Archives For Johannesburg

A Toast to Nelson Mandela

December 5, 2013 — 5 Comments

Mandela bookEarly today Mtuseni and I had another heated exchange via text. We’re in the midst of an epic standoff as I try to get him to begin practicing self-reliance and initiative. It’s hard for me, this tough-love approach — and I don’t think I’ve ever heard him so upset at me, his mom, and life in general. But I have to start weaning him. As much as I want him to be my little boy forever, he’s 21 years old and finished with college. But my efforts are being met with resentment and rage and threats and tears. I’m not abandoning him — never will. But I can’t carry him on my shoulders forever.

We’re in rough waters. He signed off WhatsApp and went to sleep, still politely saying goodnight but awash in dark emotions. I went to the gym and could barely focus on my workout, struggling with feelings of stress and frustration and anxiety. “I need a drink tonight,” I thought, and planned to pick up some wine on the way home. As I walked out, I looked up at the bank of TVs and saw the breaking news reports that Nelson Mandela had died. I was overcome with sadness, and took back roads to the liquor store, driving in silence and only half-registering the houses decked in Christmas lights.

What an impressive figure, someone who transformed his nation and inspired the world. A man of such courage. Wisdom. Humanity. Humility. Grace. You would not find such qualities in Congress these days. Mandela always seemed a tower of strength and light; even at his advanced age it somehow felt reassuring that he was still here among us.

So the wine I had expected to ease my stress took on a different role. Sipping my favorite South African pinotage, I watched the TV retrospectives, nodding in familiarity at old news footage and recognizing places from my recent travels there.

I can clearly picture the “Stop Apartheid Now” button that was on my backpack in college. I can remember that sense of hopeful anticipation as the global tide began to turn against that horrible system of oppression — and the feeling of awe and relief when Mandela was finally released.

Fast-forward twenty years and I got my first glimpse of Mtuseni in the flesh, walking toward me past a larger-than-life bronze statue of Mandela in Johannesburg. Atop a tour bus in Cape Town, we looked from the seaside cliffs to the small spot of Robben Island where Mandela was imprisoned — and I lamented our short schedule not allowing time to visit the facility. Later, the bus stopped by an elegant yellow stucco building. The tour guide pointed out the balcony where Mandela gave his first public speech after getting out of prison, and I felt chills. Mtuseni listened intently and took photos with his phone. What thoughts were going through his head? What was he feeling? I didn’t intrude on the moment, and just felt grateful for the opportunity to bring him to this spot.

first mtgIf there is one lesson I can take from Mandela, at this moment in particular, it is patience. Mtuseni and I will survive this latest challenge, and there will be more to come I’m sure. It’s my profound honor and privilege to help this young man, born in the last vestiges of apartheid, to reach goals not dreamed by his parents.

Nelson Mandela’s focus, effort and determination helped to save a country and a people. And in some small way led to Mtuseni being in my life today. Little did I know how wearing that simple button thirty years ago would play out in my own life.

Thinking about Mandela’s twinkling eyes, lilting voice and gently powerful philosophy, a line from a movie that I can’t recall popped into my head:

Ah, how you will delight the angels.

Indeed.

Thank you, Madiba. And godspeed.


Follow and share updates about the Long-Distance Dad book project on Facebook!


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.


Follow and share updates about the Long-Distance Dad book project on Facebook!


One Chapter Closes

November 14, 2013 — Leave a comment

magnoliasEvery few years, in late spring when I’m marveling at the pink magnolia trees in Boston’s Back Bay, a vivid memory surfaces… It was my very last day at Emerson College, on the old Beacon Street campus in the stately brownstones. I had a meeting with my senior seminar professor, turned in some graduation paperwork, and was finished. My college days were done, and I enjoyed the sense of relief and accomplishment.

It was a sunny, warm afternoon. Spying an empty classroom, I sat in a big open window and looked down at the lively street scene that had been my life for three years. I loved Emerson and living in the city. At my father’s insistence, I’d started college at UMass Amherst, in the rural western part of the state. Aside from one semester in a high-rise dorm with a bunch of smart, funny, crazy friends, I hated my time there. I’m a city person; a college town in the woods felt like prison.

Transferring to Emerson — on my own dime — was the best decision I’d ever made. I learned a lot, felt validated for my creative talents, met some great people, and came into myself. So my feelings sitting in that window were bittersweet. A wonderful chapter in my life was coming to an end. Yes, I was young and had a whole future of possibilities ahead. But something in me wanted to sit in that spot and hold onto that moment forever, unwilling to close the book and walk away.

But I still lived in the city. And by the fall I would start my first job as a copywriter for a small agency. Emerson had been a big, bright spot in my life — but it wasn’t my everything.

____________________

This week Mtuseni’s on-campus chapter comes to an end. It’s amazing how fast the time went. It seems like just yesterday he visited the school for the first time and — against my instructions — took the entrance exam on the spot. I remember my complete joy when the administrator emailed to say he had done well and was accepted, and his excitement when I told him the news. For me, that moment began a three-year stretch of tuition bills, arguments with school staff, searching for extra resources, and intensive coaching with Mtuseni on many levels, including some I never anticipated.

