As South Africa bids farewell to Nelson Mandela, the nation’s “father” known affectionately as Madiba, the outpouring of well wishes from around the world is incredible: What other individual has earned such global appreciation and respect? We likely will not see another figure with such impact in our lifetimes.
Mandela’s determination and grace helped bring an end to apartheid and reunited his country into a diverse rainbow nation. By standing strong for equality and human rights, he changed the course of history and the lives of many South Africans. And in a small way, as an American living on the other side of the world, he changed my life.
Since 2009 I’ve been a surrogate dad to a student named Mtuseni, who lives in a small South African settlement with no plumbing or electricity. We met through a nonprofit that provided online mentoring, and continued our relationship after his program ended. We communicate every day via text, phone, and email. I traveled to Johannesburg last year to meet him and his family, and Mtuseni made his first trip abroad to visit me in Boston this summer.
Mtuseni is the son I never had – and like any parent I ride that emotional roller coaster of pride, frustration, worry, and deep love. It’s far more than I originally signed up for, but I don’t regret one minute of this 21st century relationship: a middle-aged, gay, white American guy long-distance parenting a black, Christian, Zulu teenager. That’s a small rainbow nation right there!
With Mtuseni’s dream of a better life slamming up against the reality of deep poverty, three years ago I offered to pay his way through college. Last month, he finished his final semester of classes and is set to graduate early next year. He’s the first person in his family – and in his entire community – to advance beyond high school.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that without my help, Mtuseni would never achieve this goal. And without Nelson Mandela, I might never have known this amazing kid. Even if apartheid eventually ended by some other means at some other time, Mtuseni’s life likely would have been very different – and our paths would never have crossed.
Like the beat of an Australian butterfly’s wings that lead to a blizzard in Europe, Nelson Mandela’s work set in motion the circumstances that have given me a South African son. The experience has been life-changing for both of us, and is just one tiny facet of Madiba’s legacy to be grateful for as I – together with the world – honor his life and his passing.