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Not-So-Superdad

April 2, 2015 — Leave a comment

IMG_1408When we’re young, we believe our dads are superheroes who can protect us from all types of risk and danger. As fathers, we internalize that all-powerful role. No matter how old our kids are, we like to think that we can always swoop in to their rescue. But with Mtuseni, in many ways I’ve been powerless — and it’s a constant source of stress, anxiety and frustration.

This is not to say I do nothing for him. I put him through school. I send him emergency money and boxes of clothes. I’ve replaced more phones than I care to count. I’ve guided him through academic stumbles and boosted him through crises of confidence.These are the challenges that most dads can handle; they’re part of the basic job description.

The things that are beyond my control are systemic. Being poor in South African, Mtuseni faces problems that I never anticipated and which seem to arise in ever-changing forms. Here’s a sample from the past month:

  • The strong US dollar led the South African government to jack up gas prices this week. This will surely increase Mtuseni’s commute costs, which already take up most of the City Year stipend.
  • Because he leaves so early for his two-hour commute, Mtuseni skips breakfast — and even with cash infusions from me, he can only afford a tiny lunch. He says the two-dollar nutrition bars I tell him to get for breakfast are too expensive. He’s losing weight; even his friends see it. He’s never had one ounce of fat, and I worry if this might be caused by something other than caloric intake.
  • Two weeks ago he saw a bad taxi accident on his way to Joburg and felt nervous. The taxis he rides are notorious for renegade driving, and South Africa has the worst highway fatality rate in the world.
  • After learning at City Year that asbestos is harmful, Mtuseni is afraid to sleep in his wallboard shack — because that’s what his ceiling/roof is made of, which was news to me. He wants the tiles gone, but there’s no money to replace them. Working with them would be dangerous; he built the room with his late brother a few years ago, so he’s already been exposed.

So this is the most recent slate of problems, which are layered on top of ongoing issues. Winter is coming, and Mtuseni can see outdoors through wide gaps in his walls in the unheated shack. Candles used for light have burned down local shacks in the past, and a generator recently leaked gas into his dirt floor. Despite his asbestos worries, I don’t want to tell him that the kerosene lamps they use are equivalent to smoking a daily pack of cigarettes. People in the settlement get sick and die on a regular basis. The family’s gas-powered fridge barely keeps food cool, and Mtuseni seems to have little knowledge of food-borne risks. Living in an informal settlement, there’s always the chance of a forced eviction. On Google maps, new housing developments are springing up near his tiny community; a landowner could sell to a developer and kick everybody out at any time.

I could go on, but it would throw me into despair. And besides, I’m Superdad. I’m all-powerful.

IMG_2269I want to fly in and take Mtuseni away from the shack, put him in a safe, warm house with water and electricity. I want him to have as much food as a 22-year-old guy can eat (and based on his visits to the US, he can eat!). I want to get him a car so he can avoid riding in the dangerous taxis. I want to find him a great job where he’s happy and earning a good living. I want to get his young sister and brother out of the shack and away from the risks of illness and violence. I want to fill all the public schools in South Africa with computers and libraries and qualified teachers. I want all the poor residents to have health and nutrition education and access to quality medical care. I want to ride in on a white stallion and bitch-slap the ANC government to take smart, innovative action to fix the country’s problems, rescuing not only Mtuseni but all the kids in South Africa.

But I’m only one man, and super heroes only exist in the movies. So I do the best I can for my son. In America, that’s usually enough. But when faced with the challenges of raising a kid in a developing country, I feel like the proverbial 98-pound weakling on the beach. Still, Mtuseni is ever grateful for what I do and calls me his magician. I just wish I had more rabbits to pull out of my hat.


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Top 5 Mentor Moments for 2013

December 31, 2013 — 1 Comment

It’s hard to believe that 2013 is coming to a close. This past year with Mtuseni has been marked by the usual ups and downs — and some sticky transitions. Despite the challenges of mentoring across many divides, life with my boy young man always offers more sweet than sour. And this year was marked by some pretty sweet experiences…

1. Becoming Big Man on Campus

Boston Media House 2013 Open Day Campus Team

Boston Media House 2013 Open Day Campus Team

Entering college from a small farm school was traumatic for Mtuseni; my shy little fish floundered in that big pond his first semester, what he called the “darkest days of life.” But with encouragement he came out of his shell, made friends, and was named to the Student Committee his second year. And he didn’t stop climbing the ladder. Over  summer break in January he worked as a campus representative — and was elected Vice President of the Student Committee for his final year. I still get choked up when I think how far he’s come.

