Archives For Sandton

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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Castles and Foundations

April 6, 2014 — 1 Comment

After the chances for Mtuseni doing a radio internship in time to graduate in July were looking mighty grim, he got a surprise callback from a station manager after an interview that didn’t sound promising. Last week he started interning at Kasie FM, a community radio station south of Johannesburg. It’s a long haul from his home — requiring three minibus taxis and two hours each way. He spends more time commuting than he does at the station. Working the afternoon drive-time shift, he barely makes it back to catch the last taxi home, which means I’ll be worried every Monday through Friday for the next six weeks. It’s autumn in South Africa, it’s already dark by six o’clock, and the area is not very safe.

But Mtuseni is in a radio station! He’s still doing typical intern errand tasks but is asking lots of questions and soaking up knowledge. And thankfully he’s out of the house! After three years of school in bustling Sandton, he was going bonkers in the settlement. He gets so bored and cranky on breaks from school that I think he actually changes the local weather patterns! And with coursework all completed, this was a permanent break.

Meanwhile, I’ve been busy rewriting the proposal for the Long-Distance Dad book. It’s torturous and invigorating and stressful and fun all at the same time: the usual twisted experience for a writer. I do know the book is gonna be good; this blog has only captured a small portion of our adventure.

Venice+spires+quoteMtuseni and I have long talked about our hopes and dreams for the future: Him working in a major radio station and inspiring listeners to improve the world — and me sharing our story in books and media and inspiring others to somehow connect with kids who need a little love and support. While these goals aren’t impossible to achieve, they are somewhat lofty and a bit daunting. In situations like these, I always return to this Thoreau quote that resonated with me way back in college.

Individually and together Mtuseni and I have built our castles in the air. And as he grinds through a tough commute to his internship and I churn through endless revisions of my book proposal — we’re laying the foundations for them.

If you don’t aim high, you’ll never know how far you can go. Just be prepared to do the work to get there.


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BB

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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One Chapter Closes

November 14, 2013 — Leave a comment

magnoliasEvery few years, in late spring when I’m marveling at the pink magnolia trees in Boston’s Back Bay, a vivid memory surfaces… It was my very last day at Emerson College, on the old Beacon Street campus in the stately brownstones. I had a meeting with my senior seminar professor, turned in some graduation paperwork, and was finished. My college days were done, and I enjoyed the sense of relief and accomplishment.

It was a sunny, warm afternoon. Spying an empty classroom, I sat in a big open window and looked down at the lively street scene that had been my life for three years. I loved Emerson and living in the city. At my father’s insistence, I’d started college at UMass Amherst, in the rural western part of the state. Aside from one semester in a high-rise dorm with a bunch of smart, funny, crazy friends, I hated my time there. I’m a city person; a college town in the woods felt like prison.

Transferring to Emerson — on my own dime — was the best decision I’d ever made. I learned a lot, felt validated for my creative talents, met some great people, and came into myself. So my feelings sitting in that window were bittersweet. A wonderful chapter in my life was coming to an end. Yes, I was young and had a whole future of possibilities ahead. But something in me wanted to sit in that spot and hold onto that moment forever, unwilling to close the book and walk away.

But I still lived in the city. And by the fall I would start my first job as a copywriter for a small agency. Emerson had been a big, bright spot in my life — but it wasn’t my everything.

____________________

This week Mtuseni’s on-campus chapter comes to an end. It’s amazing how fast the time went. It seems like just yesterday he visited the school for the first time and — against my instructions — took the entrance exam on the spot. I remember my complete joy when the administrator emailed to say he had done well and was accepted, and his excitement when I told him the news. For me, that moment began a three-year stretch of tuition bills, arguments with school staff, searching for extra resources, and intensive coaching with Mtuseni on many levels, including some I never anticipated.

Boston+Media+House+class+laptopFor Mtuseni, these three years have been nothing short of transformational. Although his first-term transition from a poor farm school to a college in South Africa’s wealthiest neighborhood was rough, we got him through those “darkest days” and he flourished. He has many friends on campus and loves being among a crowd of young, dynamic, ambitious peers.

I’ve always dreaded Mtuseni’s extended breaks from school, because within a day or two he becomes a bear. He’s bored out of his mind. Grouchy. Snappish. Miserable. Because unlike my college experience — where I went home to a vibrant life in Harvard Square, Mtuseni goes home to the settlement — where he is the first person to attend college. Where nobody understands him or feeds his mind or inspires him. Where, as he says, “people sit outside every day and just watch the sun cross the sky.” And where their main concern is not creating a professional radio demo tape, but putting food on the table and keeping their kids alive.

Boston Media House 2013 Open Day Campus Team

Boston Media House 2013 Open Day Campus Team

The closure of my Emerson chapter was sad for me, but the closing of Mtuseni’s Boston Media House chapter will be much harder on him. He’ll lose touch with many of his friends; daily face-to-face interaction supplanted by the emptiness of Facebook wall comments. The mutual peer support and friendly competition to succeed will vanish, with my custom blend of loving support and parental whip-cracking left to fill the gap. The busy street life of campus and Sandton’s corporate HQs and luxe malls will be replaced by the sullen atmosphere of poverty and dashed hope in Mtuseni’s settlement.

I’m a little worried. Going to college has been a rejuvenating elixir for Mtuseni. Without it, his community environment of despair can be a strong brew that pulls him backwards. Our work is not done; he still needs to find an internship — and I feel in some ways perhaps my toughest challenges lie ahead. Still, I will celebrate his — our — accomplishment this week. And try to keep his head and heart filled with a future of rich possibilities.


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