Archives For technology

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Today, that “Caddy in the ‘hood” concept seems to have been replaced by technology.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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I saw this CNN Heroes story recently about a retired school guidance counselor who is using her retirement savings to run a mobile computer learning lab in Florida. She understands the long-term risks kids face from being on the wrong side of the Digital Divide, so she outfitted Estella’s Brilliant Bus with computers connected via satellite to the Internet.

On the bus, kids of all ages get instruction in core academics, SAT and GED prep and Internet skills. Even adults benefit from software training and job search preparation. Running this program… at age 76? Estella truly is a hero.

Click to watch video profile on CNN.

Click to watch video profile on CNN.

One thing that struck me was her comment that the kids she serves don’t have access to computers at home, which leads them to fall behind more affluent peers in terms of computer experience. Her program builds upon the limited computer time these kids receive at school.

By comparison, Mtuseni’s little brother and sister have no access to computers at home or at school. The St. Ansgars K-12 public school they attend — which Mtuseni calls a farm school — has no computers, no library, and no heat. Mtuseni graduated from St. A’s, and his lack of computer savvy or familiarity with software and the Web has shocked me. He’s gotten better over the last few years, but an American fourth grader can probably run circles around him on a computer.

I hope that mobile computer lab programs like this exist in South Africa. I will have to look into it more… and am considering helping to bridge the digital divide in South Africa as a potential new career path for myself — once Mtuseni is finished with college and settled into a job.

I’ve been known to rail against the saturation of technology in the US these days — with TV commercials showing family members in separate rooms blissfully staring into their devices and having no direct interaction. Society will pay over time for this growing personal disconnect, if it isn’t already. But on the flip side, Musa and Bongeka and all the kids in Mtuseni’s settlement — and so many others — are missing out on knowledge and skills that can help them to rise out of poverty. As always, the key is balance — and access to digital technology across the world is way out of whack.

I think of how Rosa Parks and a bus opened doors for African Americans decades ago. Now Estella and her Brilliant Bus are helping new generations forge pathways to opportunity. I only hope that I can make a similar impact for South African kids someday.


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There was a time when one of the most important moments in a boy’s life was getting his first dog. These days that low-tech joy has been replaced by a kid getting his first computer.

When I went to college the pc was just being born; I graduated the year the Mac was introduced. So despite my dependence on computers for work now, and knowing in theory that even elementary school students use them, I couldn’t fully grasp Mtuseni’s dire need for one once he started college. I figured he could get by using the computers at school and in the public library. But his college has only a few computers for general use, and no access to printers (believe me, I’ve complained). And the nearby library in wealthy Sandton, steps from a mall full of designer goods, has all of two public computers. I set Mtuseni up with an open computer-use account at PostNet — which is like a Kinko’s — but his limited transportation (and the store being closed almost all weekend!) meant this provided little benefit.

Mtuseni kept lamenting that he needed a laptop. He could only borrow friends’ for short periods, and he couldn’t work well under the pressure. He wasn’t asking me for one; he never asked. But he complained about not having one. A lot. For a year I stalled, partly due to budget constraints. Laptops are more expensive in South Africa than in the US, then tack on a whopping 14% VAT. And I couldn’t send him one from here, as he can receive only two mail packages per year with very low monetary value. Plus, a laptop isn’t like a cellphone — he wouldn’t know how to set one up on his own. As any parent would say, “It’s not a toy!”

But after some very dicey grades last semester and with more substantive classes on the horizon, the writing was on the wall. He really did need a laptop. So I put out some feelers… along with some requests to the universe to help me solve this particularly tricky challenge. Amazingly, the universe listened. And responded.

I wrote a post not long ago that mentioned Mtuseni’s struggles with learning Excel and needing to repeat the class as it’s a graduation requirement. Another blogger in Johannesburg read it and commented that she runs free computer classes on the weekends and that Mtuseni was welcome to attend and learn Excel. Long story short… Jacquie has become an incredible ally college-student-with-laptopand supporter of Mtuseni. Not only is he enjoying a far better quality of instruction in her Saturday classes than at school, but she did some research and found me a great quote on a laptop. Mtuseni received it last Saturday!

He is over the moon and having fun figuring out how to do all the administrative tasks and make it his own. When I asked how it felt to have his own computer he said, “It’s awesome, very awesome.” The laptop is worth almost two month’s salary for his mom; this was way out of reach for him. He said “It’s the greatest gift I’ve got.” As always, I’m happy when he’s happy. Little does he know that I now have much higher expectations for his grades — and he better step it up! (I have a feeling he will.)

So a tremendous thank you to Jacquie for all her assistance (and patience with my endless questions!) Please visit her blog and give her a good word. And thanks also to Fred, who I don’t know but who has been helping Mtuseni with all the technical stuff in getting set up.

As for me… I’m on to the next challenge. Finding Mtuseni a dentist. Somehow I don’t think he’ll find the experience to be “very awesome.”


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