What is achievement? When should we recognise people’s accomplishments? As a society, what do we appreciate in the work of our people?
The notion of achievement in Kenya has taken on some rather strange shapes and colours. We clearly value the acquisition of great wealth, position and status above all other things. The need to get these things for ourselves has become a national fever. Instead of pulling us up to the peaks of greatness, this burning desire keeps us pegged to the desert plain of mediocrity.
How so? Look at what happens when somebody is appointed to a big post in our public sector: a cabinet position, a senior civil service job, or the stewardship of a parastatal. In many (if not most) cases, the appointment itself is the accomplishment! It will be accompanied by ululations and homecoming parties, congratulations and accolades. Have we not got it wrong? An appointment of that importance should be seen, surely, as the beginning of a journey, not its end. Getting the job should be a time for quiet reflection, planning and focused attention, not celebration – for nothing has been achieved yet! When the job itself is the achievement, we have reason to worry.
Because we have become so used to jobs being given out as rewards – for loyalty, political favours, or worse – we are numb to the need for something else to happen. Namely, results. The inevitable result is economic stagnation.
What happens when you take up high office? Why, it’s time to enjoy the trappings of the job! The cars must be large, the offices resplendent, the staff obsequious, and the allowances hefty. You have “arrived”, and it’s time to make it pay. What about the work? What about it, it’s not your problem! Work is for minions. Over time we have become tolerant of this state of affairs as a nation, because we expect nothing better from our leaders.
How else do you explain the following? That 2 years into the Narc government, most of us would struggle to point out the laying of a single major new road in the country. That the quality of medical care available to the average poor Kenyan is exactly what it was in 2002 – appalling. That gun-toting, sex-crazed gangsters roam the land with impunity. That we still have no additional players in the critical telecommunications sector. That we are perpetually revising our goals for economic growth – downward. If we were serious about the need for results, those charged with the responsibility for these areas would all be seeking alternative employment by now. Instead, every cabinet minister who did not have one has just been awarded a national medal of recognition.
We still give out gongs and accolades to non-achievers. Why? Because lurking deep in the recesses of our own hearts is the unspoken desire: that we ourselves would love to have that car and that flag. We ourselves would love to be received by fawning crowds when we visit our rural homes. We ourselves would love to be surrounded by sycophants and toadies who break into a kilo clap as soon as we open our mouths. We love the pomp and the grandeur above anything else.
We have become detached from our work and attached only to its rewards. Our attention is on the outcome, not the action. A job well done should be its own reward; to many of us, it is the distasteful task we perform on our way to the real deal – the designer gear and golf club membership. When you read the “CVs” in our newspapers where accomplished Kenyans trumpet their achievements, note that most of them will take great care to tell you that they wear designer clothes. And thus I read recently in the obituary written by a prominent lawyer to honour a fallen friend: “He always wore the most expensive clothes”.
Because of this fog before our eyes, a certain type of person goes unnoticed in our midst. How many of you notice this person as you walk around every day? I’m referring to the quiet person who is in love with his or her work, and who wants nothing more than to do it well. It’s the accountant who just adores the way his trial balance always balances. It’s the receptionist who greets every visitor, no matter how humble, with a warm and heartfelt smile. It’s the carpenter who spends hours polishing the legs of the chair he’s crafted until it looks just right. It’s the scholar who wanders around in a daze, oblivious to his surroundings because he’s lost in thinking about the intricacies of his subject. It’s the pharmacist who views her patients with genuine concern and compassion, and whose idea of success is in helping them get better.
Do these people still exist? Of course they do. They may be diminishing in number, but believe me, this economy is only still afloat because of them. They have always carried the country on their backs, and always will. We don’t see them because they are usually quiet people absorbed in their work. We don’t honour them because they have simple needs and dress for comfort rather than attention. We don’t converse with them because they don’t sit in clubs and bars with us discussing money and how to make it fast.
They are blessed nevertheless, and they will inherit the earth, because only they will produce results. It is they who make life worthwhile for the rest of us, because they are the only ones producing an output that isn’t attached to self-aggrandisement.
The famous poet and philosopher Kahlil Gibran described their way of thinking thus: “Work is love made visible. And if you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of those who work with joy.” He went on to recommend that you should weave cloth as though your own beloved were to wear it; that you should build a house as though your beloved were to live in it; that you should sow seeds and reap the harvest as though your beloved were to eat the fruit. You should do whatever you do with care, tenderness, affection and joy, for “when you work with love you bind yourself to yourself, and to one another, and to God.”
Already, a member of the breed has emerged from Kenya to take one of the highest accolades the world can offer. When Wangari Maathai received the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo last week, she was being rewarded on behalf of all the quiet achievers who just get on with their work. She did not get to the highest stage by being in love with money, nor by surrounding herself with creeps. She got there by enabling the planting of 30 million trees – with focus, determination and an abiding love for the earth that nurtures her. Now there’s an output for you – and she won’t even live to see the true benefit of her work.