Archives For youth

mtuseni photo-walletTen years ago this spring, Mtuseni’s father packed up and left. I don’t know much about the situation, and I’ve never written about him before. Truth be told, Samuel Mdletshe doesn’t figure highly in my mind.

But every now and then I think, “What kind of man does that to his son?” My response tends to be that he’s not a man at all.

For Samuel didn’t just abandon 16-year-old Mtuseni. He left his wife and two younger kids under age five. An older son, Moses, left with Samuel. I’ve seen photos of Mtuseni and Moses together as kids; they looked like typical, boisterous, happy, close brothers.

Mtuseni told me that he wanted to go with Samuel, but his father refused. Maybe he could only manage one kid. Or maybe he thought Mtuseni could help his mom with the little ones. To this day, Mtuseni doesn’t really know what happened. His parents fought a lot. One day Samuel left and took his brother, but not him. It’s rejection, pure and simple. Mtuseni doesn’t talk or think about it anymore, but I know he still hurts somewhere deep inside.

But where one door closes…

Several months after Samuel left, Mtuseni and I were introduced and began our mentoring sessions. And ten years later, he calls me dad. It’s been a decade of absolute joy — and hard work. Through every minute with him, all the highs and lows, I feel incredibly blessed and lucky.

17309850926_f42a780529_zFor Mtuseni is truly special — and I’m not someone who’s easily impressed. He’s curious, articulate, spirited, funny, caring, responsible, driven, and sweet. I adore him. I will say that my attention and support have helped Mtuseni become the fine person he is today, but much of it is just innate qualities he has, a spark he was born with.

When Mtuseni wows me with some insight on life … or talks about making a difference in the world … or cackles with his infectious laugh, I sometimes think about what Samuel is missing out on. So I circle back again to wonder… “How does a father walk away from an amazing kid like this?”

The idealist in me wants to find some way to give Samuel the benefit of the doubt. That maybe he figured his family would fare better without him. After all, I’ve been able to offer Mtuseni many beneficial experiences that were beyond his family’s reach. By comparison, Moses died a few years after he left with Samuel — hit by a car while crossing a highway, drunk and unemployed and adrift, yet another tragic South African statistic.

But Samuel couldn’t foresee the divergent paths for his sons. Their lives were not a factor in his decision. Samuel didn’t walk away to give his kids a better shot. He just walked away.

So I feel no sympathy when I have some heart-filling experience with Mtuseni. Samuel’s selfishness is his loss… and my profound gain.

Mtuseni was a boy when his father left. Today, he’s a better man than his father. That’s one thing that I do understand.

Mtu Fathers Day-rev-crop

 

 

Advertisements

Down… But Not Out

September 30, 2018 — Leave a comment

Oh, the magic of being in your 20s. When life stretches infinitely in front of you and everything seems possible. You’re full of vim and vigor and hope and possibility — and nothing can stop you.

I remember when Mtuseni felt that way. When he was learning and growing in college. When he graduated. When he joined City Year and became a leader and realized his dream of advancing his community. There are pictures of him from those days when I don’t think it’s humanly possible to have a broader, brighter smile.

But that was then. Mtuseni turned 26 last week — and is now in the back half of that magical decade. In America, that age would not be significant. The energy and possibility would still be at full throttle… and progress, in some form or other, would be occurring.

Mtuseni 26But progress is not common for young people in South Africa, and Mtuseni is not immune. In the 2+ years that he’s been at his dead-end admin job, he’s gone from “I can conquer the world” idealism … to an angry young man spouting ideas of revolution … to fatigue, resignation, pessimism, and bitterness.

When we talked the other day, I acknowledged that times were tough there, from what I’d been reading in the news. And I asked him if it was because the country had tipped into recession again. He laughed and said that means nothing. In his typically poetic language he said, “It’s just the day-to-day downfalls. It’s dying times in South Africa.”

National debt. Declining currency. Terrible education. Soaring crime. Political assassinations. Collapsing state-owned utilities and enterprises — like South African Airlines, which we flew to Cape Town, and the South African Broadcasting Company, where he’s wanted to work in radio for years. The country seems like a house of cards–that’s on fire.

No, youthful energy and idealism don’t last forever. Every adult has, or will, come face-to-face with that unfair reality at some point.

But not this soon. Not for my kid. Since the day we met, I’ve been impressed by and enchanted with this inner spark that Mtuseni has. It’s what drove him as a child to master English on his own. To seek out every opportunity to learn and grow. To escape the cycle of poverty and improve his life.

Now that journey has stalled. He’s still in the shack where he moved with his family as a young boy. Still without electricity or running water. Still skipping meals and counting pennies. He’s frustrated. Disappointed. Disillusioned. Crushed.

But that spark is not out. It’s in there somewhere. And I will keep it glowing and fan it to a flame that burns brighter than before. Because the world needs Mtuseni’s spark — and he, like each of us, deserves to feel happy and fulfilled in life.

My life has also felt stalled and stale for some time. I want to recapture the sense of wonder that I had in college, when I was an aspiring filmmaker and everything was amazing and all was possible and life stretched out far beyond the farthest horizon.

NewburyportSo for my son — and for myself — there are changes ahead and big plans in the works that will lift us both up. That will bring back his million watt smile. And rekindle my sense of wonder.

Get ready world. We’re coming.

 

 

 

 

IMG_6232

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.

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…