Check out these posts for more…

Summer Fun, Winter Doldrums

Teen Roulette

2. Father’s Day Wishes

2013 fathers day email -cropI wear many hats with Mtuseni: mentor, coach, brother, friend, enforcer, teacher…and father. I never expected to have kids, so experiencing that crazy parental stew of pride, worry, responsibility, fear, frustration, and deep love with this knucklehead has been the biggest and best surprise of my life. It’s a delicate balance: a mentor is not a father, and the calculus between us shifts constantly. But for a sensitive kid whose father walked out when he was 12, Mtuseni craves that connection and anchor. And when he acknowledges me in that way, well it feels pretty damn good.

3. Mtuseni Comes to America

Public+Garden+BostonAfter three years and four attempts, this year Mtuseni finally got a (ten year!) US visitor visa. To see that jet-lagged kid walk into the arrival hall at Kennedy Airport was thrilling. Foreign travel is eye-opening and life-changing for anyone — and is even more so coming from a developing country to America. It was wonderful to have Mtuseni here, have him meet people in my life, show him places from my childhood, and to spoil the heck out of him. There were a few unanticipated bumps in the road, and it was a learning experience for both of us. But we’re both ready for him to come back.

Check out these posts for more…

Oh Happy Day

Places and Activities I Enjoyed in Boston

Last Words On the Trip … Maybe

4. Coursework Complete — Check.

Boston+Media+House+radioThree years ago at this time Mtuseni was waiting for the results of his national matric exams — which would determine his eligibility for college. He had already done well on the school entry exam, and just needed that final credential. A month later he began that first semester — and tanked his first exam with a grade of 20. I thought we might be looking at a fast flameout. But he bounced back, loving school even when griping about the workload and stress, and in November he finished his last semester of classes. Now all he needs is a 100-hour internship and the mortarboard and robe are his! (And tuition bills for me are over — woohoo!)

Check out these posts for more…

Rounding the Turn

One Chapter Closes

5. Letting Go…

This one is recent…and still a work in progress. Much as my heart clings to the quiet high school boy I first met, Mtuseni turned 21 this year — a milestone of adulthood in South Africa. He bucks and chafes and argues against me these days in a natural push for independence. Although he’s not fully prepared for the big world (are any of us ever really prepared?) I’ve begun to loosen the reins. To give him more responsibility for his life and accountability for his actions. To say ‘no’ and set limits. To let him sink or swim.

It’s hard; he still has so much to learn, and I’ve enjoyed this surprise experience of parenting in my grouchy middle age. Selfishly I want more nest-and-apron-string time, but that won’t do Mtuseni any favors. He needs to learn to fly on his own. And I need to trust that he — we — will be okay. I’ve just made that shift in mindset the past few weeks, and it’s been tough but good. And it’s funny how kids fight you to get free, then when you begin pushing them out of the nest they hold on for dear life. Is this last 2013 “moment” a sweet one? More bittersweet. But a positive and necessary milestone on the journey.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

And 2014 promises more successes, transitions, and celebrations. With all fingers and toes crossed, Mtuseni will get a radio internship early this year and graduate in April. He should also get his first real job. There will hopefully be a South Africa trip for me to see him and his family, and another US visit for Mtuseni. On the story front, the Long-Distance Dad blog will be revamped, a prototype interactive e-book will be released, and formal pitching to agents of book and media projects will get underway.

Thanks from Mtuseni and me for all your support, perspective, and encouragement over these past years. And keep following — and sharing — our story in 2014 and beyond!

Happy New Year!!

Times+Square+New York


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Nesters goats

Mtuseni and his mom’s goats

I often tease Mtuseni about his mom’s small herd of goats. She asks him to look after them and sometimes they get loose and he has to chase them in the sprawling fields surrounding the settlement. “I hate those crazy goats!” he’ll say to me. I love getting under his skin about it.

