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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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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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I’m coming to grips with the sad reality that summer is over — and my early September melancholy will soon give way to reveling in the Norman Rockwell autumns we have in New England. It was a good summer, punctuated of course by Mtuseni’s visit, something we had been working to make happen for three years.

Although the extent of his culture shock and reactions to it — and the twists and turns of teenage moods — caught me off guard, it was amazing to have Mtuseni here. The speed bumps we encountered only provided more insights that will help me guide him through new experiences and challenges as he transitions into the post-school real world. As a friend told me, courtesy of John Steinbeck, “What good is warmth without cold to give it sweetness?”

Indeed it was a very sweet trip. So herewith a random sampling of moments and memories of Mtuseni’s visit that make me smile:

New York+Times Square

Watching Mtuseni’s post-15-hour flight jet lag begin to lift as we walked into Times Square and he began to realize, “I’m in New York!” The first of many times I heard, “Take my picture!”

Dinner at an outdoor cafe after our first day in Boston -- where he had to buy a "B" cap so he could fit in. A Facebook post where he gloated to friends back in the SA winter about eating outdoors on a summer evening.

Dinner at an outdoor cafe after our first day in Boston — where he had to buy a “B” cap so he could fit in. A Facebook post gloating to friends enduring the SA winter.

Boston+ Charles River

Biking along the Charles River — watching him speed off and do tricks to “impress” me (and being thankful that I forced him to wear a helmet when he pushed the limits a few times).

Boston+Public Garden+fountain

Sitting with my radio student at the Public Garden fountain where my professor held our radio class on a warm September afternoon — shortly after Marconi invented the technology. A circle I had wanted to complete for some time once I knew Mtuseni would study media in college like I had.

Watching Mtuseni become an excited kid at the aquarium, just like when we were in Cape Town. He loves penguins (and sharks). In another life maybe should have been a marine biologist, though we need to get him over his fear of the sea.

Watching Mtuseni become an excited kid at the aquarium, just like when we were in Cape Town. He loves penguins (and sharks). In another life maybe he should have been a marine biologist, though we need to get him over his fear of the sea.

Boston+Public Garden

Having Mtuseni meet and connect with good friends — who were excited to meet him and who know his story and have celebrated with and supported me through the ups and downs of my four years with him.

Taking him to the top of the Pru and pointing out all the places we had been to. You forget how amazing it is to be in a skyscraper for the first time.

Taking him to the top of the Pru and pointing out all the places we had been to. You forget how amazing it is to be in a skyscraper for the first time.

Watching the Fourth of July fireworks along the Esplanade on a perfect summer night, tinged with an atmosphere of healing and strength and pride as the first large event following the marathon bombings.

Watching the Fourth of July fireworks along the Esplanade on a perfect summer night, tinged with an atmosphere of healing and strength and pride as the first large event following the marathon bombings.

Taking Mtuseni to the gym and watching him try to bulk up his skinny self in two weeks -- followed by his ongoing quest to try every crazy energy drink flavor not sold in South Africa.

Taking Mtuseni to the gym and watching him try to bulk up his skinny self in two weeks — followed by his ongoing quest to try every crazy energy drink flavor not sold in South Africa.

Bowing to his obsession and taking him to a huge classic car show -- and seeing the '75 Camaro that was the joy of my early 20s and the '66 Impala that took our family to the beach.

Bowing to his obsession and taking him to a huge classic car show — and pointing out the ’75 Camaro that was the joy of my early 20s and the ’66 Impala that took our family to the beach…

Bugatti

…and his crazy thrill at seeing a Bugatti parked outside the Mandarin Oriental hotel. This one went on his Facebook immediately (where he claimed the car was his!)

Fenway Park+Boston

Taking a Fenway Park tour and watching the obsessed Kaizer Chiefs soccer fan listen intently to the guide’s stories of “the Curse” and other Red Sox lore…

Fenway Park

…and seeing this hopeful radio announcer and budding journalist experience sitting in the press box high above home plate.

Hampton Beach

As when we were in Cape Town, watching Mtuseni’s love-hate game with the ocean. Some day I’ll get him fully in. If not for cell phones in our pockets, I would have thrown him in — it was 98 degrees!

__________

Aside from these “events” — some of my favorite times during Mtuseni’s visit were just simple things. Indeed, when I asked him a couple weeks ago what he missed about being in the US, one thing he said was “having breakfast with you.”

