Whether someone is born with a silver spoon in their mouth or in a humble manger, many would agree that we are all masters of our own outcome. The common idea is that it is not a sin to be born poor, but to die poor is a great self-inflicted shame. One of my junior school teachers once had me believe that life is very fair, with the industrious getting the riches and the lazy gathering up debt. This is a worldview that we are virtually fed every day in books, videos and in school.

We make split second judgements about people every day based on their financial richness. If someone is poor, they are deemed lazy and dim but the rich are usually viewed as hardworking and brilliant. A recent encounter I had has made me shift my view away from the aforementioned mainstream one.

It was a cloud covered, but warm day, when I decided to lug my spade and rake to do yard work. As I was digging my skin kept getting yanked by the hooks of a sagging acacia tree in the adjacent yard, so I tried to use a small bread knife to cut off some branches. My observant neighbour noticed my losing battle with the branches. I’m sure that he could tell by the blunt sound that I needed some assistance. Stretching his legs over the fence into my yard, he handed me a hacksaw to lessen my troubles.

This was an elderly man who was neither too chatty nor very reserved, but I was still expectant of a conversation. He always seemed to wear the same set of clothes, a green traffic vest and brown trousers. As I was trying to saw through the branches he noticed my inexperience. It’s not surprising that I was pleased when he gently took the saw to show me how it was done. With bare arms and a sailor’s mouth, he worked away.

Now he had a well-kept yard and for a man with a limp, it was astounding to watch him traverse his yard all morning to tend to his crops. As I held the branches while he cut away, he told me about his days as a mine worker at BCL mine, a mine in Botswana. When he mentioned that he worked there I was anxious to know if he knew my grandfather who had worked there too, for decades, like he did. Perplexed I was when he exclaimed that he knew him very well.

As we grappled with the thorn branches he told me about a mine collapse in the 80s that had left everyone underground dead except him.

“It was a mess,” he sighed.

Barely alive, his feet acted like cushions for his head with his legs severely contorted. When they managed to pull him out of the rubble the hospital took top care of him. He was never fully the same though, thus the limp.

What was really sad about his work life though, was what happened decades later. He was nearing retirement when he got up one morning and went to work only to find the gates shut. The mine was closed. A few years ago everybody knew that the mine was done for but no one expected it to close without a whistle. Furthermore, he got no compensation or retirement funds from the government which partially owned the mine.

His situation was gloomy and hopeless. His plan was to build a comfortable home on his plot, alone with a small shed. Alas! The lack of compensation drove him to forfeit the big home and live in the one-roomed shed he had built.

I tried to envision his life from the time he studied to be an electrical engineer, up to his job in the mine in the late 70s. Hard work and sacrifice for all those decades, but with nothing to show for it.

This was a paradigm that demonstrated to me that the world is not a fair place. As the cliché goes; the swift do not always win the race. The fact is that all the success stories we hear about are essentially full of survivorship bias because one can do everything right but still end up in a ditch. I don’t believe in luck, but for some people the dice just happened to roll on to the right side. Gladly, I found this out early in life, but what a grim truth! What else can one say but echo Bill Gates’s words, “Life is not fair, get used to it.”


Tell us: Do you agree with the writer that even if you work hard sometimes life kicks you down?