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I bought myself a polo shirt today. No, not a capital-P, trademarked man-on-horse-logo Polo shirt. It’s a generic, lowercase-p, no-logo polo shirt. It was on sale. Plus I had a register tape coupon. And I used my Target card for an extra 5 percent off. I think it cost me a total of 9 bucks. It’s the first article of clothing I’ve bought for myself in over two years. I was so excited.

It’s been a rough haul these past couple years. Ever the contrarian, only I would offer to pay a kid’s college tuition and expenses at the height of a global financial meltdown. Tack on the loss of a major client due to a changing of the corporate guard, and I’ve been pinching pennies so hard I have Abe’s face embossed on my thumb.

And I clearly was naive thinking I could just be there for Mtuseni and tick off waves of successes with only a couple of bumps and hiccups along the way. (I blame too many Hallmark Hall of Fame movies as a kid.) Making things happen in South Africa takes an extraordinary and frustrating amount of effort compared to here in the US… due to culture and Mtuseni’s particular circumstances.

It’s exhausting. I’ve seen photos of myself from the past year and I look like a character out of Dorothea Lange’s Dust Bowl photos. I’m out of shape. Tired. Stretched and stressed. My clothes are fraying and boring me to tears. My kitchen cupboards look like the Grinch came through. I need a haircut and my car needs… a laundry list of things. My credit cards are maxed; my savings are wiped. If Mtuseni gets a visa to visit here this summer — and I am praying to every entity that he does — I will make that trip happen somehow, some way.

I talked with Mtuseni’s school administrator the other day. About visa logistics and some stubborn challenges in dealing with my stubborn young friend. She’s been a welcome sounding board, offering insights into the culture that I can’t grasp from half a world away. She summed up what I had taken on with Mtuseni, both financially and psychologically, and she said not many people would have done it. She didn’t think she would have.

There’s times when Mtuseni drives me insane — or South African good-enough culture makes me want to scream — that I think “Why on earth did I do this? Am I nuts? An idiot? A soft touch? My life’s been on hold for three years. What was I thinking when I offered Mtuseni this arrangement? Why didn’t I just say goodbye and wish him well when the organization that matched us pulled out?”

And for some reason, today I looked at the other side of that coin for the first time. Mtuseni was just starting his high school matric exams when our nonprofit connection ended. I would have wished him luck. I’d promise to keep in touch — which I know now would have been impossible. And I would have gone on in my life. Less monster hits to my bank accounts. More time to focus on me. New clothes. Trips abroad. Untold adventures and unrealized experiences.

And Mtuseni would have soldiered on as best he could. Even if he passed his matrics and qualified for college, there’s no way a mother earning $240 a month could pay for it. He didn’t even know where the college was without my help. So this bright, funny, shy, anxious, immature, idealistic, insecure kid would have gotten a job with mom at the airport… maybe. Earning a few bucks a day. He’d live out his days in the settlement, watching over his little brother and sister as he watched his hopes for better things fade away.

And that’s what would have happened if I hadn’t been a soft-touch idiot and committed myself to this kid, my buddy, my long-distance son.

Mtuseni A couple weeks ago, Mtuseni was prepping to go to the freshman dance at a Joburg club, in his role as vice-president of the student committee and a soon-to-graduate senior. Referring to the box of name-brand jeans, shirts, vitamins and home-made oatmeal cookies I sent him, he texted me, “it feels gud to be all new clothes LOL. I still salute you for keeping this soul happy and courageous. I love you, bud.”

There’ll always be new clothes I can buy for myself. And hot new resturants to try. And Europe will still be waiting patiently for me. When I count the things I get back in return from this experience with Mtuseni, I have to invent a new Dr. Seuss number, like bazookatrillion. And for right now, I’ll take that text message over a new wardrobe or vacation any day.


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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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Time Out

November 16, 2012 — Leave a comment

South-Africa-teen-RayBan-sunglassesI’ve taken a little break from posting here the last few weeks — haven’t had the time or the brain-space. The freelance writing world has always been a feast-or-famine dynamic… and after almost a year of scary, Sudan-like famine, I’m suddenly buried under a Bacchanalian bounty of work coming at me from everywhere. No complaints from me — the bill for Mtuseni’s last year of tuition just showed up this morning — but any break I can take from all these projects requires me to walk away from the keyboard… and the blog.

But that doesn’t mean there’s been a break in the story. The past month has been a particularly dizzying roller coaster ride of ups and downs, as is usually the case with my little buddy. The high point was an audio-file message Mtuseni sent, where he sang Happy Birthday, thanked me for being a father to him and said he loved me. It’s one of the best gifts I’ve ever received. I mean, what 20-year-old sings “Happy Birthday to you” without a touch of irony? And both verses! The kid is so sweet and good sometimes that I am often in awe of him.

And then, in typical fashion, the carnival ride plunged into the depths when Mtuseni sat on his laptop and broAsus-laptop-netbook-brokenke the screen — less than three months after I bought it! Our MXit chat line was full of some savory language that day, and we still haven’t come up with a solution. For now, he’s working on two-thirds of a screen — and I need to figure out if the cost of shipping and repairing it is the same as just buying a new one. (But, really, do I need to buy this kid a new laptop every three months? When he’s already lost two cell phones? The first pocket angel I sent him? And the Ray-Bans I bought him in Capetown — the same day he crushed the laptop?)