But the goats are an important asset for the family. Nester doesn’t raise them for food; she sells them to friends to earn some extra money. When I asked if people buy them for meat — or maybe to make goat cheese, which I love — he said no. They’re used for traditional Zulu ritual sacrifices. So much for a nice tangy chevre with fig compote! Mtuseni definitely straddles many worlds and cultures in his life.

But goats do play an important role for many families in developing countries. They provide milk for children and can grow into a herd that produces nourishing protein or generates income. They may be feisty and “crazy,” but goats are a good thing to have — and a good gift to give.

In this holiday season when the TV blasts commercials with people crying, “I want this. I want that. Gimme, gimme, gimme!” — the International Rescue Commission website offers an alternative. For $50 you can buy a goat for a family living in poverty, and have a card sent to a friend or loved one showing that you gave this meaningful gift in their name.

Not into goats? The IRC site offers a range of gifts focused on addressing needs in health, education and other issues in various countries:

Cape Town+Christmas+ornament+craft+beads

Beaded ornaments from Cape Town Market

So this year, what do you buy for the man or woman who has everything? A Rescue Gift that can improve the life of a person or family who has very little. It’s a much better reflection of the holiday spirit — and karma will likely pay you back eventually.

Check out the IRC website for the full selection of gifts.

Happy Holidays!

BB


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Distance

December 4, 2013 — 3 Comments

Things have been a bit rocky with Mtuseni since he finished classes a couple weeks ago. While he’s always done well when tasks are mapped out for him, as in a school situation, the process of getting an internship — which is all on him — has been marked by epic stumbles and inaction. He’s having difficulty with the transition from 15 years of school and familiar routine to the “lion’s den” of the real world, where he needs to begin charting his own course and sailing the ship. I can only do so much from this side of the world, and even if I could do more it is critical that he become focused, proactive, and self-reliant.

So we butted heads last week and — as happens with us now and then — went off to neutral corners to take a breather from each other. This transition process, this letting go, is also difficult for me. Mtuseni said last week that it feels like I’m pushing him off a cliff. No… I’m pushing him out of the nest, and I expect him to begin flapping his wings and taking flight. And of course I’ll be on the ground to catch him if he falls. But damn it, stop whining and start flapping!

Days ticked by with no communication between us. While my head appreciated having a little more space to focus on my own life, radio silence from him is always a bit unsettling. There are just so many risks he faces on a regular basis — from health issues and violence to unsafe minibus taxis and house fires — that having a daily check-in helps alleviate my worries.

mtuseni nov 2013So early yesterday morning Mtuseni sent me a text asking for my Skype number, because he was online. We had talked before about Skyping via his little USB laptop modem, but with a pay-as-you-go data plan and no money, he really didn’t have the bandwidth. Maybe enough for a voice call, but certainly not a video call. So after some back and forth getting set up, I heard the familiar Skype ring tone and answered his call. He said, “I can’t see you.” I was surprised he was doing a video call, so I clicked the camera button and suddenly there he was.

As always, there’s that brief sense of “wow” when you do a video call with people far away. It’s still not Jetsons quality, but actually our connection was pretty crisp. Mtuseni said he was in a community center a short walk from home, using their new wifi. This is a promising development, not only for him but for people — especially kids — in the settlement to have Internet access. The digital divide there is a serious impediment. I want to know more about who is sponsoring the center’s technology.

Unfortunately the center was closing for the day and Mtuseni had to sign-off. That’s one drawback of South Africa now being seven hours ahead of US time. Our call lasted only three minutes, so there was no real substance. Just that sense of closeness and connection you get from face-to-face contact, much more than can be achieved through text, emails or phone calls.

I realized after we hung up that it was the first time I had seen Mtuseni “live” since we said goodbye at the airport in New York, when he went back home after his trip here in July. Those three minutes on Skype reminded me how much I miss that kid. And that no matter how many bumps we hit on this journey together, the “distance” factor of being a long-distance dad is sometimes the hardest part.


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