Archives For youth

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Actually, in Mtuseni’s case I should say that adults never listen. One thing that made guiding him in the early years easy and enjoyable was that he listened dutifully to everything I said and (usually) acted accordingly. Perhaps this came from the respect and deference that South African kids give to their parents.

As he got older, that changed. In his last year of college, we went through a belated period of rebellion — like he was 21 going on 15. It was jarring for me. I wasn’t used to pushback from him. Or outright rudeness. But I realized that he was just establishing his own independent identity. And at the same time testing me to see if I’d desert him. Like any boy who’s been abandoned by his birth father, Mtuseni has tried countless times to push me away to see if I’ll stick around. I have — and he knows now that I’m not going anywhere.

But in his newly and rightfully formed independence, Mtuseni picks and chooses what guidance to accept from me. One longstanding issue has been his nutrition and health. When he started college, he was always getting sick. He gets sick a lot in general. Knowing that his food intake is limited — and when he does eat, it often isn’t nutritiously dense — I told him to buy some vitamins. He said those “magic pills” are expensive, so on my first visit I brought him a couple of jars. Sure enough, he rarely got sick. When he came to visit me, he went home with more. And I always sent him a jar in his care packages. But once he started working, I stopped. If he was an adult earning a salary, he could buy his own vitamins.

He didn’t, and he’s been sick a lot lately. I’ve told him over and over to buy vitamins, but he doesn’t listen. And I’m not paying overnight secure shipping and duty fees and hassling with the inept and corrupt South African postal service for weeks to send him a couple jars of vitamins. He’s a big boy now. He can live with the consequences of his action. Or lack of it.

Bu now he’s been depressed for months. While much of it is situational, I recently read about the role of Vitamin B12 deficiency in depression. We naturally get B12 from meat, eggs, and dairy. As Mtuseni has told me many times, meat isn’t often in the family budget. And the lack of a fridge means they don’t have milk. Meals are usually veggies with pap or rice. Filling, but not nutritionally complete. Sometimes at work he’ll buy a hot dog for lunch, but often it’s just a bag of chips. I don’t know how he manages to stand upright sometimes.

So now, a simple multivitamin would improve his physical health during the cold Johannesburg winter in his unheated shack. And the B12 might alleviate his depression a bit. (Getting a better job and out of the settlement would do more for his mental state, but every little bit helps.) It breaks my heart to hear him so deflated and defeated. He’s always had a grouchy streak, but he never lacked overall optimism and idealism. That energy and spark is what made me love him from the first day.

So the next time we talk, I’ll mention the vitamins again. He’ll make excuses or vague promises. But he won’t get them. One thing I’ve always admired in Mtuseni is his stubbornness. He was always adamant that he would get out of the ‘hood and create a better life for himself. But that stubborn attitude can sometimes work against him. Whether he’s testing me again, or waiting for me to send vitamins across the world, or they just don’t fit into his razor-thin budget… I don’t know.

What I do know is that I miss those days when I told him to jump and he did so without question. And saw the benefits. I had the rare kid who listened. Now I have an adult who doesn’t. And the situation makes me want to get some Vitamin B12 for myself.

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Mirror, Mirror

March 28, 2018 — Leave a comment

IMG_6220Wow, where did the time go? The past year was pocked with potholes and speed bumps — both in South Africa and at home. All of it was unexpected. But perhaps the biggest, and most unsettling, surprise was Mtuseni’s emotional downturn.

Last fall, he started saying that he was tired a lot. He said he was getting old. I chided him and insisted that 25-year-olds don’t get tired. At that age I had a full-time job and a grueling after-work gig swilling beer and smoking dope. And I was never tired. I’d kill for half of that energy now.

Then his fatigue expanded into chats tinged with sour, hopeless thoughts. He’d been unhappy in his job for some time, but it had turned to bitter resignation. He was now halfway through his 20s and he was still living with mom and the kids in the shack. Still counting pennies. Nowhere near what his expectations were when he was in college. He spent the Christmas Festive Season home alone, because he had no money to visit cousins at the shore in Durban. Instead he cleaned his room, tossing out clothes the rats had eaten. And he slept. Tired. Always tired.

Early on I was concerned that he might be sick. His home environment and diet are always wreaking havoc on his immune system. But eventually I recognized the problem. Mtuseni was depressed.

I called him more often — and made sure that I talked less and listened more. He’s always been a tough nut to crack, with a complex set of defenses. But they’ve softened over the years, at least with me. He trusts me. He would feel better after venting, and I gave him words of encouragement. But it didn’t change his circumstances.

