When I was a couple of months shy of my 16th birthday, my family up and left the luscious and serene west coast of Sweden we called home and headed straight into a whirlwind of life in its’ rawest form : Africa.
The Somali diaspora, true to their nomadic roots, have this wanderlust that denies them settling down in one area. Nomads back in the days never lasted too long in one area as the arid plains of Somalia only held so much water, so they were constantly on the look out for new plains with water sources for their cattle. So we moved to Kenya in search for new experiences.
I had been to Kenya a couple of times before but it’s different when you have a return date to look forward to and when you need to race to the best room in the house before your siblings because you know you are going to be here for a long, long while. I needed to not only unpack my clothes and get settled, but I needed to unpack my mind and stretch my world to fit this… I didn’t have words for what I saw – maybe because what I was seeing but couldn’t understand due to the jet lag of my narrow mind, was life the way it was meant to be without people dictating how things ought to be.
Abject poverty juxtaposed with brazen luxuries. 30 degrees Celsius in December and learning to bargain like a true Kenyan. Everything I learnt in all my years in Sweden I had to unlearn: this place had no rules so you had to develop your instincts and intuition and act fast.There were no entitlements and fairness. I saw 5 year olds up at 5: 20 a.m. walking to school because their parents could only scrap their school fees together, and couldn’t afford the bus fees.. I saw people crippled by polio ( which I hadn’t heard of ) crawling on their stumps protected from the hot tarmac by Bata slippers. I saw snobs that lived a life of luxury that made me green with envy.
I was confused, amazed, stunned – I felt like I had lived in an artificial, man made world and was only recently introduced to the real world without the safety nets and people to hold your hand while you cry over your lame birthday gift. It wasn’t only a different continent or country, it was a whole different reality.
But that wasn’t what shocked me the most. Despite the great difficulties in maintaining a basic life, I never saw sorrow in the eyes of the cripple, the beggar, the slum dweller. They seemed happy and as if they had everything they needed in their tiny hut with no beds or flooring. They had a treasure that couldn’t be snatched by thieves or acquired by the rich: contentment.
They didn’t mind walking to their job as long as they had one. They didn’t mind sleeping on the floor as long as they had a roof. The kids didn’t mind having to study under kerosene lanterns as long as they could do their homework. They didn’t see life as an entitlement, but as a gift. Whatever they got they were grateful for because they weren’t expecting it and they never lost out on anything because they never felt entitled to anything.
I learnt a lifetime worth of lessons in my 6 years there, but if I have to choose the most valuable lesson it is this:
Contentment is true wealth and gratitude is happiness.