In a country ranked in the bottom 30 of happiness rankings, we’re curious to find out what happiness in Kenya looks like. If there’s a common cause that explains the relatively low score, but even more important: if this position represents the happiness of the individuals living in Kenya. How is happiness in Kenya defined? We’ve put our most favorite places of our journey through Kenya in two other posts: one on the best national parks for spotting the big 5, and one with our highlights visiting Nairobi, Mombasa, and Diani Beach.
A face says more than a thousand words.
On the surface, the appearance of most Kenyans isn’t very joyful. Their facial expression is a bit rigid, their primary emotion seems to be a stressed one. And we can imagine why. According to the statistics (link) but also our first observations when driving around the suburbs of Nairobi, life is tough to most Kenyans.
We see street vendors sacrificing their life by walking in between driving cars, begging drivers to buy something, anything, from them. The look in their eyes mirrors their struggles, worries and the need for money to survive. To have the basic safety and security that is a mere given to us. So at a first glance, the appearance isn’t that promising.
It’s only when we arrive in Amboseli, a beautiful national park, that we see one of the prettiest genuine smiles we’ve ever seen, and as turns out later, isn’t that different from all of the other Kenyans we were fortunate to meet.
The smile is from Ernest. He is someone who is grateful for everything, even the hard moments. He is a head chef in a lodge in the midst of the national park, where he already works for over 20 years. His family lives in Nairobi and he strives to visit them every 3-4 weeks.
He explains to us that happiness is all about what you’re doing on a daily basis but that it also depends on your circumstances. “You need to have a stable environment, good conditions, to be happy. For your basic happiness, health, safety and financial resources are a prerequisite”.
Whereas we are inclined to fall in love with everyone who wears these pretty smiles (with the brightest teeth you don’t even see in our commercials), the story of Ernest confirms that we need to realize that in a country with many differences in income, ethnical backgrounds, and social status, it’s an illusion to believe all are able to smile as sincere as the people we have met. Still, there is a lot we can learn from the ones we’ve spoken to, at least some inspiration that might learn us to have such an impressive smile.
A happy you is a happy me.
One of the most prominent components of definitions of happiness in Kenya is the ability to help someone else. A taxi-driver in Nairobi named Ayub explains happiness very easily: “I think in Kenya it’s very individual. Some are very happy, others aren’t. For example with the elections, some tribes are happy and others not”. Luckily for him, he belongs to the former group.
“I have what I need to be happy. I don’t stress, I have a nice family and I love my job. I especially love spending time with my son. We go to the elephant sanctuary every Sunday and we even adopted a new-born”. He continues by explaining that helping someone or seeing someone who’s having a smile makes him happy.
Whereas it sounds a bit corny, maybe even cheesy, to say that the ability to help someone makes me happy. When we leave Nairobi to visit the second biggest, crowded city, Mombasa, we quickly find out that the coastal area is just as helpful as inland people are. Vincent’s exact first words are “Here in Mombasa people help each other and don’t ask anything for it”. With a blend of Christian and Muslim inhabitants, everyone greets one another. “People here are safe, they feel free, they help each other. I am Christian, my two brothers are Muslim, and that is OK. There is a free will”. And he says this with the same sincere smile as Ernest and Ayub. As if they’re trying to impress us with their beautiful teeth, which is definitely working…
“Helping others is important for happiness becomes a kind of mantra in all of our interviews”
So we decided to use this mantra to contribute to happiness in Kenya, by asking many, many, to talk to us about happiness. And after two weeks, we are assured that the mantra is more than a simple saying.
Happiness in Kenya. Just say Hakuna Matata and everything will be all right.
Another mantra, a little more famous thanks to the Lion King, is “Hakuna Matata”. It’s a phrase that when said out loud it could be done as a cheerful yell, but also as a relaxed singer-songwriter lyric.
Simply said, Hakuna Matata is a concept used to express the lifestyle of not worrying too much. Be worry-free.
When people pronounce Hakuna Matata, they are very serious about it. They strongly encourage you not to worry. Yet they say it with a big smile and gentle tone: like they absolutely mean what they say but don’t want you to worry about doing what they tell you to do.
“When you receive a Hakuna Matata, they wish you a nice life, hope that you’re doing well, that you aren’t stressed. It’s like a little gift wrapped in two powerful words”.
In essence, Hakuna Matata is happiness in Kenya.
Tribal life. We are Kenya.
We are very aware of the African history and the existence of tribes. During our journey, we had the privilege to visit a Masai village. The Masai is one of the most authentic tribes, famous for the primitive lifestyle. With primitive, we refer to a lifestyle without electricity, running water or twentieth-century invention. To a life where you live inside a National park, surrounded by wildlife, with a homemade from cow shit and some wood. A home that has their largest room reserved for sick cattle. Did we already mention they drink, wash and use water from rivers where their cattle frequently bath? Guess we don’t need to provide further details to convince you that Alissa had a hard time not throwing up because of all the smells inside the dark shed they call home.
Yet it’s not the point to discuss their practical way of living. It’s about how they achieve lasting happiness. And the secret lies in the fact that they all belong to a bigger whole. They are part of a community. And they are proud of it. Besides the Masai, Kenya hosts over 43 tribes.
Stephen, the general manager from Kenya ways, is an active participant in a national project called “We are Kenya”. Last few years, the Kenyan government set up a project to further unite the different tribes. With the utmost respect for all different traditions, beliefs, and rituals, the main aim is to assure peace throughout the country. And, according to Stephen, it’s working. “Lately, some even say “My tribe is Kenya””.
It’s the desire for peace that Stephen stresses as an important secret to happiness. He grew up in a situation where life challenged him. “Even when I didn’t have food during the day, going home to my family I immediately felt grateful and happy”. He worked his way up and dedicated a lot of energy in inspiring others to challenge and develop themselves. He devoted two books to this. For Stephen, happiness is having a peace of mind. And this includes accepting yourself. “If you accept the real you, the road to happiness is open”.
It’s hard, but that is needed. If everything is easy, you can’t really experience happiness.
Conclusion on happiness in Kenya. Easy peacy. Pole-pole.
In a country ranked in the bottom #30 of the WHI, with many statistics pointing in the different direction, we are cautious to rate their level of happiness. A country still in need of economic prosperity, political stability, and natural resources. This current situation illustrates that the basics are an absolute necessity, a precondition, for happiness. For us, it’s the evidence that the bottom of Maslows hierarchy of needs is still applicable in countries like these.
We know we can’t draw any conclusions nor represent the whole country and should be very aware of all the challenges and dreadful circumstances that are still the daily concern of many Kenyans. Yet we’ve been lucky to catch a glimpse of the progressing part of Kenya. We’ve met a group of people who express gratitude, who don’t hold grudges and are happy when they see others being happy.
It’s best concluded by Susan, who is most happy when she sees the smile of her mom. “It’s hard to be and stay happy. Happiness sometimes looks easy but it’s not. We all have little demons inside who challenge us. But we all search for it every day. Having a piece of mind is key”. It’s what the Kenyans call: pole-pole.