As we approach Martin Luther King Jr Day and prepare to mark Black History Month, it may be good to remember what the legendary civil rights leader said about work. Here it is.
“If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth should pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well’.”
I always feel an indescribable sense of joy and elation when some of my former students tell me, as they did collectively and publicly in August 2018, that they enjoyed my teaching and maybe benefited from it. I am a teacher, and I know that the most precious, priceless, trophy I will ever earn from the job is the simple acknowledgement from my students that I taught well.
Incidentally, “priceless” describes something so dear and valuable that it is beyond pricing. Maybe what comes close to the inestimable value of my teaching is your own reading of these humble scrawls of mine. Since I am a writer, I regard your reading me as a reward in an incalculable coin.
Work and its inestimable value is on my mind today for three main reasons. The first is that, as the festive “party-after-party” season ends and we troop back to our various “grindstones”, we all need a little motivational pep talk to urge us on in our toils and moils (labours) of the new year and decade. Secondly, and closely related to that, I am reminding myself of one of my own four Ls (live, love, learn and labour) resolutions and the importance of putting it into practice.
Thirdly and most importantly, I was inspired to write more about work by a particularly perceptive response from one of our fellow readers of this column to my article on giving students work to help them meet their tuition and other expenses. My reader, and now valued friend, is an administrator at one of our public universities on the Coast and he has been involved in student welfare for well over a decade.
He, like most of you who wrote back, supported the idea of work-study programmes to assist needy students with their “upkeep”. But he had, in his attempts to implement such programmes, encountered three major problems. One was the bureaucratic load of Acts, rules and regulations governing those public institutions, about which one can do very little.
Secondly, he felt discouraged by the apparent lack of financial discipline among several needy students who had received assistance. Tales of funds squandered on booze, gambling and suchlike luxuries clashed pathetically with the concept of “upkeep” envisaged by the schemes.
For me, however, the most significant problem cited by my friend was the lack of a proper work ethic among would-be work-study candidates. In a trial run of a work-study plan at my friend’s university, for example, half of the candidates had to be discontinued owing to, among other things, their failure to report to work on time and failure to keep track or take care of university equipment entrusted to them. In brief, blunt terms, such gross failings are absenteeism, theft and negligence.
My friend says that our “youth want to ‘hustle’ … make a lot of money within a short period of time”, and therein lies their problem. This may be so, and it is totally the wrong attitude to take to any job. But I do not think that this “what-is-in-it-for-me” attitude is restricted to our young people. The attitude of “getting a job and being able to buy ugali” seems to permeate all echelons of our society.
I remember once hearing a suggestion that Kenyans were the hardest-working East Africans. But, having spent most of my working life in Kenya, I can say with certainty that being number one in East Africa does not necessarily make us the best workers in the world.
Cases of what our friend calls “hustling”, trying to make quick profits out of our jobs, often through dubious means, or “kutega saa” (idling or sleeping on the job) and malingering (acting sick or asking for “offs” at the slightest excuse) are not uncommon in our workforce. These, I think, are symptoms of a poor work ethic. A healthy work ethic means a proper understanding of the true value of work and having a fully positive and respectful attitude and approach to it.
It is all right earning a living, getting your ugali, from your job. But that is only one level of your work. The most important aspect of your work is the opportunity to serve, to contribute to humanity. Secondly, your job is a unique chance to establish and develop an identity. What you do is what you are. We reflect this in our common interactions by calling one another by the titles of our jobs or professions.
I am Mwalimu, and few things give me more pleasure and pride than being called by that name. The same should be true of the street sweeper, who I think should be called “Mswafindia”, where they speak Kiswahili like that. That pride in the identity conferred upon us through our work is what people call “job satisfaction”, and the only way to get it is to work as if everything in the world depended on it.
This is the work ethic that we need to teach to our young people and this, indeed, is the reason our university students should get jobs while they are still at university and learn to do them as they should be done.
They may earn some tuition and other upkeep money in the process, but the final aim would be to teach, train and test them in a realistic, productive work ethic.
Indeed, no student should graduate without a proper grade in theoretical and practical work ethics.
Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and literature; [email protected]