He’s in an almost impossible situation. The dire economic statistics, lack of resources, logistical challenges, and other hurdles to success in South Africa have me stumped. After being Mtuseni’s “magician” for so long, my powers feel depleted.

It’s hard to hear my usually happy boy feeling so down. I realized that when your kid hurts, you hurt.

It seems weird that it took me all these years to recognize this. But from the first day we met, Mtuseni has always been a pretty happy, goofy, idealistic kid. Yeah, he’s had his moody, grumpy, sullen moments, but they didn’t last long. He’d always bounce back with that warm heart, determined optimism, and special sparkle that makes me adore him. I’d never experienced him being in emotional distress for so long, and I was surprised by how much it brought me down. Just as I mirror his joy, I also mirror his pain.

Huh. Another facet of the parent experience. Strange that I never saw that coming. And surprising how much his pain hurts me. But a few months ago this magician still managed to find a rabbit in his hat. We are waiting on what I hope will be very exciting news any day now. And I cannot wait to celebrate and share his joy! Fingers crossed…

 

 

The Lying Game

May 27, 2017 — Leave a comment

Back in my early days with Mtuseni, I thought I had caught him in a lie. I can’t recall what the situation was, but it didn’t make me happy. I’d recently committed to paying for his college, guiding him to a better future — basically I was all in for the long haul. But if he was not going to be truthful with me, then we had a major problem. Lying signals disrespect, and that was unacceptable given the sacrifices I was making and was prepared to make for him.

I confronted him about it on a phone call, because this was too important for texting. He became upset and insulted. He explained the situation and said earnestly, “I will never lie to you.” And in all these days, he hasn’t.

It’s very hard to guide a child who’s half a world away. Having mutual trust is important, and I’ve always had that with Mtuseni. So I was upset — and surprised and disappointed — when I became aware that Bongeka has likely been lying to me the past few months. Last year in her first year of private school we didn’t have direct contact; I just paid the bills and got updates from Mtuseni and the principal. But this year, having bought her a tablet for school and a data plan, we’ve been able to chat on WhatsApp.

It’s different than with Mtuseni. He and I first met via webcam chats, so we had the electronic face-to-face, next-best-thing-to-being-there experience. That allowed us to build a strong bond so that when the webcam program ended, we were comfortable chatting via text. By comparison, Bongeka only knows me through text exchanges — and meeting once when she was little.

She doesn’t chat with me often, but it’s been great to hear how much she’s grown up and how she likes to learn. She comes across as bright and curious and polite, with a sharp sense of humor. I’ve been pressing her to take advantage of everything the school has to offer, especially the after-school activities, from sports to clubs to extra-help sessions. Any opportunity she has for new learning experiences is good. And every minute away from the settlement and her unheated shack is also a plus.There were no extra activities in her public school; I want her to benefit as much as possible from private school, and for me to get my money’s worth.

So last term I looked at the activity calendar and told her I wanted her to join at least two, plus some help sessions. She agreed, but then always had an excuse when I followed up — usually saying the club never opened or somehow blaming the school. When second term began I told her again that I expected her to do an activity every afternoon; they are only about 45 minutes. I told her it’s important to try new things and meet new people. She agreed and told me what she would join. When I checked in last week, she said that they still hadn’t opened.

Then I saw photos of the school science fair on Facebook, and which had been listed on my second term calendar. I asked why she wasn’t in the science fair. She said she never heard about it. If I knew about it 8,000 miles away, there’s no way she never heard about it. Judging by the photos, it was a big to-do. And Bongeka likes science!

When I emailed the principal to get some clarification, she told me that the club Bongeka said she would join was already in full swing. And that the science fair was promoted throughout the school. And that she probably was “not being truthful.” To put it bluntly, she was lying to me.

I was pissed. I’m still kinda pissed. When she texts to ask for money for field trips, I send it. I make sure she has extra money to buy snacks and lunches at school so she doesn’t feel different from her friends. (There are not many kids in her school who live in shacks with no electricity.) Now, knowing that I expect her to join clubs, she lies to me. Repeatedly.

The principal said she’d discuss it with her and we could Skype about it. She told me this is a tricky age, when kids’ hormones are going crazy and they’re trying to figure out who they are. I forgot what it’s like to be 13. Looking back, I was a basket case. And I have no idea what it’s like to be a 13-year-old-girl. Thrown into a school where families have more money and resources than her uneducated mother. Trying to hold her own as a “shack girl” among peers that go home to electricity and TV and indoor plumbing. Mtuseni still struggles with that, keeping his “shack identity” a secret from his colleagues at work.

