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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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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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I’m coming to grips with the sad reality that summer is over — and my early September melancholy will soon give way to reveling in the Norman Rockwell autumns we have in New England. It was a good summer, punctuated of course by Mtuseni’s visit, something we had been working to make happen for three years.

Although the extent of his culture shock and reactions to it — and the twists and turns of teenage moods — caught me off guard, it was amazing to have Mtuseni here. The speed bumps we encountered only provided more insights that will help me guide him through new experiences and challenges as he transitions into the post-school real world. As a friend told me, courtesy of John Steinbeck, “What good is warmth without cold to give it sweetness?”

Indeed it was a very sweet trip. So herewith a random sampling of moments and memories of Mtuseni’s visit that make me smile:

New York+Times Square

Watching Mtuseni’s post-15-hour flight jet lag begin to lift as we walked into Times Square and he began to realize, “I’m in New York!” The first of many times I heard, “Take my picture!”

Dinner at an outdoor cafe after our first day in Boston -- where he had to buy a "B" cap so he could fit in. A Facebook post where he gloated to friends back in the SA winter about eating outdoors on a summer evening.

Dinner at an outdoor cafe after our first day in Boston — where he had to buy a “B” cap so he could fit in. A Facebook post gloating to friends enduring the SA winter.

Boston+ Charles River

Biking along the Charles River — watching him speed off and do tricks to “impress” me (and being thankful that I forced him to wear a helmet when he pushed the limits a few times).

Boston+Public Garden+fountain

Sitting with my radio student at the Public Garden fountain where my professor held our radio class on a warm September afternoon — shortly after Marconi invented the technology. A circle I had wanted to complete for some time once I knew Mtuseni would study media in college like I had.

Watching Mtuseni become an excited kid at the aquarium, just like when we were in Cape Town. He loves penguins (and sharks). In another life maybe should have been a marine biologist, though we need to get him over his fear of the sea.

Watching Mtuseni become an excited kid at the aquarium, just like when we were in Cape Town. He loves penguins (and sharks). In another life maybe he should have been a marine biologist, though we need to get him over his fear of the sea.

Boston+Public Garden

Having Mtuseni meet and connect with good friends — who were excited to meet him and who know his story and have celebrated with and supported me through the ups and downs of my four years with him.

Taking him to the top of the Pru and pointing out all the places we had been to. You forget how amazing it is to be in a skyscraper for the first time.

Taking him to the top of the Pru and pointing out all the places we had been to. You forget how amazing it is to be in a skyscraper for the first time.

Watching the Fourth of July fireworks along the Esplanade on a perfect summer night, tinged with an atmosphere of healing and strength and pride as the first large event following the marathon bombings.

Watching the Fourth of July fireworks along the Esplanade on a perfect summer night, tinged with an atmosphere of healing and strength and pride as the first large event following the marathon bombings.

Taking Mtuseni to the gym and watching him try to bulk up his skinny self in two weeks -- followed by his ongoing quest to try every crazy energy drink flavor not sold in South Africa.

Taking Mtuseni to the gym and watching him try to bulk up his skinny self in two weeks — followed by his ongoing quest to try every crazy energy drink flavor not sold in South Africa.

Bowing to his obsession and taking him to a huge classic car show -- and seeing the '75 Camaro that was the joy of my early 20s and the '66 Impala that took our family to the beach.

Bowing to his obsession and taking him to a huge classic car show — and pointing out the ’75 Camaro that was the joy of my early 20s and the ’66 Impala that took our family to the beach…

Bugatti

…and his crazy thrill at seeing a Bugatti parked outside the Mandarin Oriental hotel. This one went on his Facebook immediately (where he claimed the car was his!)

Fenway Park+Boston

Taking a Fenway Park tour and watching the obsessed Kaizer Chiefs soccer fan listen intently to the guide’s stories of “the Curse” and other Red Sox lore…

Fenway Park

…and seeing this hopeful radio announcer and budding journalist experience sitting in the press box high above home plate.

Hampton Beach

As when we were in Cape Town, watching Mtuseni’s love-hate game with the ocean. Some day I’ll get him fully in. If not for cell phones in our pockets, I would have thrown him in — it was 98 degrees!

__________

Aside from these “events” — some of my favorite times during Mtuseni’s visit were just simple things. Indeed, when I asked him a couple weeks ago what he missed about being in the US, one thing he said was “having breakfast with you.”

The things that resonated for me are taking him clothes shopping to create the new “grown up” look he wants. His daily ironing (because at home the iron is a plain metal one that heats up on the stove). Hearing his laugh and squeaky “excited” voice over Sheldon’s antics on The Big Bang Theory (“That guy is crazy, man!”) Seeing how much a guy his age can eat (and knowing that anytime access to food doesn’t happen at home). Untangling the mess that he made of his laptop and lecturing him about it (and him actually listening!). And watching him sleep in the morning — marveling that this kid from Africa who I encountered online by chance through a nonprofit is in my house…and at the center of my heart and mind at all times. Crazy how the world works sometimes.

So yes, in the final analysis Mtuseni’s visit was amazing — a blend of fun and frustration, laughter and anger, closeness and conflict that is a microcosm of real-life parenthood. And yes, with his visitor visa in place for the next ten years, I’m already figuring out how to get him here next year.

Chillaxing on a boat in Newburyport Harbor.

Chillaxing on a boat in Newburyport Harbor.


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Help make a difference in the world with your holiday shopping this year. Share the riches of the season beyond your inner circle.

Nonprofit Tech 2.0 Blog :: A Social Media Guide for Nonprofits

November 27, 2012 is the first ever #GivingTuesday. Launched to inspire charitable giving and conscious consumerism throughout the giving season, the 11 nonprofit gift programs listed below are ideal holiday gifts for family members, friends and work colleagues who are committed to social good and would rather you donate and invest in a nonprofit than spend money on another candle, sweater, or bath gift set. 🙂

That said, if you prefer to wrap and present gifts this holiday season, please see a previous post entitled 22 Online Gift Stores That Benefit Nonprofits. However you choose to spend your money on holiday gifts, there are plenty of ways do it to benefit good causes and create change in communities that need it.

1. Defenders of Wildlife Adoptions
Wild animal adoptions are the perfect gift for holidays… for a friend or yourself. Your animal adoption helps save endangered species!

2. Heifer…

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