In a place that has “so little,” you gain so much.
This is the African paradox.
So let’s stop and analyze why this might be. I state upfront that I am no expert on this topic and have only done my small share of travelling. But this is what I have observed and experienced firsthand.
People worldwide deem Africa as an “underdeveloped” continent. And in a lot of ways, it is.
When you walk the streets of an African country, you see underdevelopment and its affects. There is no denying it. The economies, politics, infrastructure are all visibly behind other countries in comparison.
In Malawi, specifically, children follow me home begging for food or money. Yes, because I am a “mzungu” – meaning I am white and thus presumably from a country with more money and “greater development.” Men and women with disabilities sit on the sides of the roads because many have no means of transportation, or mobility for that matter. Many homes are made of clay and sticks. And this weekend, I got robbed. Goodbye iPod. Poverty and its affects are real, they exist and run deep.
But what you see in Africa is not the full picture. This, I state with certainty. What you feel and experience in Africa far surpasses the level of development in most, if not all, “developed” countries.
The answer to why is at the crux of the African paradox.
Living in such vast levels of underdevelopment, African people as individuals have become more developed. Because African people have less tangible, material goods, they are sound spiritually, in-tune with the meaning of life and what is important. They know their passions and are driven by them. Not money. They have perfected the art of being happy with less. Happy with themselves, with people, with their relationships.
But most importantly, happy with the moment right in front of them.
I made this observation for the first time on a bus heading out of Lilongwe. The bus was scheduled to leave at noon. It left at 2 p.m. It sat idling in the parking lot for two hours simply because, it wasn’t full yet. The bus ride was supposed to be five hours, it wasn’t. It was 11.
In the back row of the bus sat me and my five “mzungu” friends.
What did we do to pass the time? Yes, you likely guessed it. We listened to our iPods.
But this isn’t obviously what the other, African, passengers did. Many sitting with chickens between their legs (amazing, I know) they talked, ate, and slept. The man in front of me turned around and insisted I ate one of his samoosas. It was great. Others read newspapers. And once they were done, like the man infront of me, they shared. They passed the paper off to the stranger sitting next to them. At one point, a man stood up and preached. He did so for an entire hour. People loved it. They clapped, cheered, and even cried.
By the end of that 11 hour bus ride, my friends and I looked rough. We complained, felt sick, and were annoyed.
Everyone else, they looked at ease. Content, even.
In Africa, happiness doesn’t need to be financial success, a nice car, or even something to strive towards in the future. Africans have shown me they do not look to material goods for status, personal representation, or entertainment. Happiness is finding peace in each and every moment, no matter the circumstance.
In North America, I use technology and material goods to pass the time. My van, my laptop, my iPhone – they prevent if not cure waves of boredom.
But if there is one thing they don’t do, it is evoke time for personal reflection. In fact, they prevent it. The distraction they provide is not only from your surroundings, but from your own thoughts, feelings, and as a result, proactive actions.
In Africa, those types of material goods and forms of entertainment can be hard to come by. And as a result, people spend more time both tuned-in and hanging out with themselves, or, with the people they love. They don’t live to distract themselves, they live for the moment.
Africa is teaching me to do exactly that.
As a North American 21-year-old woman, I came to Africa underdeveloped in this regard. Out of tune. Young spirited. Even lost.
But I have lived the paradox. In a place with less, so I have gained.
In Malawi, I wake up for work at 6:30a.m. I don’t leave the radio station until 5 p.m. Well, my ride is supposed to leave at five. It is usually more or less at six or 6:30..Oh, Africa. Either way, by the time I get home it is dark outside. But at night time in Malawi, you do not walk alone. Or at all, really. Even if you are a man. So you either travel by car, or you stay at home in the evening. You sit and find ways to enjoy, not pass, the time with the people around you. The true African way.
This is not at all what I am used to. In Canada, I thrive off of independence. Having my own schedule and sticking to it. No delays, ever. Whether the sun is up or down, I am out and about. I am constantly running errands, going to the gym, going to work, doing assignments. You name it, I never stop. I realize now that what I once thought was my way to “relax” was really just my way to distract myself.
But in Africa, I don’t have many of my North American tools of distraction or entertainment.
As I just mentioned, my iPod was stolen. I have a computer that barely turns on. And my brain is so over reading ever since I graduated university that that isn’t even an option for entertainment. It is pure resentment at the moment. So, I resort to doing as the Africans do.
I chill. Hang out with friends and talk. Debrief. Relax. Live. I move at a snail’s pace. I laugh, and lots. I EAT! Food is a precious, precious thing – I indulge on the daily.
It is beautiful. All of it.
I have never spent so much time living, but have never spent so much time doing…so little. Got to love the African paradoxes, huh? They are everywhere here. I am sure I will fill you in on more soon.
As a result, I have learned that so much can be gained by doing less. By tuning in to your own thoughts and feelings. Priorities, what matters, what makes me happy.
So let’s address the original perplexities of how so much is to be gained in a place with “so little.” So much is to be gained in Africa because the people that appear to have less, have more. More self-awareness, self comfort. Less expectation, less demand. They live in the moment, take life as it is, and are happy as a result.
But this isn’t the only lesson I wish to highlight.
Please don’t be quick to write this place off as “underdeveloped” because you might just get trapped in thinking there is nothing to be gained here.
We westerners do not know it all.
Have less, gain more. Trust me.