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Two Sides of 50

January 19, 2014 — 2 Comments


An ongoing item in the news this month has been Michelle Obama’s birthday — noteworthy because she turns 50. She celebrated with an extra week of me-time in Hawaii after Christmas when Barack and the kids left. And she had a posh cocktail-and-dessert party in the White House. Happy, sad, or scary — it’s a milestone; might as well celebrate in style if you can.

I saw an article about celebrities turning 50 this year. It’s weird to think of people who in your mind are frozen in a certain younger time hitting the half-century mark. If they’re that old, how old am I? Rob Lowe is turning 50. I hated his smarmy character and Peter Pan pretty-boy face in St. Elmo’s Fire — and I still hate him. Sandra Bullock is gonna be 50. Wasn’t she just a young ingenue driving an out-of-control bus a couple months ago with Keanu Reeves (also 50 this year)? Add to the list Courteney Cox, Matt Dillon, Melissa Gilbert (isn’t she still in pigtails running across the prairie?!). Even Brad Pitt is hitting the Big 5-0 this year. Lately I’ve noticed his face looks as lined and tired as mine — and I’m four years older. Sweet!!

And in all this birthday talk of celebrities — and us regular people, too — is the idea that 50 is the new 30. It’s just the beginning of a wonderful new chapter in our amazing, privileged American lives, and we have decades ahead of us to fulfill dreams and create new ones. Hell, some guy in California just went skydiving for the first time on his 100 birthday! Maybe 50 is the new 15!

Mtuseni's FamilySomeone else turned 50 this month — Mtuseni’s mom, Nester. She’s a pretty, petite, gracious woman. I can’t wait to spend more time with her on my next visit to Johannesburg. She has probably asked god to bless me 10,000 times for all I’ve done for Mtuseni; she could not offer him the same on her meager salary. She has a hard life, raising three kids alone in a brick shack with no electricity or plumbing. Her oldest son Moses was killed by a car a few years ago. She’s had a few health scares lately — I think from stress and exhaustion — but there’s little money for doctors and certainly none for regular checkups. And of course the first 30 years of her life were spent under apartheid.

If 50 is the new 30 in the US, the calculus is a little different in South Africa. The average life span for a black woman in South Africa is 49. Does this mean Nester is living on borrowed time now, at age 50? When I pass the US male life expectancy of 77, I’m sure it’ll feel like the rest are lucky bonus years. How many bonus years does Nester have left? The number of people in Mtuseni’s community and circles who have died in the four years I’ve known him is shocking — and I haven’t heard about everyone, I’m sure.

So in addition to worrying about Mtuseni getting an internship, getting a job, and staying healthy — there’s always a small knot in the back of my mind worrying about Nester’s health. Because that precious family depends on her — and 50 has a different meaning in their corner of the world.

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Helping a teenager navigate the ups and downs of life is hard enough when he lives down the hall. It’s a lot tougher when the kid is half a world away. Somehow, I’ve been able to help Mtuseni get where he is today…relatively confident and mature as he settles into his last year of college and sets his sights on the future.

It hasn’t been easy. Often an idea that might benefit Mtuseni — which could be implemented easily in the United States — begins in South Africa with a disjointed Google search followed by persistence, resourcefulness, and my varying degrees of patience. Due to a mix of culture and systemic issues, things down there don’t happen as quickly as this do-it-yesterday Northeasterner would prefer. Yet eventually the mountain moves.

But I haven’t done it all on my own. I’ve been lucky to encounter some people in South Africa who have been allies in my mission to create a better life for Mtuseni. Through some sort of miracle that I still don’t understand, this blog connected me with a woman named Jacquie. Reading about Mtuseni’s struggles in his Excel class last year, she wrote and mentioned a weekend program she coordinates, offering free computer classes. Despite rolling his eyes when I first told him of the program, Mtuseni thoroughly enjoyed it — building up his spreadsheet skills and his confidence.


