More than just numbers: Kenya students score high in happiness

By Jiwon Na
GSS correspondent

SONGDO, South Korea — What does it take to be really, truly, happy?

In the 2017 World Happiness Report, Kenya ranked 112th overall and 12th in Africa. By the numbers, it would seem that Kenya is performing dismally when it comes to happiness.

But my experiences in Kenya during a trip to Kajiado County earlier this spring pointed to a different picture. Contrary to the statistics, and much to my surprise, the people I encountered were satisfied with their way of life in a way that people in my home country of South Korea are not.

Students from Kimuka Primary School assemble in the morning to listen to their principal introduce the Chadwick International School group. The school includes grades 1-8. Photo by Ginger Puffer.

Students from Kimuka Primary School assemble in the morning for announcements, including a visit by students from Chadwick International School in Korea. Photo by Ginger Puffer.

During a nine-day trip in late March, I visited Kimuka Primary School, a public school located 22 kilometers away from Nairobi. A majority of the students were from the local Masai tribe and walked an hour to get to classes.

The situation there was vastly different from my daily life in Songdo, a high-tech, ultra-modern city near Incheon airport. At Kimuka, children ate only one meal a day at school, typically beans or a bowl of soup. Sometimes the school was not able to provide lunch. With the exception of 8th grade, which has the smallest number of students, 20 to 30 kids were packed into a small classroom.

The house of a student in Kimuka Primary School, made with dried mud and sticks. The rooms inside were full of smoke and dust due to an oven used to cook food and burn fuel. Photo by Liam Carothers.

The house of a student in Kimuka Primary School, made with dried mud and sticks. The rooms inside were full of smoke and dust due to an oven used to cook food and burn fuel. Photo by Liam Carothers.

What students called home were small, compact houses made of mud bricks and full of smoke and dust. There was an oven in the middle of the room, which was used to burn fuel and cook food. It seemed like an optimal environment for people to fall into a cycle of misery and depression, exactly as the World Happiness Report might instruct.

Instead, the Kenyans I met, especially the students, were bursting with energy and joy. They were eager to learn about my culture, my language, my traditional clothing and so much more. Students were keen to learn everything they could. Even when the teacher was absent, they would remain in their classroom and stay glued to their textbooks. They were willing to take advantage of the opportunities they had, limited as they were.

When asked what makes him happy, a 16-year-old student named Gideon told me, “I love talking to my friends and hanging out with them. You could say that my main source of happiness is school, since it is where all my friends are.” Instead of desiring what they didn’t have, students were thankful for what they possessed — a school, a meal during the day, close friends. One day we brought a donation of leggings for the girls who had just one thin uniform; they were delighted and immediately starting showing them off. It was a small thing, but leggings made them feel empowered and happy.

Compare this to my situation back home, where none of my friends enjoys going to school; we’d rather have a day off from studying. In Korea, where citizens call their country “hell,” people often forget about the comforts that they enjoy. Almost nobody goes to sleep with an empty stomach and food is not an everyday issue. Rather than worrying about how long the clothes would last or if they were warm enough, people are more preoccupied with their appearance. Nobody feels delighted to get a pair of leggings.

Jiwon Na, center, hands out Korean chocolate, crackers and instant ramen to second graders at Kimuka Primary School. For many students, it was the first time they had ever had ramen, an everyday food in Korea. Photo by Ginger Puffer.

Jiwon Na, center, hands out Korean chocolate, crackers and instant ramen to 2nd graders at Kimuka school. For many students, it was the first time they had ever had ramen, an everyday food in Korea. Photo by Ginger Puffer.

This didn’t mean that Kenyan students were not open to new opportunities. When my school donated 10 iPads to the school and two reusable sanitary pads for each girl in 4th grade or above, they were genuinely thankful. It was one present for the mind and another for the body, and there was a bit of happiness in each.

What I took away from my trip was an understanding that having less doesn’t mean you’re less happy. The Kenyan students I met had less than I did, but their outlook on life was lighter. The primary difference was whether we valued the little moments and things in life, or if we focused only on the obstacles ahead of us.

In the end, I learned a lesson: be thankful. This simple perspective can change how you view your own life, and how happy you are.

Featured photo: Student Rachel Sohn, left, interviews Gideon and Isaiah, center, about their daily life and source of happiness. Both are in 8th grade, the highest grade in Kimuka Primary School in Kajiado County, Kenya. Photo by Jiwon Na.

—GSS correspondent Jiwon Na is a freshman at Chadwick International School in Songdo, South Korea.