I travelled to New York City to pick my daughter up this past weekend who is just back from Africa. I was very glad to see her and after making sure that she was well, I initiated a conversation about her experiences while in Africa.
I had been looking at her pictures on Facebook and I had also previously been looking at the slums in Nairobi where she would be working. I fully expected her to tell me about the desperation of the people, the abject squalor of their existence and how sad people were in general.
As our trip north began I asked my daughter to share the five things that she came away with when she left Africa. A smile came across her face as she began to share that the people in Kenya were surprisingly, happy people. There was lightness about them and appreciation for the smallest of pleasures was expressed frequently and abundantly. “It appeared that people generally were just happy to be alive or at least so it appeared.” It was not an uncommon sight for people to walk along holding hands and conversing as they went.
My daughter also shared that things that we take for granted like running water, functional toilets and toilet paper were generally in short supply. What my daughter shared was unexpected and it got me thinking about how the people of Kenya could be so happy when they didn’t have big screen televisions, expensive cars, and well-appointed houses and were often lacking the many ordinary things that we take for granted every day.
I am so deeply entrenched in American consumerism that I cannot imagine how the people from Kenya that my daughter encountered could be so happy; so content. I tend to think that they are happy because they do not know that they should be unhappy because they do not have all the stuff that many of us have. I cannot imagine how they can be happy living in the homes that they live in which to me look like sheds where I might store my riding lawnmower.
How can they be happy without air conditioning when it gets so hot here? How can they be happy without takeout food, especially Chinese? How can they be happy without their own car? Many people travel by bus in Kenya and I have had several unpleasant experiences on bus trips to New York City many years ago.
It appears that most people in this part of Kenya have very little in the way of furniture, clothes, electronics or much of anything. When my daughter told me that there was lightness about them, maybe she was talking about their lack of stuff. I suppose that when you don’t have lots of stuff, you don’t have the burden of cleaning, storing and maintaining lots of stuff either. Can you imagine a world without all the modern conveniences that we all use every day? Maybe the people of Kenya who don’t spend so much time taking care of their stuff have more time to spend with each other as human beings. Without so many possessions each of us would have much more discretionary time.
Having a lot of stuff requires a big time commitment. Maybe when you have very little, that which you have and the surprises that you encounter along the way become much more meaningful. In America, many of us give ourselves so much that when we encounter a surprise gift of kindness it is nice but it does not rise to a level of fulfillment or great appreciation. I did not get to purchase things that I wanted all year round.
I know from my own readings that there are many challenges on the African continent and I would have concluded from those readings and pictures that people were very unhappy there. I was glad to learn that at least in the part of Africa that my daughter visited people seemed to be quite happy in spite of their lack of material wealth. My daughter said that the beautiful children that she encountered were especially happy and that happiness was apparent in their frequent laughter, radiant smiles and great appreciation of the simplest gift.
I would suppose that we all could learn a great deal from people living in the challenging circumstances of Kenya. Principally, how to experience happiness just because you are lucky enough to be alive; how to live a life that is more selfless and how to survive our circumstance whatever they might be.
Remember, all kids count.
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