Friday, April 30, 2021 9:43 am
By Chris Anyokwu
Writing on what he entitles The Western Canon, American cultural theorist Harold Bloom famously declares that William Shakespeare is the Western Canon, positing in the main that everyone who has pretended to put pen to paper all in the name of literary creativity is only rehashing, reformulating or treading the well-worn paths already trod by the Bard of Avon. We can, without fear of contradiction, make a similar case for Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, the timeless Oracle of the Black Experience. Is there anything happening today that Fela’s oeuvre doesn’t address?
Regarding today’s topic, Fela has something to say about it: “L’ojo Monday, Eko oni gbagba kugba o (Monday morning, Lagos doesn’t brook irresponsibility/unseriousness about work). Monday, in this regard, is used generally to imbricate and totalise days of the week, apart from Ojo isimi (Day of Rest (Sunday). Such is the traditional African (Yoruba) attitude to work that the people encapsulate their work ethic in a proverb: ‘Iṣẹ́ loògùn ìṣẹ́’ ‘Hard work is the cure for poverty’. Thus, African (Yoruba) notions of work eschew concepts of ‘punishment’, ‘disciplining’ or ‘hindrance’. Traditional philosophy of work is diametrically opposed to that of the contemporary generation who regards labour/work as distraction, a nuisance. Indeed, the popular sing-song taken from the lyrics of Davido, one of Nigeria’s rising music stars, ‘If you no get money, hide your face’, monumentalises the depths of ethical deregulation into which the present generation has sunk. The vogue mentality of the-end-justifies-the-means is the ruling passion in our social life. But things haven’t always been like this.
The Book of Genesis records that, after God had created Adam and Eve, He commanded them to dress the Garden of Eden, seeing to its day-to-day running. It can, therefore, be inferred that work is designed by God, the Uncaused Cause, and the Master Designer, for the exercise of the body, soul and spirit. It stimulates the intellectual capacities of the human mind; strengthens the muscles; helps build the body, tone up the flesh and, in fact, help you keep fit. Work equally aids longevity. But more crucially, work imparts a sense of purpose in life. A purposeless living is useless. The only thing which gives life a purpose, a meaning is Work. Philosophers, anthropologists and sociologists have written quite copiously on the work ethics of the Western world. We are reminded of scholars like Emile Durkheim, Auguste Comte, Herbert Spencer, Henri de Saint-Simon, Karl Marx, Max Weber, Harriet Martineau, John Stuart Mill and Immanuel Kant. In more respects than one, these European members of the literati have commented on the matter of work. Foremost Puritan reformer, Charles Calvin was said to have inaugurated a volte-face in the European man’s attitude to work. It is argued that the so-called Calvinist work ethic was informed principally by Romans Chapter 12: 11 “Not slothful in business; fervent in spirit; serving the Lord.”
As a matter of fact, during the years 1904 – 05, Max Weber composed his book entitled The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, which was later translated into English in 1930 by American sociologist Talcott Parsons. The Calvinist work ethic aka the Protestant or the Puritan work ethic emphasises diligence, discipline and frugality. Perhaps the lodestar of this philosophy of work is what is known as “Delayed Gratification” – a kind of self-mastering asceticism which prioritises investment, laying-up of treasures for the next generation. It is antithetical to the wolfish Epicureanism of our political locusts! To be certain, one remembers in those days, there used to be a joke which ‘trended’ in town about the Igbo businessman. He was always outfitted n his trademark off-white T-shirt and khaki shorts. You would see him, perspiring while hustling, functioning as some kind of a handyman: he could do anything and everything from plumbing to masonry, shoe-cobbling to driving, item-collection to farming. But, unbeknownst to you, he was a diamond-in-the-rough; a millionaire!
