Archives For South Africa

stadium trio

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After two weeks on the road, we got a respite from hotels for a few days, staying with a friend in Atlanta. It was nice to have some home-cooked meals. Wait… did Annie cook? No. Hahaha. But it was nice to hang out with an old friend and “lil’ sis” again after many years. (Yet we forgot to get a photo of us — biggest regret of the trip!)

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Biltong Bar in Atlanta

Calling biltong “beef jerky” doesn’t do it justice. Biltong Bar is great!

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The first morning Mtuseni and I went into swanky Buckhead to pick up his new glasses — and stumbled on a biltong place! I’m not a huge meat fan, and American beef jerky is like old shoe leather. But biltong — South African beef jerky — is thick and meaty and succulent. I first tried it on my trip to SA in 2012 and have been craving it since.

We sat at the bar and got a biltong platter with chutneys. Mtuseni was in heaven — and raved about how biltong is so much better than jerky (though he always eats jerky when he’s in the US.) Cool vibe, great decor, enticing menu — we need a Biltong Bar in Boston! 

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biltong in

Another taste of South African home in America — biltong and chutney!

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Mtuseni found a kindred spirit in Atlanta in my friend’s son: another soccer fanatic! They figured out we could get tickets to an Atlanta United game — so suddenly we were on a MARTA train to the stadium.

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ballers

These guys are both pretty deft with handling a soccer ball. I’ve got video to prove it!

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The atmosphere outside was lively. Mtuseni and Nolan would have happily kicked a soccer ball around all night! The stadium was a sellout… and the facility is impressive with the retractable roof. 

Once the match started the guys were all in; I surfed my phone. I don’t get soccer. The ball bounces around the field like pinball — and everyone goes crazy if it even approaches the goal. But any pro sporting event is a pretty cool production, and Mtuseni was thrilled.

Oh, and Atlanta won. 

stadium pair

pair capitol back

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On our second day in DC, we hit a couple of the Smithsonians: the Museum of Natural History and the National Air and Space Museum. I would have liked to see some art, but Mtuseni isn’t much for colors on canvas.

The natural history museum was okay. It felt a bit dated after the fresh, engaging exhibits of the African American Museum. The room of diamonds and other gems is pretty amazing.

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elephant in Natural History Museum Wasington DC

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Mtuseni watched a talk about genetics, spit into a test tube, and swirls of his DNA appeared. He poured it into a tiny vial and wore it on a bracelet. That was pretty cool.

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vial

Mtuseni’s DNA comes alive. Science!

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One milestone was set today: Mtuseni’s worst meal on the entire trip. Oddly, the Washington Mall area seems to lack restaurants. We didn’t want to walk to find one in the blazing heat, so we got lunch at a park service kiosk. Mtuseni got some kind of hot sandwich wrapped in paper foil…probably on the shelf for a week. I warned him, but he didn’t listen. It was awful, and he can eat just about anything. Whenever we discussed our meals on the trip, he griped about that sandwich! Hahaha.

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Planes and rockets in lobby of National Air and Space Museum, Washington DC

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The air and space museum was a blast! For Mtuseni, a typical guy who is all about cars and sports, the planes and rockets and space ships fit the bill. For me — a closet space nerd (actual science, no Star Trek/Star Wars crap) — it was super cool. And it was neat to show Mtuseni the Apollo ships that my father worked on in the 1960s. It was a fun afternoon, like two boys in a candy store. 

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Missiles in lobby of National Air and Space Museum, Washington DC

Mtuseni joked that all the missiles were live and that Trump was going to push the button one day. Hmmm… nothing would surprise me at this point.

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Model of Wright Brothers plane in National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC

The Wright Brothers’ first plane… flown by a model, not a person!

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mtu wright bros plane

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Neil Armstrong space suit

Neil Armstrong’s space suit. Mtuseni loved this museum. Me too! 

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We took the Metro back to Arlington and looked for someplace to have dinner. We turned a corner and saw Nando’s — a popular chain in South Africa! Mtuseni was thrilled to have a little taste of home.

Nando’s is so damn good… I’m like a super-fan. I looked later into buying a franchise for Boston. (Waaay out of my price range!) The peri-peri sauce — made from African bird’s eye chili — is crazy hot. (Mtuseni warned me to go with the medium, but I had no complaints.)

The meal more than made up for his horrible sandwich at lunch… and we walked back to our hotel full and happy and tired.

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Nando's in Arlington, Virginia

Nando’s? In America? We need some in Boston please!

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nandos menu

A familiar feeling of home in South Africa… 8,000 miles away.

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Nando's in Arlington, Virginia

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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Mtu1Last week Mtuseni was chatting with me about City Year and how much he was enjoying it — and I told him how happy that made me. Then he shifted gears and said “But part of me gets nervous.” When I asked why, he said he was worried about diverging from his radio career path by joining the program. I assured him that the door to radio hasn’t been locked shut forever, and that City Year will give him new skills and a broader network for whatever his career might be. I told him to just ride this raft down the river, take in the scenery, and enjoy the experience. He agreed that he would, and seemed to feel better.

Later, I thought about his simple statement to me… “I get nervous.” I could never have said that to my father, or to my mother, at his age or at any age. Growing up in my family, any expression of vulnerability was brushed off, squelched, or criticized. Not that my parents were trying to somehow toughen us up, but just that they couldn’t be bothered. So as a short, chubby, brainy, fey, shy boy, I learned to stuff all my fears, hurts, and insecurities inside. It wasn’t until a couple decades later that I was finally able to let all those dark feelings out in a therapist’s office. But for years, they weighed me down like Jacob Marley’s chains.

I’ve watched Mtuseni grow so much. We’ve had many open, heartfelt talks over the years about his fears and worries, stemming from personal self-doubts to feeling “less than” living in a shack settlement. He’s made enormous strides in terms of confidence; I don’t hear much of the nervous boy I first met. Even though he’s brimming with young 20-something bravado these days, I’m glad that he trusts me enough to share his vulnerabilities. Just being able to express them — and have them validated — can make them float away. I wish I’d had that option at his age.

As always, I feel profoundly blessed that I can share Mtuseni’s moments of success — and his moments of weakness. It reminds us both that not only are we men trying to forge a path through life, we’re merely human. And that’s okay.


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