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The pleasure of just doing your job well

The other day, and much to my surprise, I came across a public servant who seemed to take enormous pride in just doing his job well. In Kenya. If you’ve picked yourself up from the floor, let me continue.

I encountered a thorny issue, and contacted the relevant government department to try and sort it out. I expected to be ignored, sidelined, blocked or even abused. To my surprise, the head of department gave me a personal appointment after just a single phone call.

I showed up for the meeting and found a very upright and authoritative gentleman awaiting me. He had no idea who I was, and did not care. He told me in no uncertain terms that I was technically in breach of laid-down regulations and I would have to follow due process. It did not matter that I was not personally at fault – rules are rules and they exist for a reason, I was told.

Long-standing readers of this column can imagine I was nearly in tears. Of joy. I sat back and listened, as the gentleman recounted instances of very big people calling him to seek exemptions and favours. As he told it, he rebuffed them all. So he had no interest at all in who I might be; I would have to follow the right procedure.

Now this fellow is clearly a lonely member of a dying breed. Intrigued, I asked him what made him different: why do you insist on things being done properly when almost no one does these days? Why does it matter to you? Relax – no one else cares, why should you? Now he really got going. It does not matter a damn to him, he said, who else is with him. He was given the job of doing a service for 45 million Kenyans, and he would do that until his final day of work.

I pointed out to him that he could undoubtedly enrich himself by working with the ‘cartels’ that are the bane of our existence. Did he not want riches? Why would he resist? The answer to this was particularly interesting. He told me that yes indeed, he had seen many former schoolmates and colleagues become filthy rich by doing the wrong thing (haven’t we all?). But he did not envy them at all.

Why not? Because he had examined the lives of those corrupt persons in some depth. True, they lived in apparent comfort and had the applause of sycophants. But did they enjoy any peace of mind? Did they sleep well? Did they have any true friends? Did their spoilt children love them? Did they not look over their shoulders every day wondering when the law would finally catch up with them?

And so he did not wish to be like them. He wanted to be paid what he was due, for doing the job he was paid to do. And when that job ended, he would retire to live a simple life for which he had provided, with the self-satisfaction of knowing he had done his bit for the world he was born into.

Well, well, well. I hope you’re clapping. And if you’re not you should really read something else.

Now, I cannot vouch for the veracity of what I was told. But it had the ring of truth, and I left with a spring in my step. I am very grateful indeed that people like this still occupy key jobs.

This is a forgotten joy, is it not? That of simply doing your job to a high standard. Of taking pride in your work. Of enjoying your daily routine. Of refusing to countenance a corruption of the work. Of believing in your purpose. Of wanting to do your bit for the human race around you before you are gone.

I know I am glorifying someone who is just doing his designated work. But hey, it is heroic to do your job properly and to resist temptation when most people around you are compromising themselves every single day. It is heroic to hold true when your own bosses do not, and view you with suspicion as a result.

The norm is very different: people who become serpents because they see snakes; people who let their standards slip simply because others do; people who someday preside over massive looting because they didn’t have the strength of character to know right from wrong.

When we finally return from the moral abyss we have plunged ourselves into, it will be the few good people who stayed true and who refused to descend who will haul us out.

(Sunday Nation, 11 December 2016)

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