I remember vividly the first time I went to see my dad at work. It was inside a small steam locomotive that ran on coal. I felt nervous but excited. This was a man’s world that had until now been hidden to me. The men, with wide, proud grins, were as excited as I was. One of them offered to show me something interesting. He carefully opened a small vault, revealing a pit of red-hot coal. For me, this was the stuff of dreams. But that was not the end. He then worked the controls and the black machine began to move. My dad was smiling, knowing fully well how fascinated and impressed I was. My heart was racing faster than the steam engine.
These men – the blue collar men – were my heroes. My dad was my hero. Everyday that he came back from work, I would run towards him, screaming “Baba, baba, baba!” He would pick me up and swing me once and plant me back to the ground. I would grab the empty lunch box from his hand and walk the rest of the way home with him. At home, I would complete the ritual by taking off his shoes, sometimes polishing them right after in preparation for his next mission. His uniform always intrigued me. His blue overalls, steel-toed shoes, gas mask, large goggles, gloves and helmet all transformed him into a superhero who could control all those huge machines I had seen at work. Sometimes I would try on the oversize uniform, imagining that one day I would be in it…
I probably won’t be in it. I studied engineering at one of the world’s most prestigious universities. I am on the white-collar side now. I like it – I am very passionate about engineering design. But I hate the white-collar side. Many of the people on this side don’t like my blue-collar heroes. They despise them, make fun of them, sometimes treat them unfairly. They call my blue-collar heroes many names: ‘uneducated,’ ‘drop-outs,’ ‘dumb,’ ‘low class,’ and sometimes ‘lazy’ (would you believe it?). I have sat at tables with them; the next great people – the next Bill Gates, the next US president, the next BMW CEO – all great people. I heard them talk about blue collar work like it was something to be ashamed off. I was ashamed to be among them. They never changed how I feel. My dad is still a hero. His friends are heroes too.
Bulawayo, my home city, is traditionally an industrial city. Steel works, rail yards, textiles, cement and lime, breweries, laundry products – all sorts of industries are housed in this great city. And everyday, men in blue, yellow, green, grey and white overalls wake up in the morning to command these monstrous industries into life. They are the heartbeat of the city, of the economy. Sure, they are treated like scum sometimes, by people who don’t value their work. But talk to anyone of them, and listen to how much pride they have in their work. “If I don’t get this calibration right, this machine won’t work,” you may hear. What machine, you may wonder? It could be a cement mill gear box; it could be a control box at an electric substation; it could be a laser cutting bridge system for a textile company. And those are the nuts and bolts of the industries. Turned and maintained by special men (and now women also), who remain my blue collar heroes and heroines.
A few months ago I was in my dad’s newest machine – a mid-size Caterpillar loader. I’m a bit older now, and so this time I did more than just watch. I took the monster for a spin, literally jumping as I accidentally slammed on the emergency brake instead of the normal one. My dad’s friend was hanging tight, bellowing some instructions to me. I finally parked the loader and climbed down. I smiled as I walked towards my dad. He had the widest smile. “It’s your first, but I can tell you have great handling ability, son.” “Really?” I asked. “No doubt!” he replied. I looked up with admiration as he took back the machine and did what he did best. He’s actually the best in his group. And he is my hero.