I have often been accused of “sweating the small stuff”. Spending too much time on “the little things” … “wasting opportunity” … “being in my own world” … and the ultimate dagger of discontent, “now how is that going to get you anywhere?” The thing is, by doing just that – sweating the small stuff – I’ve come to grips with one of the secrets to life. Not to resist, but to embrace the millions of distractions that surround us every moment of every day. Gautama Buddha supposedly quoted… “There is no path to happiness. Happiness is the path.” But for me the answer came through the words of a fifteen-year-old boy, who was generous enough to teach me something.
It was almost ten years ago and I was between jobs, producing a radio documentary on the topic of child labour. I needed to interview children who are working, or who have found some form of employment while still younger than the legal working age of 16. One day while driving I came across a group of young boys who have set up shop on a piece of vacant land opposite the Sasol filling station in Parklands. I mounted the pavement with my car and pulled up close by. As I got out and approached the boys, I was greeted enthusiastically by a barrage of quick-fire, quirky sayings and broad smiles; which even stepped up a notch when I produced my recording equipment and told them I was making a radio show. They were lining up to speak to me on the topic of child labour … bingo … I had my sound, in the can!
When I signed up for this job with an NGO sponsored by the trade unions I was always hoping that my non-existent skills in journalism wouldn’t be required. But there I found myself presented with the perfect opportunity. My subjects were ready … primed for their newfound fame on 36 community radio stations nationwide … and soon a spokesperson emerged from the group, the tallest boy, who also seemed to be the one in charge.
“My naam is Vogan meneer. Vogan Erasmus. Ek is vyftien meneer.”
Perfect. I know through my research that South African legislation calls for fifteen year olds to attend school and not to be working. A lot of fifteen year olds are working though; forced either by their parents, or through need, to generate an income in order to survive. And therein lies the catch – the key to the narrative of my documentary – that with little or no support from the government or private sector, these kids are forced to break the law.
An articulate Vogan, tells me where they find the fire wood, how they take great care in trimming it and cleaning it and how they bring it to their customers…
“sodat dit nie soos gemors-hout moet lyk nie meneer, mense koep met hulle oë meneer, en hulle hulle wil vat aan die hout en voel of dit droog is meneer…”
Vogan is a mature fifteen-year-old with bright eyes; who has probably never had the opportunity of burning dry, neatly trimmed pieces of wood in a cozy fireplace while having a steamy mug of hot chocolate dunked with marshmallows. But he knows what his customers want … and so he makes sure that’s what they’ll get.
Astute. That’s what I call it … astute in business thinking. Yet barefoot and breaking the law.
After only minutes in conversation with the juvenile entrepreneur, his charming disposition and awakening curiosity take over the agenda. Soon he’s onto my underlying intentions of exposing their supposed illegal fire-wood trade on tape. He backtracks on a couple of answers, now telling me that they all attend school until two o’clock every day, and that this little business venture is just something on the side, that comes after they’ve studied and helped with chores at home.
I back off. But Vogan continues, calling out the collective value of “the little things” and that one can never just do what is expected of you, because there is much more to life…
“Mens kan nie toe oë deur die lewe gaan nie meneer. Die geld wat ons hier maak is nie veel nie … dit sorg net vir die klein goetjies. Tsips en lekkers meneer. Tsips en lekkers.”
I leave the boys so that they can attend to a real customer.
But what I left with is far more than what I expected to find. Throughout my life I’ve been distracted, slowed down, and judged for sweating the small stuff. The insignificant stuff that do not pay the bills.
But through the eyes of a child, I found its purpose. Finally, the little things – life’s random pearls of insignificance – have found meaning. And I only had to name it, to claim it.
It’s the secret to success, meneer. My “tsips en lekkers”.