Boston+Media+House+class+laptopFor Mtuseni, these three years have been nothing short of transformational. Although his first-term transition from a poor farm school to a college in South Africa’s wealthiest neighborhood was rough, we got him through those “darkest days” and he flourished. He has many friends on campus and loves being among a crowd of young, dynamic, ambitious peers.

I’ve always dreaded Mtuseni’s extended breaks from school, because within a day or two he becomes a bear. He’s bored out of his mind. Grouchy. Snappish. Miserable. Because unlike my college experience — where I went home to a vibrant life in Harvard Square, Mtuseni goes home to the settlement — where he is the first person to attend college. Where nobody understands him or feeds his mind or inspires him. Where, as he says, “people sit outside every day and just watch the sun cross the sky.” And where their main concern is not creating a professional radio demo tape, but putting food on the table and keeping their kids alive.

Boston Media House 2013 Open Day Campus Team

Boston Media House 2013 Open Day Campus Team

The closure of my Emerson chapter was sad for me, but the closing of Mtuseni’s Boston Media House chapter will be much harder on him. He’ll lose touch with many of his friends; daily face-to-face interaction supplanted by the emptiness of Facebook wall comments. The mutual peer support and friendly competition to succeed will vanish, with my custom blend of loving support and parental whip-cracking left to fill the gap. The busy street life of campus and Sandton’s corporate HQs and luxe malls will be replaced by the sullen atmosphere of poverty and dashed hope in Mtuseni’s settlement.

I’m a little worried. Going to college has been a rejuvenating elixir for Mtuseni. Without it, his community environment of despair can be a strong brew that pulls him backwards. Our work is not done; he still needs to find an internship — and I feel in some ways perhaps my toughest challenges lie ahead. Still, I will celebrate his — our — accomplishment this week. And try to keep his head and heart filled with a future of rich possibilities.


Follow and share updates about the Long-Distance Dad book project on Facebook!


Rounding the Turn

November 1, 2013 — Leave a comment

South Africa matric resultsIt’s hard to believe that three years ago this week Mtuseni was starting his national matric exams to graduate from high school and hopefully score high enough to qualify for tertiary school. We had also just ended our weekly webcam sessions as his nonprofit program was shut down — and were entering the uncharted waters of a mentoring relationship conducted mainly through phone texts. I’d told him a few weeks earlier that I would pay for his college and was in it for the long haul, but in the back of my mind lurked an understanding that it could all be a lot shorter than my idealistic visions. If he failed his matrics, it could be over in a few weeks.

And now here we are — in the closing days of Mtuseni’s final semester.

We’ve weathered many storms along the way. Like the grade of 20 on his first college test, which shocked him and made me think “Uh-oh.” The lonesome first semester that Mtuseni called “the darkest days of life,” when my shy little man had no friends in school and wanted to quit. The meltdown failure in his Excel class, which led to the out-of-the-blue savior of Jacquie’s weekend class and her continuing support for both him and me. And the ongoing money challenges, health scares, and family tragedies which I’ve learned come with the territory of Mtuseni’s life in poverty.

When you live in an environment that has little understanding of your experience and aspirations, it can lead to self-doubt, insecurity, and second-guessing. Mtuseni’s mom doesn’t ask about school, only whether he passes each semester. People in his settlement community seem to resent his new life experiences and wider circle. And the complex dynamics of racism — which are slowly being revealed to me as layers peel back — take a toll on him. I’ve given him so many pep talks there should be a varsity sweater and set of pom-poms in my closet. Still, I was surprised when early this year Mtuseni said he wanted to switch majors to journalism for his last year. He’s a good writer (when he applies himself — ahem!) and writing can be a valuable skill in so many career paths. But his dream since our early webcam sessions was to work in radio.

When I asked why he wanted to switch, Mtuseni said he was nervous about learning the Pro Tools and Logic sound editing software, and felt more comfortable and safe doing writing. I acknowledged his writing ability, but assured him he could learn the software; it was no different from his early confusion learning PowerPoint. I told Mtuseni that the decision on a major was entirely his to make, and I’d support him either way. But that the important thing was to not make a decision based on fear and doubt. To ask himself honestly what his dream was — not his fear — and to act on that. A couple days later he decided to stay on track with radio.

He’s been a busy bee this semester — resulting in almost total “radio silence” with me the past few weeks. His class did a Hell Week assignment where they “ran” a live radio station within the school. This week Mtuseni was assessed by his instructor as he worked in the booth. Today he did a group presentation, “applying” for a new radio station license from ICASA — South Africa’s version of the FCC. The group just needs to record the application’s sample programs and they’re finished. Then I think he takes his Entrepreneurship exam in a week or so, and is all done with classes.

We still have a lot of work ahead. Mtuseni needs to do an internship before graduating in June. (Anyone with leads in the Johannesburg radio industry is free to review Mtuseni’s LinkedIn profile and make contact.)

But most of the hard work is finished. And Mtuseni, of course, did the vast majority of it. I just paid the bills, cracked the whip, and shook those pom-poms. He sent me some pics a few weeks ago taken during Hell Week. Whenever I see Mtuseni’s bright smile in any photo, my heart simultaneously swells and melts. But given our journey these past few years, this smile just feels a bit more special.

Boston+Media+House+radio

Boston+Media+House+radio

 

Follow and share updates about the Long-Distance Dad book project on Facebook!