HomeOpinion & AnalysisWork – a matter of choice

Work – a matter of choice



There are two decisions young people have to make in life: finding the right partner to marry and deciding on the right vocation (trade). This is a big struggle. In former times you would follow in your father’s footsteps. If your father was a farmer, you would inherit the family farm and end up growing crops and breeding cattle. And a daughter of a medical doctor tended to pursue the same profession.

When I was living on a mine, we had a different situation. The parents, mostly engaged in manual work at a copper mine, but wanted their sons to do administration jobs (office work). Being a manual worker, the father wanted his sons to be clerks, he did not want them to get their hands dirty using shovels and picks in dangerous underground jobs.

When the boys at a mine were offered apprenticeships to qualify as miners, a mother I spoke to was appalled. She wanted her son to sit in an office, in a white shirt and tie. I told her that as a qualified miner he would get the wages which were several times as much as he could get as a mabharani (clerk), or a “mine boy” pushing a wheelbarrow.

With such a pay, a boy would have little trouble paying lobola (bride price). Nowadays you cannot be choosy. Anything to put sadza (staple diet) on the table is okay. Is a white-collar job necessarily paying better than manual work?

What is offered on the labour market? What qualifications are needed? A householder may run around looking for a plumber. But the children of his more educated neighbour have degrees in political science. Electricians may be hard to come by. But there are plenty of young women with qualifications in financial administration. Are you sure you train for a job for which there is a market?

Are you seeking work or employment? Maybe you could make a living by creating your own employment rather than looking for employers. The young ones have no work. Really?

Roads are in an appalling state and potholes are a danger to the driving public and traffic in general. It is not only during a pandemic that children have no teachers and remain half literate.

They are neglected, live in cardboard boxes and sniff glue. The chronically ill cannot access medical care. Accident victims find no one in a hospital’s out-patients department to give them first aid.

Parents have spent lots of money on school fees to teach their children reading and writing. But can they read, can they write, except with their smartphones? Who gives them an interest in books, how will they gain useful knowledge and become self-supporting handymen?

Elder brothers and sisters could learn a lot by teaching the young ones in the family. Would that not help build a self-help culture? In such a culture, nobody has a right to be idle with the excuse: “This we did not learn in school”.

So why not train women and girls? We need a new self-help culture and a technical civilisation based on family and community cooperation. Women always complain that they are never given a chance to prove themselves. Women need not be restricted to women’s work. They can go beyond that and do what only their brothers were allowed to do yesteryear. Now they have the chance they were waiting for.

The other day our landlord called in a company to install gas stoves in the house. Two mechanics came to do the job. I had to look twice. They were young women fully equipped with toolboxes. Good for them. Let them enter into competition with their brothers. That would be more helpful than all this moaning.  My grandfather had a sailing boat. He had no son to be his mate, but he had five daughters. So he gave the job to my mother, then 17 years old. You don’t have to be a feminist. Just having a bit of courage and a sense of fun may be enough.

Priests and pastors know that their many calls for bigger collections are not popular. We all live in the same bankrupt economy. A robust “self-help mentality” is needed. The church roof is leaking, the pastor himself must be the first to climb up on the roof and sort out the sound from the rotten roof-tiles. If the entire congregation had this self-help spirit, including the women and girls, this would do them a lot of good. They would become a self-supporting, proud assembly of “Do it yourself” Christians. No more begging letters to their brothers and sisters overseas. Now they are full of self-confidence, “because we can do it”.

If a big lady starts slipping while repairing a church roof, that needs not be a disaster — all the ladies need is a safety net to catch her in time.

A young lady had a degree in Literature in English. She wanted to be a teacher. But no school would take her. So she joined the army. I am not an enthusiast for women in the military. Women should save lives, as medical people they should be busy enough. But I have no problem with muscular girls as ambulance drivers. That is a life-saving job alright.

Are we looking for work or for employment? Work is there, plenty of it. Our roads are littered with potholes and are no longer suitable for traffic.

The only problem would be: who pays the workers? Employment is more critical. Not everybody is fit for risky occupations. You do not want your wife to tumble from a steep roof that needs repairs. But if you run a business doing house maintenance, maybe you need a wife who can join you, especially if she can also handle finance. Maybe you can kill two birds with one stone.

She can climb the roof and also count the costs. A man may be happy to marry a woman who is versatile and a Jack of all trades. Their marriage may be all the better for it.

Are we looking for an occupation that keeps us busy and gives us an income?  Do we look out for an income or for a chance to use our talents, our inventiveness or creativity?

I know a young man who is an artist. He carves statues and paints pictures. He is creative. He is never bored. Just making money is not good enough for him. For him work is participation in the creation of the world.

My father was a bookish kind of person. He would have liked to be a scholar and academic. But that had no tradition in his family. He got a law degree and became a civil servant. But he had a son who was an outdoors type of person. He would have liked to be a farmer. He was earmarked to take over the family farm. But the war destroyed this dream. He was a farmer without a farm. He was the only one in the family who engaged in competitive sports. I admired him when he was competing in large, eight-seater rowing boats. Unfortunately, he had an accident and ended up with bad blood poisoning and a very weak heart. Heavy manual work was out for him. But he used his skills as a farmer anyway, and became an expert for growing crops and breeding milk cows. Farmers came to consult him. If you have no job, you may have to create one.

My eldest brother was able to realise the dream of his father. He studied history at university and became a scholar.

My eldest sister became an industrial fashion designer. After some years of very strenuous work she changed to adult education.

Even in her old age she was still able to sew her own clothes. But she was happiest to pass on her skills as a creator of beautiful clothes. She also was an artist and her artwork depicted the old city where we lived.  There should be education enabling children to make the right choices.

My best friend was an enthusiastic teacher. He could not do anything but teach, he had a passion for children and their progress. Teaching for him was a vocation, a calling. A few years later I started training as a priest and pastor. Then I began to understand what a calling it was.

My second sister got a degree in economics and worked in a bank. But she was not in love with finance. We had a garden and she loved growing vegetables, flowers and trees that burst out into bloom every year and gave the family fruits. She wanted me to help her, but I was more interested in young people and their development. I was only a teenager when I started writing and editing. I became a writer with the love for communication which went well with being a teacher and preacher.

It may take some time to discover our real passion and abilities. Happy is the man or woman who is allowed to follow his/her real inclination and talent, becoming truly creative.

Young people should ask more than: what is the pay like? More importantly may be to ask: will I like it and enjoy it? Will I make this earth a more beautiful place?

We all seek happiness. Maybe using our hands and brains for quite unique and enjoyable work that also others can enjoy is a better way of achieving this. The Creator of the “Earth our common home” is still looking for co-workers.

  • Fr Oskar Wermter SJ is a social commentator.

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