And the final straw has been our ongoing push-pull over allowance. Having never had a real job, he seems unclear on the value of money and earning it. I set him up with simple tasks — like sending me photos of his day or writing a new LinkedIn profile — to earn his $75 a month. Yet each month he resists more and more. (Passive-aggression makes me crazy!) I generally have little leverage on the issue; he needs the money to get to school and pay for lunches, so I always end up caving in. But last month, after I kept moving the deadline and simplifying the tasks and he still did nothing, he actually got zero allowance from me. Because school was off for study week and he only had to go there a few days for final exams this month, the money wasn’t so critical — though I’m sure it took a bite.

And yet this month, the same issue! He cannot, will not, or refuses to follow simple directions for his allowance. I’ve heard from his school administrator that he’s a star on the student committee, organizing major soccer tournaments. But for me, suddenly he’s incapable of a few lightweight tasks each month. Some people say he’s testing me, but I can’t figure out why. My theory, ironically, is that as our relationship has shifted from mentor-mentee to more father-son, he feels comfortable and secure enough to be resistant and disrespectful — as most kids his age are toward their parents. Do I really need that black fly in my Chardonnay?

So last week I took a rare time-out from Mtuseni. I was super-stressed trying to figure out how to work on three big projects simultaneously, and he was stressed about his final exams. Neither of us had the mental space to be battling. I told him I was logging off MXit for a while and wished him good luck on his exams. He took his last one yesterday, and his three-month school break starts today. (And he better be out looking for a Christmas/summer job as I write this!)

This is the last free stretch of time before he finishes school next year. I’ve got to get the train back on track. He needs to lose some of his immaturity (even if it is loveable). He needs to start prepping for internship and job interviews. He needs to decide on a major. And he needs to stop squandering mentoring opportunities by fighting me at every turn. So that’s my mission starting this weekend. I have a feeling it’s gonna be a long, hot summer ahead for my little buddy!

And although I dialed down the stress a bit by taking a time-out from him this past week, I miss the knucklehead. A lot. So give me another E-ticket, carny, and fire up the ride!


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Bridging the Digital Divide

September 24, 2012 — 1 Comment

Chelsea Clinton wrote a piece today in The Daily Beast articulating the negative impacts resulting from US children’s lack of access to computers and the Internet. Indeed, the country must work continuously to close the digital divide and support broader learning opportunities for every child — and adult — in America.

Yet our problems of technological equity pale in comparison to South Africa. I am continually stunned by the systemic lack of access to computers in my experiences with Mtuseni. Six weeks after buying him a laptop, we still cannot locate free public-access WiFi in the wealthy suburb where he attends school. The library provides only two public computers and no WiFi. The luxe mega-mall nearby seems to offer only limited access at cafes, with a purchase — difficult for someone counting every penny. And ironically it appears that even his college doesn’t provide WiFi. Mtuseni’s been trying to learn the login key, but “nobody knows it.” If the college offered WiFi, wouldn’t the access protocol be up on posters throughout the school?

Despite having limited financial resources, many of Mtuseni’s fellow students have laptops. They recognize the necessity of having a computer in college. Yet without easy and affordable access to the Internet, they have nothing more than an updated typewriter. In many US cities, you can sit on a park bench and access free WiFi — often provided through public-private partnerships. It’s frustrating to me that South African communities, lawmakers and businesses do not pursue strategies that can open the gates to Internet knowledge for all.

Mtuseni also tells me that his former public K-12 school has no computers. He himself had only very limited exposure to computers through the nonprofit that first matched us, and his lack of familiarity with the operations of a computer is already causing hurdles with his owning a laptop.

Mtuseni’s sister Bongeka attends fourth grade in the same school now. My niece is also in fourth grade. Like most US kids, she is intuitively comfortable with computers. She also writes complex stories, and this summer read half of the Harry Potter books. (Admittedly, that’s a bit over-the-top for a nine-year-old.) By comparison, Bongeka has never used a computer, and Mtuseni tells me she can barely read. (This is likely a bit of an overstatement, but she’s certainly not reading about the gang at Hogwarts.)

There are many reasons for Bongeka’s low academic performance relative to my niece. However, access to computers — Internet-enabled or not — would clearly advance her learning capabilities and those of the hundreds of children attending the school. Mtuseni so desperately wants his sister and brother to rise out of poverty, and recently told me about the distressing obstacles and risks faced by girls in the settlements. Computer technology alone won’t solve the problem, but it can keep children engaged and provide a more educated workforce that will benefit the entire country.

For now, my mental energies are focused on navigating the (surprisingly) choppy waters of Mtuseni’s journey though college and getting him to a safe harbor of professional employment. But with Bongeka and so many children and adults in South Africa hungry for knowledge and a better life, I hope to work in the future on bridging the nation’s technology-access gap.


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