Hope springs from need: in Africa, wisdom from a street vendor

Street cobbler. Sam 'Dele-Ogunti Documentary Photographer. Lagos, Nigeria., CC BY

New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern announced in June 2019 that her country would shift its focus from traditional metrics of national development like GDP to a well-being budget that prioritizes the happiness of citizens over capitalist gain. Although this sort of state-driven pursuit of happiness might appear to be a novel idea, it actually began in the 1970s, with Bhutan’s King Wangchuck proclaiming that “gross national happiness is more important than gross domestic product.”

Humans seem to have always maintained an intense relationship to happiness. Research is converging on the key ingredients to a happy life, and they do not include increased consumption and more money. Other research indicates that we shouldn’t over-focus on happiness, as that can be counter-productive. Yet the more we seek happiness, the more it can elude us. No sooner have we found it than we begin to sense its fragility and certain end.

Measuring happiness

Since 2012 and the creation of the World Happiness Report, happiness has had a measurement, with Northern and Western Europe, as well as North America, and other democratic and wealthy countries regularly taking the top positions. This has left many of us scratching our heads. Does that mean that people in other regions such as Africa are necessarily depressed, sad or angry?

Chigozie Obioma, a Nigerian writer and professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Nebraska, asked himself this very question. Obioma’s work explores the negotiation between tradition and modernity and the impact on happiness. In his 2019 novel An Orchestra of Minorities the hero of the novel, Nonso, is a poor, uneducated chicken farmer who stops Ndali, a well-educated young woman, from hurling herself from a bridge. The narrator of the story is Nonso’s chi, the equivalent of a “guardian spirit” that inhabits the human in traditional Igbo cosmology. Nonso’s journey from poverty and ignorance to striving for an education and recognition do not, as it turns out, bring more happiness to his life. Could ignorance really mean bliss?

Chigozie Obioma. Grasset

Having recently listened to a radio interview with Obioma, we were intrigued by his idea that happiness is “noisy and communal” in poorer regions of the world like Africa, whereas despair in wealthier countries like the United States is “silent and alone”. WHO research demonstrating lower suicide rates in Africa compared to Europe seems to back him up. We recently had a conversation with him to explore these questions.

How we face adversity

Obioma tells us that he has increasingly pondered hope and happiness while observing how people in the United States face adversity. Having counselled several depressed students and colleagues, and observing that each semester at least one student commits suicide, he wonders what sets us apart in our ability to maintain hope. The death of one of his students particularly shocked him:

“You know, this girl who killed herself had a job, was on a scholarship, had a car, she can take her passport from the US and go anywhere, anytime… she is in the richest country in the world.”

He suspects that the hopelessness comes from focusing on “external miseries”. So Obioma decided to investigate by going back to his native country to interview everyday people about hope, happiness, and thoughts of death. Once there, Obioma found the paradoxical coexistence of hope and deprivation.

He relates his exchanges with a particular street market vendor selling books (we’ll call him Chiso) in Lagos. Chiso is a father of two and his wife found herself unexpectedly pregnant with their third child and therefore unable to work. Obioma estimates the value of Chiso’s entire stock of books at around 200 dollars and his monthly salary around 80 dollars – at best. Yet despite being what Obioma refers to as the “wretched of the earth”, Chiso strongly believes that:

“tomorrow will be better… he believes that someday a miracle will turn his life around. It is an abstract idea; I mean, he has reasons to be sad too, right? He is unhappy with his situation. But he is deeply hopeful and can separate the difficulty of the now from the hope of tomorrow”.

Hope against hope

Obioma roamed Nigeria speaking with everyday people like Chiso on questions of hope and happiness, asking them “Have you ever considered suicide?” to which he received dozens of resounding “No!” responses. Many African countries like Nigeria are rife with grinding poverty, needless mortality, and high rates of violence. Yet for Obioma, hope is not about remaining complacent in in the face of great social ills. His is simply a story about radical hope and its implications for happiness in situations of far-reaching hopelessness.

Why then does Chiso continue to hope against all odds? Obioma notes that among the Igbo of south-eastern Nigeria, there is a belief in radical individuality tied again to the concept of the chi. It translates as “I have divinity in me; therefore, I am very important, and in some ways the centre of the world”. By extension, the Igbo believe that “if I strive, I can achieve this”. The fact that similar people have tried similar things and failed does not dampen this radical individuality.

Up to now, the Igbo individuality sounds a lot to us like the Protestant insistence on transformative individualism and direct access to the divine. Indeed, like much of southern Nigeria, the Igbo are now predominantly Christian. How does this affect how they see themselves? Whether Christian (in the south) or Muslim (in the north), Nigerians are highly religious. The kind of Nigerian Christianity that Chiso practices is a syncretic cocktail of European missionary-spread Christianity and traditional beliefs. In this way, Christianity does not negate the Igbo “divine individual” but seems rather to reinforce it, enabling people to harness a “all-powerful force to engineer the desired destiny”, says Obioma.

Hopeful on the streets of Lagos: tomorrow’s promise captured on a billboard. Courtesy Chigozie Obioma

Understanding the human experience

In the early 2000s, one of us carried out ethnographic research on West African traditions and aesthetics in Werewere Liking’s pan-African arts cooperative in Côte d’Ivoire. Liking’s Aesthetics of Necessity elaborate on how practical creativity is sparked in highly constrained, resource-strapped environments. For Liking, necessity is what spurs the self into creative action, and for Obioma, it’s what prevents a focus on ‘external miseries’ so prevalent among those living with plenty.

Like Obioma, we are struck by the tension between African “poor yet hopeful” and Western “wealthy yet depressed”. The Western philosophical tradition has always been concerned with the contradictions between wealth and happiness. Aristotle addressed this in his Eudemian Ethics, extolling the importance of “human flourishing”, or eudaimonia. In his Nicomachean Ethics, he establishes the negative relationship between the pursuit of wealth and flourishing, reminding us that the “life of money-making is one undertaken under compulsion, and wealth is evidently not the good we are seeking… ” The relevance of Aristotle’s vision holds well today if we consider the negative impact of modern environments in places where wealth abounds. Wealth and modernity do correlate negatively with flourishing: just consider economist Richard Easterlin’s 1974 formulation of the Easterlin paradox: life satisfaction increases with GDP in poor countries, but grows flat in richer countries. In other words, the richer we are, the less we can buy our way into happiness.

Dried fish seller. Sam ‘Dele-Ogunti Documentary Photographer. Lagos, Nigeria

Perhaps this may explain the contemporary renaissance of human flourishing as a discipline. Today we have Happiness Studies, subjective well-being studies, the World Wellbeing Project, and research by the Happiness Institute. The more wealth and technology we have, the more digital platforms we seem to be creating to better enhance and understand the human experience. The more we log on, however, the less happy we are. A variety of studies, some quite recent, suggest that social media usage has an adverse effect on happiness.

So the examples abound – we are in a new age of inquiry into human happiness, particularly abetted by technology, which also brings into focus global inequalities. Yet the fundamental question about whether life is worth living requires a more direct answer. Hope says yes, life is worth living because the best is yet to come. Striving through adversity means hustling on into the future. Some people, it seems, did not need to spend the past two millennia to figure that out. Just ask Chiso.