The gardener's conceit By Ifeanyi Uddin*

Of late, I’ve been obsessed over two interesting metaphors of the Nigerian workplace. In a society this concerned with keeping the dirty laundry under the bed, it is inevitable that any coming together of citizens would generate plenty to mull. The first of the images that interest me, though, I’d describe under the rubric, the “gardener’s conceit.”

Essentially, it is the tale of a middle-aged man employed as a gardener in the services of an upper class family. One day — nothing especially different about this day of all the days he’s worked there — he’s invited by his employer to share a drink (in the shade, as a very hot day nears its end). It is of scant significance to the shape of this narrative that this invitation is the first of such since the gardener started work there 20 years ago. It matters even less that the invitation is on the back of a very involved day for the big “oga” (or ogre?). What is significant is that the bonhomie generated is consistent with the coming together, post-prandial, of two middle-aged men who both have had a tricky day. The meeting of minds on the testiness of teen children; the increasing absence of meaning, even as a heavier burden of responsibilities invites one to take life more seriously – these are but mere details.

The tale only turns on its head, when, next day, the gardener’s fair conceit of himself, encourages him to build on the camaraderie from yesterday’s meeting. Of course, the lord of the manor brings him down several notches — no matter how expensive the quality of the drink, nor how private access to the gazebo is, the shared time did not make these two any more equal. The moral of this fable? As employees, we are gardeners all. Mow the lawn, and tend the hedges, by all means. If able, throw in a dash of topiary art. However, never forget that all these subsist at the sufferance of your employer.

Any valence, then, in the work that we do? Maybe! However, I find that the attractiveness of work as a behavioral objective lies well beyond the precepts that our upbringing insists that we invest in it. Is there dignity in labour? Despite all that my childhood teaches, I find that, my best exertions notwithstanding, all the worth, honour, and esteem in my work are the ones my employer finds there. I am unable, to put the case differently, to invest my work with any value beyond these. Invariably, I find that one of the biggest contradictions in the domestic work space in the country today, is this dissonance between the employee’s estimation of the moral and or material value of his/her output at work, and the employer’s eventual assessment.

I have heard arguments to the effect that this “dissonance” scarcely qualifies as a “metaphor”. If anything at all, it only further interrogates the “gardener’s conceit”. Besides, I am told that this conceit is an old work place contradiction. It may not be the antagonistic contradiction on which Marx constructed his elaborate social scheme, but apparently the “bourgeoisie” has long recognised the need for a coincidence between corporate goals, and the sundry personal goals of which workforces are comprised. Indeed, the many incentive schemes that constitutes the human capital management department’s toolkit in today’s workplaces minister to this need.

Still, I recognise a peculiar problem in our local example. Arguably, in order for a behavioural goal to be mutually intelligible, it must speak to a reality independent of the different perceptions of those involved. In other words, the valence in the work that I do must be something completely independent (or as near so as possible) of both my employer’s and my perceptions of such value. The more objective the goal, and the clearer the means of communicating these, the easier it is for the gardener to appreciate what the workplace expects of him, to understand what his bounds are, and having delimited these objective constraints, to work better.

However, to the extent that a post-agrarian mind-set dominates the Nigerian work settings, and the entire valence therein is on loyalty rather than effectiveness, the boss’ perceptions are the goals around which the employee’s exertions must be organised. The gardener’s labour, in other words, cannot have a value independent of his lord’s perception.


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