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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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iPhones in the ‘Hood

March 17, 2015 — 3 Comments

IMG_1656I will always remember my freshman sociology professor in the late 70s talking about why blacks in the ghetto often drove fancy Cadillacs: because they wanted to look important out in the world. (It was part of a lecture on how we present ourselves in society.) The liberal but somewhat naive middle class suburbanite in me winced — intellectually accepting the concept yet still thinking it was ultimately racist. But over the years I had friends from the black community who validated that thinking. Basically, being in a nice car out in the world, nobody knows how deprived your home life is.

Today, that “Caddy in the ‘hood” concept seems to have been replaced by technology. Or at least that’s the case in South Africa. Mtuseni is always raving about Apple this and Apple that. Although I have an iPhone (mainly because the antennas are better … and I still use the phone to actually make calls), I think Apple products are overpriced and over-precious — and I was a huge Mac person from the mid-80s. But Mtuseni can’t resist the company’s endless hype — or, lately, the peer pressure.

This kid goes through phones like potato chips. In the five years I’ve known him, I’ve had to buy him three. (I’m on my third phone in 12 years.) Though I balk every time and threaten “never again,” he can’t be without a phone because it’s our lifeline. So I always buy him a new phone.

Last fall his Blackberry was dying and their cheap data plan was being phased out, so he had to get a non-Berry phone. With almost zero wifi in the country and no more easy Internet access at college, he needed to upgrade to a smart phone to answer emails. Mtuseni can’t afford a monthly contract plan, and I couldn’t cover it because South Africa no longer takes credit card numbers from out of country — and god knows how much data he’d burn through with an open contract anyway! So I had to buy Mtuseni a full-price phone. He did some research and found an inexpensive Samsung model. And he loved it — for a while. But now all his new friends at City Year, who are better off financially, have iPhones. So he’s been griping about how bad his phone is and dropping not-so-subtle hints about an iPhone. His Samsung is barely six months old!

Yesterday he texted me some new Apple program offering “discounted” old iPhones in South Africa. I snapped and told him I’m sick and tired of hearing about phones. He got pissy and went to sleep — and I felt terrible. We hit these impasses sometimes, and they’re always resolved. One of the greatest things I’ve learned through Mtuseni is that it’s possible to have conflict and maintain a relationship. Coming from a family where people haven’t spoken to each other for years over long-forgotten slights, that realization is a game changer for me.

But it doesn’t change my mind on the phone issue. Like most parents, it’s a constant juggling act for me to cover my own bills, pay off Mtuseni’s tuition debt, and contribute to his expenses. But my main concern is that he has enough money to eat nutritious meals during the day and have warm clothes in his unheated shack during the coming South African winter. Whether he has a sexy bells-and-whistles phone for all to see is probably at the very bottom of my list. I bought him more clothes last week than I’ve bought myself in five years. He’ll survive with a lowly Android phone.

Fortunately Mtuseni is not particularly materialistic; he’s much more interested in helping others and his values are in the right place. Still, he’s not completely immune from the desire to keep up with the Johannesburg Joneses.


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Weight of the World

November 23, 2014 — 3 Comments

Mtuseni Nov 19, 04It’s hard to pinpoint when I reached that state of parenthood where every picture of my kid fills me with love and emotion. It doesn’t matter whether Mtuseni looks happy or grouchy or sick or bored: when I see a new photo of him my heart melts. But the photo he posted on WhatsApp the other day hit me another way. He just looks sad, and it nicked my heart. I asked him later if everything was okay and he said “I’m well” as he almost always does. But I know that with my taciturn son the still waters run very deep. Mtuseni looks like he has the weight of the world on his shoulders — and in many ways he does.

He’s been out of college classes now for a year — and it’s been almost five months since he graduated. He’s shocked that he can’t find a radio job. Not even an interview. Hell, not even a Christmas job. What shocks me is that he somehow thought he’d be handed a job ten minutes after graduation. I’ve told him that college grads in the US don’t even find jobs that quickly, but somehow he thought the very-real accomplishment of finishing college would carve a golden path through the mess of South Africa’s 60 percent youth unemployment rate.

Young people want everything right now, if not yesterday. And when you’re living in a shack, in a settlement where people resent you for opportunities you lucked into, that desire for quick change becomes desperation. There’s no more money from mom — just food and a bed — so his expenses all fall on me, which gnaws at his pride. The nearby community center where he could go online and job hunt no longer has Internet, and there are no library computers or wifi spots around. There’s no secure mail, so that application option is out.He seems to be more cut off just as he needs to be reaching out and branching out.

He’s frustrated and said he feels like South Africa is becoming a joke of the world. I don’t see things there getting much better any time soon. Was I naive and misleading to put him through college, telling him he’d have better opportunities? Even if a great job is far off, the experience helped him grow in so many ways that it was clearly worthwhile. And he’s resourceful and driven. He’s been helping set up a new community radio station in Diepsloot township… for free, but it’s experience. And we’re waiting to hear on his upcoming interview with City Year-South Africa. We met with the VP and toured the headquarters this summer in Boston, and Mtuseni was impressed with the people and the organization’s philosophy.

I’m lobbying hard for him to join City Year because it will greatly expand his network, give him more maturity (and a monthly stipend), and will add an impressive credential to his resume. Mtuseni told me that kind of thinking is a middle-class American luxury, and that when you’re living on the edge you just need a job now.

Because it’s tough being young and carrying the weight of a hard world on your shoulders.


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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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