Is Meritocracy an antidote to our alleged Mediocrity?
A brilliant analyst who had been abroad since childhood came back to her 'fatherland', Tanzania, to work. Within a couple of years she left her for 'motherland', that is, somewhere else in Africa. When I asked why is she abandoning us, he response left a lasting pinch in mind: "Tanzanians have a culture of celebrating mediocrity!"
The 'defensive' in me attempted to defend my 'motherland.' But deep down in my heart, I knew she (somehow) has a point. No wonder the ongoing debate on the 'capability' and 'employability' of Tanzanians in relation to 'foreigners' has rubbed the scar that her comment left etched in my soul. Yet it is a 'bitter-sweet' feeling.
I felt a bit of the 'bitterness' after reading the first part of this anecdote in Wanazuoni, a listserv of 'Tanzania's intellectuals':
"My personal opinion is mixed. On one side, given my experience with my kind, Tanzanians (read Waswahili) have a very poor work ethic. Based on my observation this has little to do with the amount they are paid or whether they have the skills or not: they just believe that they can get by not doing their best. With my staff, contractors, labourers and the many so called fundis I have contracted to do some work - terrible. I have tried paying people double and thought their attitude would change: no! This I can contrast with the Indians I worked with - these may have not had the skills to do their work appropriately, but they were always where you expected them to be. (There are a couple of gems though. Without exception these had very good academic records.)"
However, its conclusion provided some 'sweetness' that contributor later on added with these 'shout outs' to the "gems" in our midst:
"I was once attached to TTCL Arusha and worked with several technicians who were extremely dedicated to their work. They never missed their daily targets. That was 2003. In 2006 I worked with some Tanesco staff and a few of them were highly dedicated to their work. I can throw in my father too as an example, but he is retired now. While few by numbers, there are many such individuals in this country. You start by recognising their presence and putting them in positions they have always deserved. With meritocracy the many other opportunists who simply follow what they think will work for them will get in line. I have a ['brother in law'] who is a police officer. He has been involved in catching piles of elephant tusks and could have made millions had he chosen to take the bribes. He didn't. I also know his lifestyle- by any standard it is quite low. There are such people in this country: people who would rather live in poverty than enriching themselves with ill-gotten wealth. The problem is right now we laugh at them instead of acknowledging and rewarding them. These are the patriots. These are the hope for this nation. They never settle for mediocrity."
Of course I have my own 'ideological' qualms with the concept of 'meritocracy,' which I once attempted to co-define critically for the International Encyclopaedia of Social Policy. However, I am convinced that cultivating a culture of 'excellence' at home, school and workplace would go a long way in ensuring that no one can have an iota of excuse to say that we are 'lazy' or into 'mediocrity'.
As the the best and brightest said in the good old book of wisdom, "whatever your hand find to do, do it with all your might."