In Africa, where subsistence farming is a way of life and more of the population lives in rural areas than in towns and cities, I started to ponder what it is that makes people happy.
On the equator, the sun rises and sets at exactly the same time every single day of the year. The science behind this phenomenon is beyond me but the social implications are huge and in rural areas where electricity is rare, it’s the end of the day as soon as the sun goes down.
So, no long winter nights or travelling to and from work in the dark, joy! But it’s just the same in the summer too – say goodbye to those long balmy summer evenings when it’s still light at 10pm.
As I carefully explained the peculiar workings of our European seasons to a Malawian farmer named Moses, his eyes widened and he earnestly asked if the rains always come on time. I chuckled and said I’d bet my last fifty kwacha that it was raining in Manchester at that very moment. He took my hand between his, nodded in sincere approval and declared it a great thing that ‘the rains are blessing Manchester United’. Despite his allegiance to the Reds, I liked Moses from the moment he joked about the whereabouts of his legendary reed basket so I let that one go and bought some avocados from his small roadside stall.
The community was buzzing and the market was alive with people selling their wares, catching up with one another’s news and waving cheery hellos to each other. We headed past some children playing with a homemade rubber football. Barefoot and sporting an eclectic mix of cast off T shirts featuring incongruous slogans from the early 90s, the children were running up and down the makeshift pitch without a care in the world, screaming with delight. They greeted us with animated smiles, excited chatter and melodic rounds of ‘Hellohellohello! Howareyou? I’mfinethankyou!’
Just an hour later, we fumbled in the dark trying to retrace our steps with the help of a flickering headtorch. Moses had packed up his stall, the market was gone and the village was empty apart from a few scruffy chickens and a stray dog who followed us all the way home.
The people we had met that day seemed so joyful and full of life, I started to wonder if I would (or even could) enjoy living in a tiny village 50 miles from the nearest town, with no electricity and no light after 6pm. After much wilfully rose tinted romanticising, I reluctantly succumbed to reality and conceded that the lure of a life that simple probably isn’t for me. But, with family and community at the centre of everything in the village, I saw that our western ideals are not integral to happiness.
What’s the recipe for happiness? Who knows. But there is value to be found in the simple things life offers. Spending time with friends and family outdoors can be as much fun as your combined imaginations and on our green isle you’re never far away from a playground, nature reserve, woodland or national park to explore.
And remember, if you were a farmer named Moses then just the first few splatters of the rainy season might be enough to bring a smile to your face.