Archives For poverty

Nesters goats

Mtuseni and his mom’s goats

I often tease Mtuseni about his mom’s small herd of goats. She asks him to look after them and sometimes they get loose and he has to chase them in the sprawling fields surrounding the settlement. “I hate those crazy goats!” he’ll say to me. I love getting under his skin about it.

But the goats are an important asset for the family. Nester doesn’t raise them for food; she sells them to friends to earn some extra money. When I asked if people buy them for meat — or maybe to make goat cheese, which I love — he said no. They’re used for traditional Zulu ritual sacrifices. So much for a nice tangy chevre with fig compote! Mtuseni definitely straddles many worlds and cultures in his life.

But goats do play an important role for many families in developing countries. They provide milk for children and can grow into a herd that produces nourishing protein or generates income. They may be feisty and “crazy,” but goats are a good thing to have — and a good gift to give.

In this holiday season when the TV blasts commercials with people crying, “I want this. I want that. Gimme, gimme, gimme!” — the International Rescue Commission website offers an alternative. For $50 you can buy a goat for a family living in poverty, and have a card sent to a friend or loved one showing that you gave this meaningful gift in their name.

Not into goats? The IRC site offers a range of gifts focused on addressing needs in health, education and other issues in various countries:

Cape Town+Christmas+ornament+craft+beads

Beaded ornaments from Cape Town Market

So this year, what do you buy for the man or woman who has everything? A Rescue Gift that can improve the life of a person or family who has very little. It’s a much better reflection of the holiday spirit — and karma will likely pay you back eventually.

Check out the IRC website for the full selection of gifts.

Happy Holidays!

BB


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Distance

December 4, 2013 — 3 Comments

Things have been a bit rocky with Mtuseni since he finished classes a couple weeks ago. While he’s always done well when tasks are mapped out for him, as in a school situation, the process of getting an internship — which is all on him — has been marked by epic stumbles and inaction. He’s having difficulty with the transition from 15 years of school and familiar routine to the “lion’s den” of the real world, where he needs to begin charting his own course and sailing the ship. I can only do so much from this side of the world, and even if I could do more it is critical that he become focused, proactive, and self-reliant.

So we butted heads last week and — as happens with us now and then — went off to neutral corners to take a breather from each other. This transition process, this letting go, is also difficult for me. Mtuseni said last week that it feels like I’m pushing him off a cliff. No… I’m pushing him out of the nest, and I expect him to begin flapping his wings and taking flight. And of course I’ll be on the ground to catch him if he falls. But damn it, stop whining and start flapping!

Days ticked by with no communication between us. While my head appreciated having a little more space to focus on my own life, radio silence from him is always a bit unsettling. There are just so many risks he faces on a regular basis — from health issues and violence to unsafe minibus taxis and house fires — that having a daily check-in helps alleviate my worries.

mtuseni nov 2013So early yesterday morning Mtuseni sent me a text asking for my Skype number, because he was online. We had talked before about Skyping via his little USB laptop modem, but with a pay-as-you-go data plan and no money, he really didn’t have the bandwidth. Maybe enough for a voice call, but certainly not a video call. So after some back and forth getting set up, I heard the familiar Skype ring tone and answered his call. He said, “I can’t see you.” I was surprised he was doing a video call, so I clicked the camera button and suddenly there he was.

As always, there’s that brief sense of “wow” when you do a video call with people far away. It’s still not Jetsons quality, but actually our connection was pretty crisp. Mtuseni said he was in a community center a short walk from home, using their new wifi. This is a promising development, not only for him but for people — especially kids — in the settlement to have Internet access. The digital divide there is a serious impediment. I want to know more about who is sponsoring the center’s technology.

Unfortunately the center was closing for the day and Mtuseni had to sign-off. That’s one drawback of South Africa now being seven hours ahead of US time. Our call lasted only three minutes, so there was no real substance. Just that sense of closeness and connection you get from face-to-face contact, much more than can be achieved through text, emails or phone calls.

I realized after we hung up that it was the first time I had seen Mtuseni “live” since we said goodbye at the airport in New York, when he went back home after his trip here in July. Those three minutes on Skype reminded me how much I miss that kid. And that no matter how many bumps we hit on this journey together, the “distance” factor of being a long-distance dad is sometimes the hardest part.


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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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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.


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