Archives For MXit

Mational Mentoring Month

I’m a bit late to the party, but I just learned that January is National Mentoring Month in the US. Click the logo to visit the program web site and find local mentoring opportunities in your area.

To quote from the National Mentoring Month web site:

“To be a mentor, you don’t need special skills, just an ability to listen and to offer friendship, guidance and encouragement to a young person. And you’ll be amazed by how much you’ll get out of the experience.”

I can certainly attest to this. I am continually amazed by where my journey with Mtuseni has taken us, and by how much we both have grown. My involvement and investment have expanded beyond the basics of just “being there” as a mentor to become more father, nag, coach, and benefactor. But on the rare occasions when my South African son gets a little lazy or petulant or veers far off course, I remind him to think about what mentoring is all about… and he snaps right into line.

Funny… just the other day, before I knew about mentoring month and after a tough but ultimately fruitful conversation with Mtuseni, he posted this status line on his Mxit chat program:

mentor thank god

Mentoring can be hard work sometimes. It can also be pretty amazing. And make people feel invincible.


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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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20 and Change

September 16, 2012 — Leave a comment

South-Africa-teen-pizza-restaurantMtuseni turns 20 today — I can’t believe it! That old Kodak jingle keeps running through my head, “Do you remember the times of your life?” How did he grow up so fast? What happened to the shy, slight teenager in the yellow school uniform that I met three years ago?

Talking to him on the phone this morning, Mtuseni said he felt different, “I am only getting older now,” he said. “I can’t be younger.”

Indeed, he has grown and changed in so many dimensions. He’s more confident and self-sufficient. He has a broader perspective on the world and is more open-minded to different people and ideas. He’s flourished being among peers where “people talk about life” — his phrase for those college conversations where young intellects begin flexing their muscles. Mtuseni’s taken on more responsibility at school, and is determined to lift his family out of settlement-life. He’s even grown physically — as evidenced by his desperate need this spring for all new pants… and an ever darkening smudge across his upper lip.

But a consistent theme of this experience has been the mutuality of change. To help Mtuseni navigate to this point, I have listened to him, encouraged him, supported and prodded, yelled and praised. And in the process, being a dad to Mtuseni has taught me about patience. And sacrifice. And commitment. I’ve learned about gratitude and letting things go and healthy interpersonal conflict. About resilience in the face of challenges. And about unconditional love.

So as I’ve helped guide Mtuseni on the road to manhood — he’s helped me become a better man.

I woke up this morning to his MXit message that said,

“u have kept me standing in my two feet and kept my mind off all the bad things of the world and given me a chance to be a brighter star among stars. thank you.”

No, buddy. Thank you. And Happy Birthday.

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So Mtuseni had his “interview” for a US visitor visa yesterday. Rejected again. Yesterday was not a day to get on my bad side.

We did everything right this time. His application listed all of his school, church and social activities to demonstrate those vague “strong local ties” that prove he would return to South Africa. Because he can be shy and gets flustered under pressure, his college counselor coached him on interview strategies. He had letters of support attesting to his responsibility, character, and commitment to school and family. I actually allowed myself to feel optimistic Wednesday when I wished him luck before he went to sleep — set to enter the Consulate fortress the next morning.

Like last year, Mtuseni watched a parade of white people ahead of him be granted visas and told to “Have a nice trip.” But when he stepped up to the window — similar to a US Department of Motor Vehicles setup, in all aspects — he was quickly rejected. Even though his reference letters had been faxed to the Consulate earlier this week by my Senator’s staff, Mtuseni had copies and I had told him to be proactive in making sure the clerk read them. He said “they didn’t even want to.”

Last year, the interviewer said that if I had met Mtuseni in person, he’d have a better chance of getting a visa. That happened in January, and I noted it in my letter. This time… the interviewer told him that once he had more money, his application would be approved. (Does every person visiting the US have money? I think not.) What will they tell him next year if he reapplies, that he needs to be white? Yesterday he changed his Mxit status line to “no matter what, they don’t want me there.”

I understand that, on paper, Mtuseni looks like a “flight risk” — someone who would enter the US and vanish into the underground economy, perhaps doing jobs that Americans find too distasteful for our refined sensibilities while we thumb the TV remote and wolf down 3,000-calorie snacks. Mtuseni lives in a settlement camp in a one-room shack with no electricity or water. But his life is not a dead end of poverty, not with me by his side every day. He is going to college in South Africa. He loves his family. He is proud of his country, even defending aspects of it that I find counterproductive. I know this kid; he would spend ten days soaking up knowledge and experience in the US, then go back to SA full of ideas and motivation to make some changes that can help the country’s youth.

This is why we wrote the reference letters. From me. From his school. From my alma mater Emerson College, where he was going to visit and talk to peers about US and SA media. From John Kerry, one of the country’s most powerful senators. Applicants are allowed to bring in supporting documentation that proves their local ties, school being one of them. Yet the clerk refused to look at them. Didn’t even pretend to look at them. The die was already cast for Mtuseni: a young black male applicant living in a settlement camp. Rejected. No need to look at his character references.

I understand that many people apply for visas, and there are certain restrictions. But when the consulate staff will not even glance at letters supporting his application, it sends a clear message to Mtuseni: “Your kind is not welcome in the United States.” Maybe it’s an effective strategy for the State Department. Maybe potential “risky” applicants will become so frustrated and so disillusioned that they’ll stop applying, and tell their risky friends to do the same.

Both my senator’s and congressman’s staff told me that the overseas visa clerks are notoriously rude. The visa rejection bothers me, yes. But what angers me is the fact that the interviewer did not “consider all available information,” as quoted in a legalese-steeped letter from the Consulate forwarded to me by Sen. Kerry’s office. As a taxpayer… and someone who has now shelled out $440 for three failed visa applications… I pay that interviewer’s salary. I work hard and make many sacrifices to help Mtuseni rise above his situation. The bored civil servant at the window can at least muster the effort to review support letters, and offer this hard-working kid a little respect — both as a fellow human being and as a representative of the United States of America. It might have taken another two or three minutes, tops. Even if the result was the same.

I guess it’s easier to see a poor black kid, plop a big REJECTED stamp on his application, and yell “Next.”

My only solace is that Mtuseni will one day have a much better job than that.

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