I met Mtuseni at 16, a goofball but with a strong sense of integrity…one step into manhood. Bongeka is a young adolescent, a girl, a child standing at the foot of a long rickety bridge to adulthood. Am I happy that she’s been lying to me? No. But with the principal’s help we’ll get her back on track. The principal told me that if Bongeka makes the right choices now, she’ll be fine when she comes out of this phase … at around 16 or 17. That seems like a long way off. But Bongeka’s a smart dork — like I was once. I wish someone had offered support and guidance to me at that age. Parenting was different back then. I flailed for years.

This lying game has to stop — and I need to steel myself for a long walk with Bongeka across that bridge.


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Jobs Crisis

May 6, 2017 — Leave a comment

Just over a year ago, Mtuseni started his first job. Despite his college diploma and City Year success, this was no easy task. South Africa’s overall unemployment rate is about 25 percent and the rate for youth is over 60 percent. So getting a job, earning some real money, and gaining workplace skills and experience to put on his resume were welcome developments on his life path. A cause for celebration!

Now that initial rosy glow has worn off. As with most new graduates, working a full-time job is a cold slap in the face compared to the vibrancy and variety of college life. When I used to complain about the hamster wheel drudgery of my various jobs, my father always said dryly, “That’s why they call it work.”

Yet for Mtuseni, the dissatisfaction and disillusionment are greater. It was thrilling at first that his salary was twice what his mother makes – more than anyone in the family has ever earned. But his mother only makes about $250 a month. While the dollar-to-rand conversion always confuses me, in some respects the cost of living in South Africa is comparable to the United States. He often complains to me about rising taxi fares or being unable to pay for a movie – small amounts that should not pose a problem to someone who works so hard.

And he does work hard; he’s always tired. Living on the outskirts of Johannesburg, he wakes up at 4:30, heats bath water on a portable gas stove, then has a two-hour commute in cramped jitney taxis. He makes the same trip coming home. The job has also changed as the company constantly retools. He now spends all his time on the computer, which bothers his eyes. And he often is tasked with taking customer service calls. This makes me laugh and makes him miserable – because while Mtuseni can be incredibly charming, he can also be a surly son-of-a-bitch. He recently was passed over for a small promotion, so now he’s just going through the motions with a “whatever” attitude, knowing that labor laws make it almost impossible to fire him. This is a long fall from the teambuilding breakfast he held in his first excited, idealistic month on the job.

Mtuseni is also hamstrung by his “second” job – as man of the house and family protector. He never asked for this role; his father walked out when he was in high school and his older brother was killed six years ago. Out of love and responsibility, he feels compelled to contribute to the house and protect his young siblings from the toxic and dangerous influences of the settlement community.

And I’ve added to his burden by having him be my “ears on the ground” since Bongeka started private school. At this point, I can’t do much more than pay the tuition bills – it’s difficult for me to actively monitor and guide a 13-year-old girl half a world away who’s not much of a talker or texter and is still a relative stranger. Their mother has little interest in the kids’ schooling, so he needs to help his sister make the most of this opportunity… and my investment in her

So Mtuseni is languishing in a job that uses none of his communication or radio skills and doesn’t ignite his passion for community service. And he feels trapped by loyalty to the family. It’s admirable and logical for him to take this on, but not really fair. He’s worked hard to pursue a vision of life outside the settlement.

Ideally, what should Mtuseni’s job be? Building his own life. Having a blast. Living out loud. People my age would give anything to be 24 again. When I was in my 20s, I had unlimited energy and my head was full of ideas and possibilities. My future stretched out to infinity. I was sure I’d live forever.

Yet at 24 Mtuseni is already feeling tired and dispirited. This has been putting little cracks in my heart for months. I keep coming back to a photo of him at a City Year training. He radiates pure joy at learning and having new experiences, and his future path seems wide open and bright.

I have tons of pictures of him. Even though it’s not perfectly framed, this is one of my favorites because, well, that face. When he’s passionate and engaged and happy, Mtuseni is magic. I want to … I need to … see that bright, hopeful face again.

Because in the end… given all the external and personal obstacles facing him, helping my young champion recapture and maintain that level of satisfaction and vitality and fulfillment and happiness and hope is my job. I need to get to work.


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