Few weeks ago my friend Daniel, a senior #Pilot in a multinational company; Bill, one of the most promising upcoming lawyers in #Kenya (according to The Standard Newspaper): Erick, a smart #chemist and I, Danstan, the mysterious #Engineer got together to plan about our intended fun flight around Kenya just to quell our insatiable appetite for #adventure.
For our, meeting, we decided to do it in our weird way; build a couch and a King size bed for me as we discuss the agenda. Daniel made us discover this underlying hobby for carpentry and it keeps getting exaggerated. Even before our parties, we start by building something first.
Sorry I digressed. So while building the bed, one of us took a picture and used it as his profile picture on social media captioned, ‘Unavailable, Men at Work’ and tagged us. Immediately, a mutual friend commented with mockery emoticons. This was followed by a long paragraph disparaging the ‘deplorable activity’ we were ‘wasting our time’ on. He went on and on…
Hence my decision to go for this coffee date with my imaginary friend Henry*, the professor. At the most fancy restaurant in town, as I am well known for. These are his words:
Yesterday, a friend called to check on me. It had been long since we talked. He asked if I had sometime so I could roll over and check on him. I was happy to go check on him. After we had finished University, he had started a small restaurant in town. It has grown exponentially over the years. When I arrived at the restaurant, I was very impressed by how many leaps he had made, in what I believe to be a short time for a business like his. We shuffled through the memories and had a hearty laugh.
As hours went by, I noticed that when customers entered and took seats, he was attending to them and doing a lot of the serving. I asked him if he didn’t have enough staff. He told me that one of the girls working at the restaurant was sick while another guy simply didn’t show up or call to let him know…so he was short of labor. I asked if I can help. He joked, ‘Henry you know I can’t afford you. Here I pay 10000shs to the attendants. How will I manage to pay you?’ I told him am happy to work.
I quickly oriented myself on the etiquette and customer care rules …and most importantly what was available. So we started serving people that came in. In total, I served about 8 clients before something interesting happened.
As we talked and laughed about the crazy things we did in school, two students I taught at University (a gentleman and lady) came by. They did not immediately notice I was the one but their eyes kept preying on me to confirm they were seeing the ‘real person.’
To confirm their disbelief, I asked my friend to let me serve them. So I went over, humbled myself, bent slightly, greeted them and asked to take their orders. They were very surprised and asked me, ‘What are you doing here sir?’ I told them that am there to serve them. They looked at each other and with the face of mixed feelings wondered why I would be working in a restaurant.
The girl asked, ‘Sir, but why are you working here? You can’t serve us. I mean…?’ she nodded her head in disbelief before continuing, ‘…you can’t work in a restaurant?’ I told them I would serve them and am happy to take their orders. You could easily notice that they were very surprised and reserved about placing their orders.
They had mixed feelings about my presence there and the type of work I was doing. After a very interesting exchange, they finally made their order which I delivered promptly. They had their delicious meal as we also continued conversing and reminiscing the years gone by. From time to time, I kept checking on them and asked if they needed anything else. When they were done, my friend punched in the bill, printed the receipt and I delivered it to them.
Their bill was 24,500shs. I placed it on the table and took the plates away. The guy placed two notes (a 20k and 10k shs) on the table and they left. I delivered it to my friend, who was now serving as manager, cashier and sometimes a waiter. He gave me back the change of 5,500shs which I happily slipped into my wallet. By the way …by this time, I had 15,000shs in tips from the other 8 clients I had served. So by adding this 5500shs, I was 20,500shs rich already.
As the couple (my former students) went out, they each looked back in disbelief. I looked at them and raised my hand to say bye. They walked into the street and faded away into the bright light from approaching cars. A couple of other clients came in and I served them. My friend was very pleased and paid my 10000shs and a bonus of 2000shs which he says he offers once a waiter exceeds a certain number of clients. At 11pm, I left the restaurant and went home.
As I sat in the car to head back home, I couldn’t help thinking about my students. Their disbelief was innocent…but it speaks a lot about a general problem we have in our society. These two students represent thousands of others. They made me think, very deeply, about our African graduates. I do not blame them, its a general problem.
I have had the opportunity to travel and study from elsewhere or in other cultures and I have always been surprised by how people in other countries don’t despise jobs. My good students could not imagine their lecturer serving them in a restaurant. Since they know my work and qualifications, they could not understand how I can be in a restaurant at this time. As if it takes away my degree or other job. It gave me a lot of thoughts about our graduates. The more I have traveled, the more I have learned and unlearned.
In 2012, while at Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine in England, one of my classmates used to drive a BMW, park it at a restaurant and work as a waiter. He came from a very wealthy family but he still worked. He told me that as soon as he completed high school, he had to take part time jobs to earn some money to pay rent to his father and contribute to household bills. It shocked me quite a lot considering what I have grown up seeing in my part of the world.
