A young man sets out from his home village in South Africa on a quest for self-sufficiency. He is no more than a boy but his journey becomes one of self-discovery and beyond that, a journey of radical self-invention. Compelled by cruel circumstances and forces beyond his control, he propels himself through desperation and survives disaster after disaster. He is the epitome of human agency. He is Toloki.
On his journey from his village and into an urban and industrial world, he faces dire economic straights and profound disappointment, seemingly at every turn. His humble successes and modest progress are thwarted by a society that does not recognize his value as an enterprising individual and certainly not as a person worth protecting and nurturing. His own people do not fully value him. Perhaps, they simply cannot see him as worthy, even if they wanted to, because he does not possess what they would consider an ideal appearance or intelligence.
Despite the odds stacked against him, Toloki thrives. He thrives in the sense that he is happy and at peace within himself and with the choices he makes for his life and his livelihood. He clings to his dignity, at all costs. He refuses to succumb to a life of begging. Toloki may be poor beyond what most of us can imagine, but he chooses to live without depending on charity or the generosity of the people he encounters. He will work in exchange for whatever help he receives from others. He pays back his debts and upholds his principle of self-sufficiency.
Out of the failures and disappointments of his life, Toloki learns great lessons on not just how to survive with dignity but how to live a life endowed with purpose. His life may be one of poverty, but it is a life is rich in meaning and direction. Let’s be clear: There is nothing glorious about poverty, but poverty can never define the human spirit. Similarly, oppression and injustice cannot define the human spirit. Toloki exemplifies this radical human power of self-definition. Out of the chaos of his circumstance, Toloki creates a beautiful new order. He fashions a profession for himself that he can believe in and through which he can serve others. He becomes a Professional Mourner. He works for those who cannot pay him very much but who can appreciate the work he does.
In a world that seems to thrive on an economy of death, a heartless world keen on destroying its dark-skinned citizens and children (their innocence, their dreams, their futures), Toloki manages to preserve his heart. And along the way, he meets individuals whose lives are illuminated by compassion and laughter. There is hope that goodness can be found and good people exist, even if their dreams, ambitions, and lives are cut short. As a Professional Mourner, Toloki certainly participates in the economy of death, but he defines the terms of his participation and opts to work in a manner that is as minimally exploitative and destructive as possible. He strives to work and live from the heart.