The things that resonated for me are taking him clothes shopping to create the new “grown up” look he wants. His daily ironing (because at home the iron is a plain metal one that heats up on the stove). Hearing his laugh and squeaky “excited” voice over Sheldon’s antics on The Big Bang Theory (“That guy is crazy, man!”) Seeing how much a guy his age can eat (and knowing that anytime access to food doesn’t happen at home). Untangling the mess that he made of his laptop and lecturing him about it (and him actually listening!). And watching him sleep in the morning — marveling that this kid from Africa who I encountered online by chance through a nonprofit is in my house…and at the center of my heart and mind at all times. Crazy how the world works sometimes.

So yes, in the final analysis Mtuseni’s visit was amazing — a blend of fun and frustration, laughter and anger, closeness and conflict that is a microcosm of real-life parenthood. And yes, with his visitor visa in place for the next ten years, I’m already figuring out how to get him here next year.

Chillaxing on a boat in Newburyport Harbor.

Chillaxing on a boat in Newburyport Harbor.


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Nvm me-46Money’s been tight for Mtuseni and me the past year — though our individual experiences of financial hardship clearly differ. Luckily his tuition bills are winding down, which will ease the pressure on me. But the squeeze continues unabated for Mtuseni. His mom’s salary was recently cut to about $42 a week. South Africa is raising the price of gas, which will likely increase his commuting costs. And as he gets busier with school and additional activities, there is always some new bill to pay — including a wisdom tooth that needs to be pulled.

A couple weeks ago Mtuseni and I discussed his allowance and expenses — and I was dismayed to hear that, once again, he doesn’t have money to eat lunch at school. He has enough for a Coke or a hot dog, but not both. And he doesn’t eat breakfast at home, so his siblings can have bread before they go to school. With my own bills mounting, I’m looking at ways to raise his allowance once again.

But in January and February, Mtuseni had his first real job working as a campus assistant at school. Although the $10 he earned for an 8-hour day is shocking by US standards, evidently it’s acceptable there. He was happy to earn some money and get out of the settlement for summer vacation. By his standards, he had a nice chunk of cash — more than he’d ever earned before. Unfortunately some of it was earmarked for fixing his laptop, which he broke three months after I bought it. I asked him what he felt was fair to contribute to the cost, and was surprised and impressed by his suggestion of R1000 for a R2800 repair. I feel badly asking him to pay, but he’s famous for losing and breaking things. Working many days to pay for repairing something might make him think twice — or think, period — before he does something stupid like sit on a laptop!

Even with the laptop repair, he still had money left from his salary. Wanting to teach Mtuseni about financial responsibility, I had planned to talk to him about putting some away so he had a cushion for emergencies that frequently come up. Or maybe just use it to buy himself better lunches during the day so his body and mind are fueled for studying.

South-African-womanBut before I got a chance to have this discussion with him, Mtuseni mentioned in an e-mail that he used some of his salary to buy his mom Nester a birthday gift. He was so busy in January that he forgot her birthday. That had never happened before, and he was truly distraught over it.

When we talked the other day, I asked him what he bought. Sound quality on our cell-to-cell calls can be tricky, and sometimes I have to ask him to repeat something. After a couple tries, if I can’t hear a point I let it go. So I asked what he bought for mom, and I couldn’t make out the answer at all. Second time, not much better. Being curious, I asked one more time, but all I picked up was “a pair of.” I told him I still didn’t hear but that was okay and began to shift the conversation. Then I heard loud and clear: “a pair of Converse All-Stars.”

I laughed for about a minute and Mtuseni said, “What? She likes those!” When I heard “pair” I had assumed earrings — but I guess jewelry doesn’t have much use in the settlement. Nester doesn’t go to many restaurants or red carpet events. And Converse sneakers, as an imported US brand, aren’t cheap in South Africa. I’m sure she loved this gift from her son. They have their battles, but he reveres her.

From a practical standpoint — for a kid who doesn’t have a couple bucks to afford lunch — buying a pair of sneakers for mom probably wasn’t the smartest use of his money. But you can’t fault Mtuseni’s heart on how he decided to spend his hard-earned salary. It’s not the first time I’ve been blown away by the goodness and love in this amazing kid. Sometimes I wonder if I’m worthy of him.


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