As if this was not enough, I also found out that, when students finish high school in these countries, as must, they have to find some work and either rent out, or pay their parents some money for rent if they are to continue staying in their parent’s house. I was shocked by the idea of a son paying rent to his father. It took time to sink in. The more I interacted with more of these people, the more I realised that this is a common culture. They teach a child responsibility from a very early age. Work is not for money per se, it is a service.
The lesson I learnt from them is that working is a value. One has to work and parents teach their children that they have to work and earn. Just because your parents are wealthy doesn’t mean your life is already worked out. You have to contribute to the home bills and somehow find something to do. The work doesn’t have to be white collar …but as a must, you have to find something to put your hands to. You can’t seat your bums and just wait for a white collar job.
When I went to Norway, I found the same story. Most university students, unless they simply can’t find time due to course overload, have to have some form of temporary work. Students often work as attendants, waiters in restaurants, cleaners in hotels, shop attendants, drivers, newspaper vendors, et cetera. It is a value to work and few people don’t despise jobs.
By the way, they don’t work because their parents can’t give them money. They work because it is a value that has been embedded in them from childhood. Once a student finishes high school, they take on a part time job and save money for use at university or travels. Few parents will buy their child a ticket to come to Africa to tour. You have to work and save for your luxuries.
If you want some money from your parents, you borrow and pay back. Nothing comes free. They teach you to live on your own. Being at University or having a degree is ‘nothing.’ You are not the first or the last. Serving people in a restaurant does not make anyone look less a graduate. Service is service! Work is a value.
As a matter of fact, most of the places near Universities are filled with university students working as part timers. University students are encouraged to take up these part time jobs. The white people we like to imitate are doing what we think is too dirty or casual for a graduate in Africa.
It got me thinking about students in our Universities here in Africa. I thought about all the restaurants around their schools, and the attitude of University students and graduates about these type of jobs. I thought about the poor attitude we have towards work. I looked at the chapatti boys and girls we despise who are minting money and doing great things in their lives and for their families. I thought about the people who fear nothing, who go out and just do it while we sit back.
The more I thought about it the more I realised why we are going to take longer to develop. We have a generation of young people who feel they are too educated to do certain jobs. We have a generation of children who have been prepared for a life that doesn’t exist. We have a crop of young people who act richer than the billionaires in first world countries. My time in Europe taught me that we need to get back on the drawing board and re-orient our graduates.
Students in our universities should be oriented to appreciate the value of work. There is no reason why a University should not employ students to clean the Library, kitchen, dining halls, hostels. It is improper that a university canteen should find external staff when it has over 30,000 students who can work in shifts and serve other students.
See, through this kind of work, being able to do ordinary jobs and be seen as a servant makes you true leaders. When students grow up with a sense of entitlement and a higher standard of living, it translates into greed when they get into national politics. They apportion themselves good things, higher privileges and want to float above everyone because work is about money, status and not service. Such humble work makes true leaders.
People who are willing to serve, and not merely earn make better leaders. Such work raises a generation of leaders who don’t do things to be seen or be thought of as higher and more qualified, but leaders who get things done. In some firms in western societies, when they look at a CV, such experience, demonstrates the attitude of a person, their humility, values and philosophy towards work.
We are raising a generation of children whose only image of the west is what they watch on TV. They speak using enhanced accents, know what is the latest, they are ‘cool’ but they have no idea what makes the west what it is. My experience in the west shows me something different. People work and do ordinary jobs and that’s how things get done.
If we are to get good leaders, we must first change the attitude of young people about work. An inflated self-image creates bad leaders who want to further segregate themselves from the ordinary people they consider low and less qualified. We have a big problem in our society and we have to find a way to deal with it.
Students despise these jobs because they believe work is about status and money. Taken further into their lives, it means they may likely want to maintain status and money as their pursuits when they get into leadership positions. If we must correct our leadership and governance problems, we may also need to do something about the attitude of students and graduates about their philosophies and values about work. In there, lies a very big problem.
Do not despise work, go out there and just work. The pope was once a bouncer at a club. Today he is one of the most powerful men in the world. Imagine that you had nothing to fear, what would you do to earn a living? Imagine that you had no degree or that anyone cares, what would you do to earn a living? Imagine, that no one is going to help you find a job, what would do?
I am not saying go do what you don’t like…but may be…just may be you may need to develop a new attitude towards work, serve people (in whatever opportunities unfold) and be happy to have served. You can never tell what the future holds, and you may never know who you will meet at your humble place of work. Most interestingly, you may never know the untold story of those who work and serve you in those places where you go as the bosses or the rich.
Even for you that are already employed in ‘high’ places, don’t mind going out and just find a part time job (if you have time) or offer services in the evening or weekend at any place where your services can be of use. Meet people, network and just keep yourself active. Degrees are everywhere…literally every one has them…so just forget about the whole hype about it and be true to yourself. As you look for other opportunities…don’t be afraid to branch off a little and keep yourself at something. Don’t despise jobs. Serve.
This orientation is what we want for our generation next. Not to make such beautiful beds as mine: To change their perspective of Work and service.