Archives For settlement

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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Cookie Power

April 26, 2015 — 3 Comments

Valtentine's-Day-heart-cookiesWhen Mtuseni and I decided to continue our relationship when the nonprofit that connected us folded, I envisioned frequent connection via numerous paths, including the mail. Because he lives in a settlement with limited, insecure mail service, I rented him a PO box at a chain of copy shops so I could send him cards and letters and small gifts. I soon learned about the corruption of South Africa’s postal service, as some cards and small parcels sent by first class mail never made it to him; they just vanished. One properly addressed card came back to me via boat, bent and tattered, eight weeks later.

I learned that the only safe option was US express mail. This is not only crazy expensive, but a logistical obstacle course. Express mail (which becomes South African service in-country) doesn’t deliver to Mtuseni’s area, so packages must be addressed to him care-of someone in Johannesburg proper. They get a slip, Mtuseni takes it to the post office, he pays a tariff, and they give him the package. If they can find it. They’ve never lost a package, but sometimes I need to call and email to figure out where the box is being held and, one time, what shelf it was on. The package usually gets to South Africa in three days — and then can float in limbo for a couple weeks. The word “express” seems to have a different meaning in there.

It’s a hassle, but worth hearing his reaction and offering something more tangible than text bytes. South African law only allows him to receive two packages from me per year, so I make the most of it … following a loose interpretation of the ridiculously low allowable rand value for items sent. The mainstay is clothes, since he has so little and can’t look like a poor shack boy out in the world. I also include cards, letters, sometimes toiletries or vitamins. Not only does this help him, but it frees up money for his mom to spend on the household or the other kids. I’ve also sent stacks of photos from his visits here, because pictures on a laptop aren’t the same as ones hung on his wall.

A few years ago, I sent him a batch of cookies. He was surprised that I had “bought so many,” and more surprised — and impressed — when I said I had baked them myself. As they have no oven in the shack, Mtuseni doesn’t get homemade cookies very often. Given that he had about six dozen cookies, I was surprised he didn’t share them with the family. I’ve learned over the years how life in the settlement is pretty much every man for himself.

Each time I get ready to send a package, Mtuseni gets very excited. But the last couple times he seemed more concerned about the cookies than the clothes. I laughed to myself and thought, “Hell, next time I’ll save a ton of money and just send cookies.”

IMG_1908A few weeks ago I sent a box with photos from last year’s trip, drawings from my nieces, pants, sweaters, and the required black belt and hats for his City Year uniform — and a big batch of his favorite oatmeal cookies with raisins, cranberries, and walnuts. He’s been so busy — and tired — with City Year that we only talked a bit about the box when he received it. It made me sad when he said that he wanted to save his cookies for “hard times.” His money has been tight with long commutes and having to buy meals, but I told him to just eat them and know I’d keep him safe from hard times, at least in terms of food. He said he would and fell asleep mid-chat, as he often does.

So the other day I asked him how the cookies were. He said, “They help me to relax and be happy.” And then I finally understood why the cookies seem to be the most important part of the package for him, and why he doesn’t share them. They’re not just sweet treats, but something I made made especially for him. Despite having real pride for and commitment to South Africa as his home, life there weighs heavily on Mtuseni — from the personal challenges of poverty to the lack of jobs for young people. With the recent xenophobia attacks and a teachers strike that has affected his City Year school, Mtuseni said last week “It’s bad in this town.” But he keeps forging on, for his future and for the country.

And when he gets home to his small bed in the unheated, wallboard shack with the dirt floor, it makes me glad to know that a few simple cookies can give him some solace and strength — and help him feel loved.


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A Red Letter Day

April 11, 2015 — Leave a comment

City+Year+Johannesburg+South+Africa+red+jacket

Mtuseni has been in nonstop training at City Year Johannesburg since the first week of February. I’ve been impressed by the broad range of ideas and people and organizations he’s been exposed to. More importantly, I’ve been a little amazed at how much Mtuseni has embraced the experience. He was on the fence his first week, and I just held back and let him find his way. Now he says that he’s learning more than he did in college and wants to work for the organization for years. He was even elected captain of his team!

Friday’s Red Jacket Ceremony marked the culmination of the training, where service leaders are officially inducted into the City Year family, which includes programs in 37 US cities and London. Mtuseni said it was one of the best moments of his life; he seemed to appreciate it even more than his college graduation. He told me it was “a beautiful thing, seriously” that gave him “a feeling of belonging.” For a settlement “shack boy” who is low on the South African social hierarchy, every experience of being welcomed and acknowledged cannot be understated.

IMG_2870I was surprised and happy to see that Mtuseni’s mom Nester attended the ceremony, even though he says she doesn’t really understand what he’s doing. I hope she realizes that the program is opening long-term career paths and connections for him; it’s a different mindset when you have little education and have only done menial work all your life to survive and raise a family. But it’s nice to see her smiling and proud next to Mtuseni; particularly when her eldest son Moses would have turned 26 on Monday. With him gone, Mtuseni is now the man of the family, and he quietly carries that responsibility and burden. Any work he does to better himself is with the hope of one day providing a better life for mom and the kids.

IMG_2876The impressive thing about Mtuseni is that — despite having so little — he’s always wanted to contribute something to the community, to make a difference in people’s lives. On Monday, when he starts working with primary school kids in Tembisa township for the next seven months, he’ll begin realizing his dream.

Whether he utilizes his college training and pursues a radio career in the future, who knows? But all a parent wants is for their kid to be happy, to feel like they matter, like they belong. Seeing Mtuseni’s deep commitment, abundant enthusiasm, and vibrant smile for his City Year experience gives me the best feeling I’ve had in a long time. My work with him is not finished, but I’ll admit to sitting back these past few weeks, letting out some major sighs and a few tears, and telling myself, “You did it. Well done.”


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