Unless you see and observe – as Sherlock Holmes advised his sidekick Dr John Watson in the story, ‘A scandal in Bohemia’ – you will miss seeing a paean to life, as well as proof of the basic humanity of people around us but hardly noticed.
Admittedly, as our daily existences imperceptibly become more routine with time, they gravitate towards being ordinary lives. But the scenes below and their people have more than ordinary lives. They show us the unique characters these people must have to achieve what they desire, and the bargains they have to make to gain a modest modern life. If we observe that, we may behold the wonder of who they are. If we reflect upon their presence, we may conclude that they deserve our admiration and recognition and that they can be symbols of ordinary competence in ordinary circumstances. Indeed, we may even come to honour and celebrate their industry. * * * Half-seen, below are four encounters among dozens, that speak to our indebtedness to those we least acknowledge, and from whom we often derive daily service. We find them engrossed in their jobs despite the risk of harm to them, or the adversity of weather or our attitude that theirs may be fundamentally insignificant or futile tasks. By the roadside or in offices or palatial places, the more unhurried you are, the likelihood that you will notice them and yet fail to observe their presence. The scenes in which they appear are fundamentally a visual medium of the meanings that lurk behind what we see. In fact, look away from those scenes and you are bound to miss an unfolding instance of human competence, with nearly every scene building up to something revelatory about others in our midst.
* * * Roadside construction workers
To be them is to be subject to the gaze of others, or to be stared at, and thus to develop an external sense of self, even as one puts in their daily labour in public spaces. And the circumstance of their labour reinforces it: you never read a road sign warning you of women at work. It is always, ‘Men at Work’ or worse, ‘Men Working’, although of course, naturally there would be women working alongside the men. Despite the passing curiosity or disregard of others, you cannot avoid being moved by their performance of their job, most weather permitting. Appearances can be very enlightening: these individuals appear to regard work as destiny, and everything else as showing off. * * *
Typically women and with heft, audacious in mannerism and bold in business, they are by the kerbside each day, usually from the crack of dawn to night-time, selling airtime to vegetables, and many things in between. With a drive and commercial instinct unmatched, they actually sell convenience, swiftly and successfully. In fact, with them, you may experience an effervescent atmosphere of displayed wares, or you may feast your senses with an array of cooked food. That you will likely walk away from them having bought more than you originally planned to, will shock you but should not surprise you. Knowing the power of an inviting disposition, these self - or single-employee traders are inherently appropriate for our consumer world.
* * *
Call centre agents
These are a fixture of the times we live in. They are often faceless employees for businesses that have a large customer base. While they obviously need to have excellent communication skills, particularly over the phone, they also need to have unimaginable self-control to withstand anybody including irate callers. Often with an arresting voice and diction, they are required to be courteous but not pliable to every caller, and to resist the temptation to talk back impolitely or even rudely to inconsiderate callers. It is a wonder that like a polite vegan guest retaining his composure even when served with a meaty delicacy, they are able to maintain their professionalism from one caller to the other, all day long. * * *
We encounter them, standing sentry inside offices and closely guarded homes. In them we see a confluence between duty and politeness demanded by their job. It can be an unsettling realisation that the job requires them to have guts in the face of insecurity and violent crime, or people’s general disinterest in them or in what they do, although they are there. Worrisome for their jobs, they are often given inadequate means of self-protection, and yet they usually resist the impulse towards cowardice, and the inclination to depart their posts no matter the level of risk to them. In fact, rather than keeping themselves safe, paradoxically they are hired and placed in harm’s way to keep others safe. * * *
What is present in all of these ordinary scenes by these under-appreciated individuals, is a rare moral habit called endurance. This is the fortitude residing in their resolute characters, their patient submission to stay the course amidst the odds, their courage to persevere under hardship, and their efforts enabled by steeliness.
As a child of a road construction worker, or a street vendor, or a call centre agent or a security guard, when you succeed in life, and you probably will, resist the temptation to kick down the ladder by which you would have climbed to the top. Remember where you came from, and first be awed and inspired, and then be proud, that ordinary effort by others close to you have been transformed into things of subtle significance for all of us.
*Radipati is a Mmegi contributor