseni at 16, he was an immature, yet earnest, goofball — one reason I quickly fell in love with him.

But Bongeka is much more serious and focused. What kind of eighth grader posts this as their social media status?…

go and get success

 

And when I asked her on Friday if she had a fun weekend planned, I got this response.

saturday school

Hmmmm… Saturday school wouldn’t seem to be at the top of any kid’s fun list.

Bongeka told me the name of the school and I looked it up. It’s a pretty swanky private school nearby. This morning she told me that they learned about atoms and molecules yesterday. But it’s not just for science. It’s also for English and math. This extra Saturday school is free, runs for several weeks, and is not associated with her regular school. Her mother didn’t sign her up. Going to school on Saturdays “for more learning” was Bongeka’s idea!

This kid is gonna go far. I’m eager to see where that energy and commitment will lead. The challenge will be keeping Bongeka healthy, safe, and secure in the horrible settlement environment. Looks like more rollercoaster times for me ahead…


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The Last Child

February 19, 2017 — Leave a comment

It’s common knowledge that the first kid in a family is lavished with attention and has hundreds of photos documenting their every waking moment. And the last child in the pack gets almost nothing in comparison because the parents are exhausted, life gets busy, and that initial thrill is gone. TV family sitcoms often joke about this: It’s funny ‘cuz it’s true.

Which brings me to Musa — the youngest of the Mdletshe kids who just started sixth grade. As Bongeka gets more involved in school and ventures deeper into that “teenage girl” phase, she’ll have less space for a pesky little brother. Mtuseni is exhausted from work and a grueling commute, so he’s paid less attention to Musa lately.

He sent me a photo of a letter Musa wrote to him for Valentine’s Day. Mtuseni said he was more shocked by the handwriting than the sentiment. Mtuseni said it’s the first thing written by Musa — a rambunctious kid who disdains school and reading — that he could actually decipher.

musa-letter-2017

The handwriting is beautiful. But what struck me was the message. Their father walked out when Mtuseni was 16. Musa was only 2, so he’s never really known having a father in the home. The oldest son Moses left with the father. He returned about two years later, which likely was fun for Musa. But a few months later Moses was killed by a car — a victim of poor education, unemployment, and alcoholism. Another loss for a small boy.

What I get from Musa’s letter is a lot of honest love, which is universal in that family. But I also hear a small voice saying, “Please don’t desert me.”

Mtuseni feels torn. He desperately wants to leave the shack and start building his own adult life. The environment in the settlement is terrible, worse than it was even a few years ago. He’s nervous about the kids getting caught up in stuff if he leaves. He told me of girls Bongeka’s age who are pregnant by adult men — and boys Musa’s age who quit school and drink and smoke dope. He wants to shield them, to save them from these risky influences. He feels he should be the father to them, the man of the house. But the strain is wearing on him; I see it and hear it all the time now.

I’ve told Mtuseni that he can’t sacrifice his own life for the kids, and that mom will be able to manage them; parenting is her job, not his. But she’s 53, working a physical job for a pittance, living without electricity or water, and struggling to pay for food as inflation takes its toll. Even in the best situations, most parents lose focus with the last child. For Mtuseni’s sake, I want him to leave the settlement as soon as possible. For the kids’ sake, I kinda want him to stay.

musa cosmo fundayI had planned to get Musa into private school with Bongeka this year. But after completing my section of the application, the family never completed it despite my repeated reminders. So I let it slide. Bongeka’s first year at Meridian was more complicated and expensive than I anticipated — and I wasn’t eager to double the effort with another kid.

But seeing Musa’s heartfelt letter … remembering how he shyly clung to me when we met several years ago … seeing that munchkin’s grin at Bongeka’s school fair last June … and knowing the risks he faces — makes me realize that I need to get him into that school and on a focused path next year. I cannot let him fall victim to his community — or to “forgotten last child” syndrome.

On sitcoms, and in real life, the last kid usually turns out okay. But in South Africa, being a forgotten child is a recipe for disaster. Sadly, Moses wasn’t able to escape it. I have to make sure that my little man Musa does.


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