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The Wall Street Journal recently posted a video feature on the Johannesburg suburb of Sandton, calling it Africa’s Manhattan. This is where Mtuseni went to school for the past three years, at Boston Media House.

WSJ Sandton video grab

Click to access the video report.

 

When I went to visit Mtuseni last year, I stayed in Sandton, partly because his school was there. I wanted to see where he spent his days. Also, I had been warned about high crime in downtown Johannesburg and was told that Sandton is clean and safe. And, finally, there were no hotels, restaurants, stores, or much of anything near Mtuseni’s settlement — aside from a regional airport. After paying to fly halfway around the world, with my primary goal getting to spend time with and bond with my newfound long-distance son, I wanted some measure of comfort and safety — as well as fun diversions for the two of us. So Sandton seemed a logical choice.

I hated Sandton. Living in Boston, the ultimate college town, I had pictured the home of Mtuseni’s college to be similar, with lively street life and art galleries and sidewalk cafes and coffeehouses. Instead, it felt like San Jose or any other office park-city in Silicon Valley: shiny and antiseptic. And it was far from Mtuseni’s settlement. With a private driver it took us a good half hour to get there; Mtuseni’s school commute often took about 90 minutes on the minibus taxis, with a changeover in Randburg.

But the difference in miles paled in comparison to the difference in experience and lifestyle. The streets of Sandton were lined with dealerships for ultra-premium car brands, some I never even heard of. The Sandton City Centre-Mandela Square-Galleria mega-mall was an enormous, dizzying labyrinth crammed with high-end designer stores. The wealth was eye-popping. Boston is a wealthy city, but Sandton felt like Beverly Hills wealth.

Annex roomBy comparison, Mtuseni’s settlement of Drummond is a collection of about 50 cinderblock and tin-roof shacks along a dirt road in the middle of a sweeping field near the highway and Lanseria airport. No electricity, no plumbing. No opportunities. Although it was wonderful to meet Mtuseni’s family and finally see where he was during our lengthy text chats and phone calls — inside it made me very sad. It’s one thing to see poverty like that on TV, it’s another to experience it firsthand — and then to know it’s the daily life of somebody you love and care for.

Mtuseni had been staying with me during my visit, but I returned to the hotel alone after visiting his family because he had a major church function the next day. Back in Sandton, my heart and mind couldn’t process the contrast of wealth and poverty I had experienced. It was jarring and I felt a hollow mixture of guilt and despair and grief. I always wondered how Mtuseni handled that dual life the past few years. It was like going from Dorothy’s black-and-white Kansas world to the Yellow Brick Road and Technicolor Oz — and back again. Day after day. I can see why Mtuseni always got grouchy and depressed on school breaks — and with classes over for good, I’m worried about his mood, which can go very dark very quickly. It’s completely understandable.

And yet, this contrast of rich and poor is not necessarily separated by great distances. Sandton’s luxe malls are only a couple miles away from Alexandra — a dense township of nearly 200,000 people in tightly packed shacks on narrow alleys. It’s been there a long time; I was surprised to read about it in Cry, the Beloved Country, which was published in 1948. My driver took me past Alex on the way to my hotel from the airport when I first arrived. It felt like it went on forever. Some of Mtuseni’s friends from school lived there — and they had electricity and even Internet access. I used to tell him to “borrow” some electricity and Internet from them for school work, but Mtuseni said his mother didn’t like him going there because of the crime. On times he did go there, he was made to feel like an intruder; being from a rural settlement, Mtuseni is viewed as lower class by some township folks. And from the streets of Alex you can see the gleaming towers of Africa’s Manhattan. They are not far-off … yet they are worlds away.

Being the Wall Street Journal, the report gushes about Sandton’s wealth and growth. Only toward the end is the topic of poverty in such close proximity raised, in an indirect reference to Alexandra. The white South African woman in the video matter-of-factly says “Oh, we’ve grown used to living amongst such conditions of poverty.” It didn’t seem to faze her. She doesn’t talk about fixing it. Maybe you have to turn your mind off to it, living there every day. I can’t seem to do that back here.


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A South African View on Guns

December 19, 2012 — 1 Comment

Mtuseni and I chatted a bit today about the Sandy Hook school shooting. We didn’t talk about it much… I was busy with work and he was telling me about arriving in Durban for his festive season trip. It came up when a blogger in Connecticut posted a “like” on his blog.

But I thought his perspective on the event, from another country, was interesting and worth sharing…

MTU on GUNS1

I told him about the woman using them at a shooting range… and how some Americans love their guns… and how the “right” of private citizens to own guns is in the Constitution. And he replied…

MTU on GUNS2

I said in my earlier post on the shooting that there are things about South African society that drive me crazy on a daily basis. But the country — or at least one young South African — seems to have the right idea when it comes to guns.


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International Day of the Girl logo #IDG2012

Click to learn more about #IDG2012

Mtuseni is always stressing about school. One reason is because his perspective is that he’s in college for the whole family. He wants to get a good job and move his sister Bongeka and brother Musa out of the destructive influences of the settlement. He’s especially concerned about nine-year-old Bongeka. He said something last month that shocked me, partly because he doesn’t speak too often about larger family challenges…

It’s a bad thing growing in townships for a girl. Teenage pregnancy, rape, emotional abuse, environment. Just limits your thinkin’. It’s decaying when u got friends and people that think of u in a box.

My stomach and my heart both took a hit when he said this. What an awful perspective to carry about your little sister. When I met Bongeka in January, I immediately fell in love with her. She is so sweet and pretty. My hope is that once Mtuseni finishes school — and the Long-Distance Dad book about our experience is a best seller — I can provide support and  opportunities for Bongeka… and Musa… and other kids like them.

But Bongeka’s story is shared by millions of other girls around the world who face challenges that limit their opportunities. On October 11, 2012, the United Nations marks its first International Day of the Girl. The nonprofit 10×10 is one of many organizations embarking on a global campaign to educate and empower girls. Explore their site and learn more about how you or your organization can help girls like Bongeka realize a better life! We will all be richer for it.


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Today Mtuseni’s school had a memorial service for a student. He said she was stabbed in a random crime. She wasn’t a friend, but he’d seen her around campus.

In the three years I’ve known him, Mtuseni has had more experience with death than I’ve had in a decade. In addition to dealing with the murder of one of his college peers…

  • during senior year, he told me a high school classmate “just turned red” and died in a few days
  • last winter, he had to end a MXit chat to go to a service because “someone in the community died last night”
  • at the end of this past semester, the father of one of his friends in the settlement died
  • and this time last year, his older brother Moses was killed by a car

Five deaths in three years. And these are just the ones he’s told me about. I guess this is the reality of living in deep poverty in a country with high rates of violent crime. He seems to take things in stride. Is there any other option? But for a sensitive, thoughtful kid like Mtuseni, it has to create some tough calluses on his heart.

His world is a chess board of risks: Crime and disease. Sketchy taxi vans and epic traffic accidents. Minimal access to health care. No heat or air conditioning or plumbing at home. Smoky kerosene lamps and candle fires in the settlement shacks. I don’t dwell on it; there’s too much good happening with him and we still have a long road ahead. Still, worry has set down roots in the corners of my mind — like some gnarled tree, its bare branches constantly scratching in the dark. Sometimes I ride my bike to escape. Sometimes I inhale boxes of cookies.

Mtuseni said last week that his main goal is to get a good job and to take his little brother and sister away from the settlement. If I could, I would scoop just them all up to come live with me.

For both of us, graduation and a good job can’t come soon enough.


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