by Trevor Gothan
14 October 2009
As a teenager we often spent the holidays on the Wild Coast, where my father loved fishing for steenbras off his favourite rocks. On one blustery day, I chose not to fish alongside him in the cold salt spray and rather joined a Xhosa fisherman at a more sheltered spot, some distance away.
Both hoping for a few bream for lunch, we stared at our lines in fruitless expectation for the first hour. Thereafter, we engaged in a more interesting, but somewhat difficult conversation, for his mastery of English was about as limited as my abilities in isiXhosa.
After some formalities about weather, bait and fish, our conversation turned to our lives. Zamuxolo pointed out his kraal on a green hill across the bay, and then asked where I was from and what I did.
I enthusiastically explained that I was studying to be an engineer at Wits and finding it quite tough.
"Why are you doing that?" he responded.
"To get a good qualification and hopefully a well paying job," I replied.
"What for?" he queried. This required some thought.
"To earn enough to educate my kids, pay for a nice home and retire comfortably one day when I'm old," I confided.
"And then what will you do?" Zamuxolo probed.
"Probably live at the coast in a place like this, where I can fish and relax all year round," I said, trying to think of what else I might do.
He stared at me for about a minute and then lit his pipe, as if to try and understand my thought processes a little better. "You mean to do what I have been doing all my life here at Qora? Why must you wait until you are an old man?"
I had no easy answer.
I still chose to complete my engineering studies and, while working in Germany a few years later, I received another lesson in the philosophy of life. I had just spent a year working in the UK, which I had found difficult. It was during Harold Wilson's premiership when unions ran amok and companies were battling to keep afloat. My German colleague explained the problem.
"The Germans," he said, "work very hard to accumulate the trappings of material success, for which they are proud and they would gladly take you to their fancy home in their Mercedes to show it off."
"The French," he added, "love the 'joie de vivre' and prefer to entertain you at their favourite bistro with their friends - even if it costs them their full day's pay. Their home is not usually for showing off.
"Then there are the Spanish. They prefer to work less in their heat and would happily earn less, provided they still get their siesta in the afternoon.
"The British, however, want to work as hard as the Spanish, but enjoy life like the French and have the accoutrements of the Germans."
For me, these two encounters summed up the choices we have. None of the above philosophies is "better" than another, just different in priorities.
What I know, however, is that one cannot have it all, except the few that are able to cheat the system and do so at somebody else's expense. I chose what I got; accept what I missed and I'm happy.