Mtuseni and his Saturday morning Excel classmates

Beyond the class, Jacquie has provided other support for Mtuseni, and he values her as a role model in the professional world. For me, she has offered an insider’s perspective when South African logistics have me tearing my hair out– and been a welcome sounding board when a certain illogical, moody teenager drives me mad. And after hearing from Mtuseni about disapproving stares we received from whites when I was with him in Johannesburg, it’s encouraging for me to know that not all white South Africans harbor outdated attitudes about race.

So hats off to Jacquie for her commitment and contributions to my long-distance son. It truly does take a village — either around town or across hemispheres — to raise a kid.

Be sure to stop by Jacquie’s blog and check out her beautiful photography! And tip your hat to her. She’s earned it many times over.

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I saw on GMA this morning that all the Oscar nominees who didn’t win a statuette will take home something else instead: a bag of goodies valued at $45,000. The consolation package is called “Everybody Wins,” because evidently these folks are no different from third graders at a soccer tournament — and their lives are so deprived of material things. Thank god promotional marketing can carry the losers through their grief.

South-Africa+Zulu-traditional+apparelMeanwhile, in a parallel but all-too-real universe, Mtuseni told me yesterday that his mom is stressed because she was “demoted” at work. How far down you can go from cleaning planes after flights I’m not sure, but her recent extended absences due to illness (with no pay, of course) seemed to be the reason. How this affects what she does on the job isn’t clear, but her monthly salary has been cut 25 percent from R2000 to R1500. So now Nester will earn $168 a month to raise her three kids.

Anybody wanna do the math to figure out how many times $168 goes into $45,000?

I hope the disappointed nominees are comforted by their Everybody Wins gift bags. Meanwhile, I’m going to see how I can buy some grocery gift cards so Mtuseni’s little sister and brother can eat.

Hooray for Hollywood.

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Source: Reuters/Yahoo!

I’ve been reading about Mamphela Ramphele, the medical doctor, anthropologist and former World Bank director who recently formed a new political party in South Africa. Called Agang in Sesotho (meaning Build), the party has been created in response to the long-ruling ANC party’s lackluster progress in addressing the deep poverty and social inequities in Africa’s largest economy. I have often griped at the social problems that affect Mtuseni and his family and community — and expressed amazement that a country with the eye-popping wealth in Sandton can have public schools with no libraries, computers, or heat.

Granted, my perspective on South Africa is through a fairly narrow lens, but the extent of core problems that I witnessed in Johannesburg and Cape Town can surely be extrapolated to areas of the country that are not centers of money or power. Although many black South Africans scrape out an existence living in abject poverty, a considerable majority support the ANC because it is the party that ended apartheid under Nelson Mandela. But that was 20 years ago. In the apartheid era, South Africa was like a house on fire. The ANC put out the blaze and slapped on a few coats of paint, but never made the necessary structural repairs. The house is still falling down.

Reading about Dr. Ramphele and her background — including a fellowship at Harvard — I thought of Hillary Clinton: another political figure with a commanding presence. A symbol of profound change. And an accomplished professional who brings to government not only intelligence but also the humanist perspective demonstrated by so many women in US politics. I felt an excitement learning about the doctor’s story and her vision for South Africa.

Dr. Ramphele said in a recent news article, “My generation has to confess to the young people of our country: we have failed you.” As Mtuseni studies by candlelight to obtain a college degree that I often fear may prove useless in the face of 60 percent youth unemployment, I can certainly agree with her statement.

After two decades of male-dominated ANC governance, perhaps it’s time for a woman to crack the country’s political glass ceiling. Perhaps black South Africans will realize that continuing to vote for a party based on gratitude for long-past achievements does not guarantee a bright future. Perhaps Mamphela Ramphele and Agang can indeed build South Africa — so that Mtuseni and his family and friends can enjoy the life of health, education and opportunity that was promised when apartheid was dismantled. As another upstart candidate once reminded a nation adrift, there is always hope.