But the real joke was that, whilst he was stinking rich like Silas Marner, the protagonist in George Eliot’s Victorian novel of the same title, he barely survived on guguru ati epa (popcorn and peanuts). Sadly, however, the greater joke was on the madding crowd of scoffers who knew precious little about the enabling virtues of delayed gratification typified by the Igbo businessman. Is it any wonder, therefore, that the Igbo have dominated the business landscape both in Nigeria and beyond? It is a cultural world view arising from their acephalous republicanism. To avoid any likely charge of jingoism, we now advert our gaze to the Yoruba proverb referenced earlier on : ‘iṣẹ loògùn ìṣẹ́’ [Hard work is the cure for poverty]. What this Yoruba saying underscores is the universality of the concept of labour/work as panacea for want. Down the ages, work has always been considered as the essential currency of life. In Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice, ladies marry, not for love, but ‘as a preservative against want’. In Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Ekwefi, Okonkwo’s second wife and mother of Ezinma, abandoned her first husband to marry Okonkwo on account of his work ethic. Okonkwo is a famous wrestler, distinguished warrior, a promising farmer and community leader, among others. Small wonder, he effortlessly wins the heart of Umuofia’s Beauty. This is because, Okonkwo knows that ‘no romance without finance’; and that if he wanna be with Beauty, he must have J-O-B! Seriously speaking, in mythic or/and recorded time, the search for work has always been the motive force for migrancy and exile. Denizens of ancient society had to move from place to place in restless and endless search for arable lands, vegetation, forest resources and water; resources needed for farming and animal husbandry. In today’s world, most countries rig up iron-cast border-control measures to stem the tide of the influx of foreigners swamping their lands in search of work. Emigration to America, Europe and Asia by people from the Global South is caused by the search for greener pastures. Work is life; a person without paid employment or work is a dead man walking; a liability to the living, a millstone around the neck of society. Such a freeloader who scrounges on society’s charity is to be pitied, indeed.
As the adage goes, an idle hand is the Devil’s workshop. Consequently, idleness is the main cause of the rising incidences of criminality in Nigeria today. Insurgency, banditry, armed robbery, rape and kidnapping will be reduced to a minimum if and when our teeming youths are put to work. The fashionable thing nowadays is for our youths to emigrate overseas. Most will give life and limb to cross the Sahara to Europe. The cry is: “Anywhere but Nigeria!” But it should be borne in mind that those advanced societies were built over time on Calvinist work ethic. From the Dark Ages through the Renaissance to the Age of Enlightenment, civilisation has turned upon the progress of Reason and Science rather than on the tyranny of superstition or religion. Europeans are true believers in the liberatory and transformational possibilities of hard work. Thus, beyond paying lip service to work in our own society today, do we really do our regular jobs diligently? Are we true believers in the power of work to transform nature into culture; to alchemise our mono-cultural, resource-dependent economy into a service-based, hi-tech economy? For how long have we as a country been producing crude oil? Have we been able to refine it into finished by-products?
How many billions of dollars do we fritter away annually on so-called Turn-Around Maintenance (TAM)? Are we not deliberately making a few fat cats richer at the expense of the Nigerian people? Even when we talk of other aspects of the economy, how well do we fare? Doesn’t it take eternity to build roads and rail lines in Nigeria? Is the Ajaokuta Steel Mill not a metaphor for national self-destruct? Where are the automobile assembly plants of old? The tyre factories? The textile industries? How about power generation? Why waste the sunlight? Why waste the land? Why waste our youth? Why? Why?
In the midst of all this rot, there is a group of people one expects to make the difference. They are those who by default or design subscribe to Faith, the Christian faith, to be more specific. They are not called believers for nothing. Believers in who or what, you may ask? They are believers in God. They are expected to follow His Example. He created the world in six days! He enjoins His children to work. He who does not work and cannot feed his family, is worse than an infidel (an unbeliever). The Biblical injunction is: ‘Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it diligently as unto the Lord’. Please take note of the phrase: ‘as unto the Lord’. But sadly, for most, work is simply a means to acquiring a meal ticket; a job. So, they tend to be, at best, feckless and nonchalant with their job. For few, work is a calling, so they do it with passion, with a sense of unwavering commitment taking remuneration as a bonus. This eclessia of profitable servants is fast disappearing from our society. Therefore, the general attitude to work is eye-service, duplicitous fawning before the boss. Under this scenario, the employee is a mere hireling out to steal, to kill and to destroy. They are everywhere – schools, universities, corporate offices, hotels, ministries, departments and agencies of government, etc., etc. The common refrain is: ‘Na my papa work?’ ‘If you die working for these people, na saara’. This anti-work sentiment must stop forthwith. The National Orientation Agency must redouble its effort to drive change in attitude to work. This calls for value re-prioritisation, a kind of ‘rebranding’, if you please. Believers should practise their faith – they must shun deliberate malingering, shirking of responsibility, passing of the bulk, outsourcing of duties, truancy, absenteeism, dereliction of duty, anti-country campaign of calumny, among others. Someone once said that: “Doing good for others is not a duty; it is a joy. It increases your own health and happiness’. So, let us, old and young alike get back to our duty-posts and WORK ‘as unto the Lord! Then and only then, may we all join King Sunny Ade in singing: ‘Nigeria yi ti gbogbo wa ni…”.
Chris Anyokwu, PhD.
Associate Professor of English,
University of Lagos.