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By the sweat of his brow

Published: 
Monday, October 19, 2015
The life story of Arima businessman Victor Joseph should be an inspiration to upcoming entrepreneurs.

Laziness was a disease worse than the ten plagues of Egypt to my parents.

Their work ethic was formidable, and legendary, though they themselves put little value on their capacity for long hours and self-sacrifice. The sweat of their brows was almost a godly anointing for them.

I am grateful that they taught me to respect the value of an honest day’s work, which still makes up for my lack of special talent in any particular area. Until somebody makes “Stylista Opinionista” a category at the Olympics, I will continue to convince people I am worth my pay packet because I always show up, do my best, and I know how to stick to a deadline.

I was reminded of the virtue of sweat by the recent death of a stranger.

Victor Joseph, who owned Victor Joseph Variety Store, on Queen Street, Arima, led a life of unrelenting hard work. “I would never retire,” he once declared. 

I could kick myself. All the times I drove past Victor Joseph Street in Malabar, I never realised he was the father of a schoolmate I had lost touch with.

He died of cancer, within weeks of the diagnosis, and a few months short of his 90th birthday. As a boy growing up in Maturita, sometimes all he had to put in his belly was “sugar water” and whatever he could pull out of the earth in the backyard.  He attended Arima Boys’ Government and didn’t have the opportunity to further his schooling (take note all of you who are getting free this and free that and skylarking at the back of the class) but he became a carpenter and mason and Mr Do-It-Yourself. He would build from scratch his own equipment—ovens, fans, his shower enclosure, food warmers.

He delighted in designing, building and welding, even if the results were not always pretty. His daughter, my old friend, Jennifer, still has a bookcase which he built for her when she was a student. It’s lodged right behind her desk at work, as sturdy as ever. 

Victor Joseph started off selling haberdashery with two suitcases and a  bicycle. People used to call him “Black Syrian.” He eventually bought a van which allowed him to venture into more remote areas such as Biche and Matelot. 

He picked apples in the United States and put the money in savings rather than foreign bling. He bought a small property on Farfan Street where he opened Victor Joseph’s Variety Store and later he owned more properties on Queen Street and Broadway, Arima.

Victor Joseph is what they call “gens d’Arime,” which, in effect, means he is a true-true Arimian. That is a big thing in the East, and fewer and fewer of the old heritage families survive today.

Amateur historian Valerie Laurent Thomas, whose family has been planted in Arima since the 19th century, gave me the story of Victor Joseph, for a bunch of good reasons, including: to honour the history of Arima which is told through the history of such remarkable people; his life debunks stereotypes of who can do business and who cannot; his example replenishes faith in good old-fashioned values such as industriousness, determination, and respectfulness.

You would never know Victor Joseph was a well-to-do businessman. A pair of slippers, some old-fashioned shirts that had missing buttons (although he owned a store full of buttons) and pants rolled up at the ankles were his choice of working garb. 

In his wardrobe you will still find gifts of new clothing which he never bothered with. Shoes were reserved for going out, and on one occasion as he put on a pair and stepped out the door, the sole came apart, having dry-rotted from lack of use.

Success has many faces. Victor Joseph wore his quietly, humbly, delightfully.

• Share stories of success with Elsa at [email protected]

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