“They have no electricity, no running water and no mobile phones, but they are the happiest people in the world”, our guide insisted. I was intrigued and dubious. Bumping along a dirt track, I was in the Samburu district of Northern Kenya with my elder son, heading towards a village of 25 families.
Our first glimpse of the village was not encouraging. Behind a thick fence of thornbush, to keep out lions and other predators, were houses, made from sticks tied together, with cow dung covered walls and scrap cardboard and plastic sheeting on the roof to keep out the rain. The peak height of these houses was about 4 feet and each was around 100 square feet in area.
We were welcomed at the entrance by Fred, the Chief’s son. For an entry price of $20 each, Fred, who spoke remarkably good English, gave us a tour of the tiny village. We met the elders who were intently playing a game, during which they also discussed any village problems. We were given a brief welcome of songs and dances, before examining the small village.
The villagers were livestock herders, tending to cattle, goats and sheep and mainly consuming milk, blood and a little meat. Everyone looked remarkably healthy despite such an unbalanced diet. Apart from the plastic sheeting for the roofs and some tin cooking pots, there were no signs of modernity. To a large extent the villagers were pursuing a semi-nomadic lifestyle of herders as it had been pursued for thousands of years. That said, all the children attended a nearby school run by Catholic missionaries and proudly showed off their ability to count and their knowledge of the alphabet. And they did use money.
Fred too had been to the school and clearly had the education to pursue a more ambitious career. At the end of the visit we were exposed to a line-up of village women selling colourful trinkets. Fred showed an extraordinary combination of IQ and EQ in suggesting that a reasonable price for a handful of these trinkets was around $500. Even when I bargained him down to $100, I knew I was paying about 5 times the price compared to a street vendor, but somehow he made me feel good about it in terms of the positive impact on the lives of the villagers. I hope that my much better educated son picked up some valuable life skills from Fred.
Kenya has many slums in Nairobi and other towns. They are filled with people from rural areas hoping to make a better life in the city. Fred could have used one of these as a stepping stone to something materially better. But Fred was proud,and loved his life, of looking after cattle in the middle of the bush, surrounded by wild animals and exposed to the elements. It was a not dissimilar life to Nelson Mandela’s early childhood. And the hour or so that my son and I spent sitting with Fred in his family’s hut, trying to see the world from his eyes, was a valuable education.
Fred said few people ever left the village, despite having the option to do so. Indeed just 5 kilometres from the village were other villages which had better housing, with electricity and all that goes with it.
But did all this mean that the villagers were truly happy? Thinking about this made me realise how complex the whole topic of happiness is. I have little doubt that the villagers would rank highly under standard wellbeing questionnaires. They loved their work and there was a strong sense of supportive relationships within the tight-knit village. Their modest needs and close cooperation gave them a sense of security and they were connected to the natural world.
They were not exposed to tv programs illustrating the opulent lives of the rich and famous or promoting the American dream as the ultimate lifestyle. Nor were they exposed to a diet of thousands of daily advertisements, using inane celebrities to convince them how life could not be perfect without the right watch, handbag or other material thing.
No, here was a group whose conscious decision to continue to pursue a simple lifestyle, combined with a strong sense of family and community relationships, resulted in relatively high contentment.
But the wellbeing movement has also developed the concept of thriving. Is simple contentment the same as thriving? It would be hard to argue that the full potential of the young villagers to develop creatively, intellectually, culturally or economically was even close to being fulfilled. Did their ignorance of this mean that it did not matter?
I will let the reader contemplate and come to their own conclusions on this matter.
For me, my insatiable thirst for knowledge, innovation and restlessness for ‘improving’ things, means that I could not be happy pursuing the lifestyle these villagers pursue.
A visit to a traditional Kenya village is invaluable for reminding one that thriving needs to be built on some very basic foundations: loving what you do, being part of a community of supportive relationships and being connected to nature. The paradox of the Western world is that while having the opportunity to build on this foundation, we can completely lose it. And for that a visit to Sambura village was worthwhile. Even if I paid too much for the trinkets.