Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Of Sad Happiness and Happy Sadness

According to a 7 December 2011 Forbes Magazine article, the world’s happiest countries are Norway, Denmark, Australia, New Zealand, Sweden, Canada, Finland, Switzerland, Netherlands, United States, Ireland, Iceland, United Kingdom, Austria, Germany, Singapore, Belgium, France, Hong Kong and Taiwan in that order. Preliminarily, except Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan, we are safe concluding that the top twenty happiest countries according to Forbes are all located in what we have come to know as the west.

The same article lists what it says are the world’s saddest places, starting from the most sad, and includes Central African Republic, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Pakistan, Yemen, Sudan, Nigeria, Mozambique, Kenya, Zambia, Uganda, Cameroon, Rwanda, Iran, Tanzania, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Nepal, Senegal, India and Mali in that order. Let us make another preliminary conclusion, fourteen of the saddest countries are African countries, and the rest are from Asia and the Arab world.

What I read from Forbes magazine’s ranking is a bold statement that Africa is sad and the west is happy. No African country ranks in the happiest twenty as the continent dominates the saddest countries’ list and no country from the global west that almost monopolizes the happiest countries’ list is included on the saddest countries’ list. At least Asia can say they have the trio of Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan representing them on the happiest countries’ list even when Pakistan, Nepal and India are standing tall on the saddest countries’ list. The generalization that we take from Forbes accusing Africa of being too sad and praising the west for being happy is thus soundly grounded.

It will help to consider what these Forbes people consider as happiness, that which is plenty in the west and scarce in Africa. The article we are making the subject of this piece in defining happiness quotes Charles Schulz’s definition in Peanuts, that “Happiness is a warm puppy.” The completeness of this definition of happiness is given by quoting John Lennon that “Happiness is a warm gun.” So, the article audaciously concludes that “Whatever happiness is to you, there’s some conditions (sic) under which it most readily blossoms. You need enough money to acquire a puppy or a gun, and enough free time to exalt in its warmth.” Wow. Isn’t it so simple? Well, it looks to me to be so simple to be happy. The Forbes article says the ranking of the countries is based on a study of eight areas that they consider the ingredients of prosperity; economy, entrepreneurship, governance, education, health, safety, personal freedom and social capital.

So to them, Africa has been found lacking on the eight-tier test and the west has passed the test highly. Applause to the westerners and boos to Africa. The story should end here. I also think so. But the thought of ending the story here can’t last. I am a Mukiga, a Ugandan, and an African, who until August 2011 had never lived outside Africa. To be honest, I consider my life so far to have been full of happiness and I consider it an ordinary life of any African, no extremes, and no exceptions. For the Forbes people to say that because I may not own a puppy and a gun, I live in one of the saddest countries in the world is a shocker. But let me not pretend that I am shocked. On reading the Forbes article, a deep suspicion started lingering in my mind as to how such a piece that combines simple stereotypes and claims them to be results of a scientific process can find its way onto a reputable magazine's pages.

I suspect that before starting to compile the list of the top twenty happiest and saddest places on earth, the Forbes magazine writer, Mr. Christopher Helman must have missed the ‘un-enigmatic’ sarcasm in Binyavanga Wainaina’s How to Write About Africa essay, published in Granta 92 in 2005 and applied the instructions therein faithfully. Binyavanga in the essay advised those who write about Africa not to include ‘a picture of a well-adjusted African’ in their work. He advised that pictures of Africa to use are those of “an AK-47, prominent ribs, naked breasts”. The folks at Forbes follow this advice so faithfully the writer must be pinching himself in triumph for doing exactly what he interpreted Binyavanga’s instructions to be. The pictures that accompany African countries are of open sewers (Kenya), a flooded road (Uganda), a man carrying a gun (Central African Republic) and other cliché and stereotypical pictures of Africa.

The Forbes folks do not show us pictures of the young army of rioters that ransacked the shops and stores of happy London in 2011. We do not get to see no Paris streets with scaring drug-dealers in tow. Or, the pictures of the 2011 Norwegian terror attacks. Those are signs of happiness, maybe. Yes, that 32 year old Norwegian Christian fundamentalist (terrorist, if he was Muslim, but criminally insane because he was not), who killed sixty nine youths attending a summer camp. Happiness does not kill in big numbers. I know a Ugandan stand-up comedian, simply known as Pablo who usually jokes that happiness is killing him. The dude in all sincerity does not mean anything connected to suicide rates in the west. It is our sense of humor in Africa that defines our sadness, but we do not die of happiness. Well, a look at suicide statistics from the World Health Organization here suggests that some countries in the west take Pablo’s ‘happiness is killing me’ phrase literally.

