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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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Good Enough… Isn’t

January 17, 2013 — Leave a comment

My most recent post shared a bit of recognition I received from Mtuseni in his yearly wrap-up. These are always gratifying and genuine, and he offers them in some form or another quite regularly. Mtuseni is so loving and appreciative in this oddball relationship we’ve developed; he really is a good heart.

And then there’s the flip side. The 15th of the month has come and gone — the deadline for him to do certain tasks to earn his monthly allowance from me — and he hasn’t done a thing. Never even proposed a set of tasks, as he is supposed to do. He didn’t do it last month either, and he received no allowance. I can play hardball now because it’s his summer vacation and he doesn’t need extra money for school. But getting him to faithfully do allowance tasks each month has been an ongoing battle. It drives me insane, and I lost it with him yesterday. Having the same discussion month after month with little change would make anybody crazy.

For the past couple years, since I started the allowance, I could not fathom why this seemingly smart kid cannot grasp the concept of needing to do X number of tasks in order to earn his allowance. A first grader is capable of understanding this! But it’s recently come to my attention that I need to qualify this statement: A first grader in the United States can understand this concept. Unfortunately, Mtuseni lives in a South African culture of “good enough.”

I continually gripe about sending detailed e-mails to people in South Africa and getting minimal responses that barely address a small percentage of my questions, if I’m lucky. Last week I sent a four-paragraph note to Mtuseni’s academic dean about his struggles deciding on a major, and asking for her feedback. She replied with one-sentence that didn’t accurately reflect what I wrote. This sort of thing happens more often than not when communicating with South Africans, and others in the US have shared similar experiences. It’s almost as if the thinking is, “Well, I answered a bit of that e-mail. Good enough.”

And “good enough” is how Mtuseni approaches his allowance tasks. It’s all he knows. It’s part of his cultural DNA. The national exams to complete high school and qualify for tertiary study keep lowering the passing standard to move kids through the system: a score of 30 percent qualifies a student to complete high school. Mtuseni’s college seems to emphasize pass/fail over specific grades. Mtuseni is naturally bright and capable of getting decent grades, but with “passing” as the benchmark he seems satisfied whether he gets a 52 or an 80. (A grade of 50 is considered passing — shocking from a US perspective where passing is a 65. US college kids with grades less than 70 are often put on probation, and college transcripts with grades below 80 won’t get you hired anywhere. When I told Mtuseni this, he was stunned.)

So when I ask Mtuseni to write three blog posts and revise his LinkedIn profile and prep answers to five interview questions in a month — and I get two half-baked blog posts at the last minute, no profile info, and pushback on any interview prep — it’s because he truly believes that doing 30 percent of what I ask is “good enough” to earn his allowance. It’s like a “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” scenario; his mind cannot comprehend why this is unacceptable to me.

My understanding his cultural perspective finally sheds light on the ongoing mystery of why every month is a battle of wills over his allowance. It’s exhausting. But he’s not off the hook. He is going to change. He must.

I’m not trying to be disrespectful to Mtuseni’s culture or mold him in my American image. Because the thing is, not everyone in South Africa subscribes to the “good enough” philosophy. There are people I deal with regularly who are very responsive and professional. People who understand the challenge of trying to accomplish things for Mtuseni via e-mail from half a world away, and who go the extra mile for me. If everybody in South Africa operated on the “good enough” principle, the country would not be Africa’s largest economy and no progress would ever be achieved.

Mtuseni must be a South African for whom “good enough” isn’t acceptable. He has big dreams for his life and for helping to lift his family out of poverty. And he has flashes of innate brilliance that make me feel incredibly lucky that fate dropped this scruffy gem into my life. But his CV shows that he attended a crap public school. His diploma from a junior college won’t hold up to the newly minted university degrees he will compete against in the job market. The electrical tape that holds his dusty dress shoes together and his Plot 90 address brand him as a poor settlement kid. The color of his skin steers him toward an unemployment rate of 41 percent for blacks vs a 7.5 percent unemployment rate for South African whites.

With all the rough headwinds he faces, Mtuseni has to work two… three… ten times harder than the average person to even be considered for a chance to work toward the life he wants so desperately. This “good enough” attitude that he lives by is not good enough. Not by a long shot. He has to understand this and start changing now. His last year of school begins in a month.

I think we have a long year ahead of us.

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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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