(I've changed the name from "Rants" given that I can't really rant about many things that frustrate me here, at least not without getting into some sort of trouble. As such, you'll have to wait for the book.)

Thursday, March 31, 2016


“Before we set our hearts too much on anything, let us examine how happy are those who already possess it.”
-Francois, duc de La Rochefoucauld (1613-1680)

My supervisor and friend Kurt, recently profiled in the Wall Street Journal, tells the story of being in Uganda in 2004 during intense conflict between the LRA and the government. Up to 10,000 children would come into the town of Kitgum at night because it was safer there than in their villages. He recalls. “The children wanted to be closer to the streetlights, because they were doing their homework. They would do what they could to further their education,” he says. Witnessing this episode “reinvigorated my faith in humanity.” 

My response is, “They had streetlights?”

I suppose I give my host country a hard time on occasion. It’s sort of what I would do to a close friend. In fact we seem to give each other a hard time come to think of it. But despite its challenges, I still love it and pray that someday it will be able to come out of its cycle of troubles. It has so much potential and the people, for the most part, are its greatest asset. 

But supposedly they’re not very happy. The CNN travel section this past month published a list of the world’s happiest countries. Of the 157 countries surveyed, Burundi came out at the very bottom. It also came out on the top of the Global Hunger Index as the hungriest country in the world so you would not be faulted for imagining a link between the two.

Warm weather apparently doesn’t make you happy. Several of the top ten happy countries are cold places, many with limited sunshine during half the year. But I don’t think that the millions of Syrian refugees consulted happy lists prior to boarding flimsy rubber rafts and heading out for many of these same countries. I certainly don’t they were keen on the idea of cold weather and lack of sun. It was obviously that these places would allow them to live safely and feed their families. It is sad to point out that Syrians (156) ranked higher than Burundians for happiness. Chew on that for a minute.

I haven’t read the whole report so I don’t know all their conclusions but they do say that there are at least seven key ingredients of happiness: People who live in the happiest countries have longer life expectancies, have more social support, have more freedom to make life choices, have lower perceptions of corruption, experience more generosity, experience less inequality of happiness and have a higher gross domestic product per capita.

Certainly these criteria can be debated and I’m not sure I buy all of it but I can possibly use my own life as a reference. I would never say that money can buy happiness because I honestly believe it doesn’t. Having said that, poverty doesn’t make you happy either. In fact the times in my life where I would say I was the least happy were when I was struggling to get by each month. It’s incredibly stressful. 

But it’s naïve and a mistake to think that it’s a continuum, the more you have the happier you are. African countries, which are prevalent in the bottom third of the list, are likely happier places than the rankings would indicate. If more of their populations had their basic needs met I would venture a guess that the continent might be one of the happiest places to be. It may not be as apparent to Western researchers whose backgrounds, it should be noted, are steeped in economics and development and less in anthropology. I don’t think they necessarily understand the drivers of happiness for non-Western cultures. 

One example was a couple of years ago when one of my staff passed away. Valentine was the cleaner for my office building and brought me my coffee each morning. She would often linger a bit and talk to me about her life. She did so in a way that was uncharacteristic of most Burundians who, steeped in an informal caste system, would normally not feel they could be so at ease with someone at the other end of the organizational hierarchy. Over time she and I became quite close. Though I knew she had been quite sick, I was stunned when I was told she died. 

I went to her funeral a couple days later. (These things generally happen pretty quickly given that there is usually no refrigeration for the bodies.) Given the paternal role of employers in this culture, I was seated next to her family. It was horribly sad. She had six children, some of them quite young. 

But I found it interesting that in my conversations with family and friends both before and after the funeral, the focus was mostly on caring for her family. Valentine was a devout Christian – as is much of Burundi – and there was a common understanding that she was with her Lord and was now in a better place. It provided a profound reassurance to people. In fact one’s faith here has a tremendous impact on how individuals wade through the difficulties of life. I can’t say that I’ve seen it more prevalent than I’ve seen here.  

However the happiness report states: “Living organizations are needed, including those already provided by many religions, in which people meet regularly for uplift and mutual support. To create secular organizations of this type in addition to religious institutions is an important opportunity to promote well-being in the 21st century.” The quote reveals how fundamentally wrong, or at the very least incomplete, the researchers are in understanding the role faith plays in peoples’ lives. Though it may not be apparent to a secular researcher, millions around the world see life through this lens. Meeting regularly for mutual support is something that a religion does, and it can contribute to happiness, but it was her personal faith that made Valentine sing as she cleaned the lizard poop off my desk. 

Burundians have every right to be unhappy. They’ve taken it on the chin so many times and yet they keep plugging along. But they’re probably not as unhappy as being #157 might suggest. More troubles certainly lay ahead but Burundians possess amazing resilience fueled at least in part by their Christian faith. And one doesn’t need to have a faith in God or be religious to understand the impact that can have.

Though I may not recommend Pharrell Williams to be an English tutor, his words seem to apply here:

“Here come bad news talking this and that,
Well, give me all you got, and don't hold it back,
Well, I should probably warn you I'll be just fine,
No offense to you, don't waste your time.”

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