The list of a hundred countries with the highest suicide rates in the world includes all the seventeen countries of the west that Forbes tells us are the happiest. At number 14 is Finland, Switzerland (16), Belgium (18), France (20), Austria (23), New Zealand (29), Sweden (30), Norway (34), Denmark (35), Ireland (36), Canada (38), Iceland (39), United States (41), Australia (46), Germany (47), Netherlands (50) and the United Kingdom (66). Of the ‘saddest’ African countries, only Zimbabwe features in the top 100 list of high suicide rates at position number 55, which means that more citizens in the happiest countries (the west) commit suicide. Zimbabwe manages to beat only the United Kingdom when it tries to join the league, only that Zimbabweans will be said to be dying of sadness not happiness like the rest. Or has personal freedom yet extended to include a right to die?

Let us accept that people can die of happiness, or exercise their right to die so we can make sense of the Forbes happiest countries’ list. But one simple nagging bit, ordinarily when a random question like where don’t you expect to find happiness in these places; home, church, school or prison is asked, an obvious answer is that prison is where happiness is least expected. Even without being given answers to choose from, there should be no prizes for guessing. That is why I am heading to the International Center for Prison Studies World Prison Brief to find out whether some people are daring to be different, extending the frontiers of their personal freedom so wide that they think there is happiness in prisons. The following prisoners per capita statistics look at how many in 100,000 people in a country are in prison.

The United States tops the list with 715 out of 100,000 people in her prisons. New Zealand has 160, Australia and Canada 116 a piece, Netherlands 112, Austria 100, Germany 96, France 95, Belgium 88, Sweden 75, Switzerland and Denmark 72 a piece, Finland 71, Norway 64 and Iceland 40. We can blame it on the lack of personal freedom; call it sadness that in Ethiopia, Uganda, Sudan and Zimbabwe, in 100,000 people, there is no one looking for happiness in prison. The other African countries that feature on the sadness list do not have as many people seeking for happiness behind bars either. In 100,000 people in Nigeria, 33 are in prison, Mali 34, Mozambique 50, Senegal 64, Rwanda 109, Central African Republic 110, Kenya 111, Tanzania 116, Zambia 121 and Cameroon 129.

You know after Binyavanga’s essay on How To Write About Africa, he revealed in a sequel that some novelists, NGO workers, rock musicians, conservationists, students, and travel writers tracked down his email, asking him to comment on their draft works about Africa. He adds that he did not intend to ‘stand at the virtual borders of Africa with a rubber stamp processing applications’. After my reading of the classic that the Forbes Magazine folks have come up with in their Happiness tests, I think Binya should allow to first approve some drafts about Africa. Maybe then, we can also be shown shops where we can go and buy Happiness. That time when African countries will attain those huge per capita income figures and African people can afford to send their old parents to die peacefully in nursing homes and even struggle to find time to bury them when they die because they must make money. And because of the high entrepreneurship levels, Africans shall set up some counseling and psycho-therapy clinics where those who suffer the fatigue of worshipping money can seek solace. Doesn’t the sadness of close family bonds and communitarian living also tire the people in Africa? That happy are the poor; who said that? Behold, the puppies and guns come with happiness, Africa, open your borders!


  1. But why should we even bother with Forbes list of happiest countries yet as you have so clearly pointed out, their measure of what being happy and the African/Ugandan's sense of being happy are very different things? I can say that for the average Ugandan, being happy is more than about money and how much you have. First and foremost is the concern about the physical and spiritual welfare of your loved ones from direct biological family to extended family and the rest of material concerns so important to the West can follow. On that measuring scale of happiness with our still pretty tight knit family/tribal circles, I would imagine the African in Africa, despite the challenges of adjusting to the demands of a changing global world, is still very happy.

    I was just thinking, even this morning, in a front seat taxi to work, Life is beautiful, even in Uganda.

    1. But if you are going to list a diverse group of countries in your article, then you sure as hell should diversify your measures of happiness.