With his infectiously bright Motown and funk-inspired single “Happy,” Pharrell Williams brings a refreshing wave of joy to a world fatigued by disasters. From the tragedies of the recent Chibok kidnapping to the South Korean ferry accident, the song is a welcome reminder that happiness remains a fundamental human goal. “Happy” launched a movement across the world’s cities. From the streets of Kiev, where protestors went head-to-head with government forces, to the beautiful arrondisements of Paris where people frolicked among the springtime flowers, happiness took on a renewed vigor. The UN even established March 20th the International Day of Happiness and partnered with Pharell to encourage people to clap their hands worldwide in a celebration of joy.
While “Happy” renditions in Northern Europe, which is routinely ranked as one of the happiest regions of the globe, may be expected, should versions of “Happy” in Sub-Saharan Africa, which contains some of the world’s poorest and most fragile states, come as a surprise? The narrative of African misery and poverty is the tale heard around the world, but the proliferation of “Happy” videos across the continent hints at a different story. It says that the world is missing something in its conception of Africa. There are videos from Cotonou, Benin, Kinshasa, DRC, Niamey, Niger; the list goes on and on to include cities from all corners of the continent. With nearly 40% of Benin’s population at the national poverty level, Kinshasha’s ranking as one of the “worst cities in the world” by CNN and the threat of ongoing terrorism in Niger, these places, in the Western imagination, are not supposed to be happy. Yet they are—they rebel against stereotypes and call for resilience and optimism in the midst of hardship.
A recent Gallup poll on countries’ optimism showed that Sub-Saharan countries are overwhelmingly optimistic. In Niger, 95% of people remain optimistic; in Benin, 94% and in DRC, 87%. In contrast, optimism in Northern European countries ranges from 30-40%. What does this mean? At first glance, it might be hard for some people to conceive of happiness in the midst of terrorist attacks, endemic corruption, and abject poverty. However, reflecting on Africa’s rising economies and entrepreneurial spirit, this alternative conception of Africa does not seem so misplaced. Perhaps it is the road to progress that makes people happy; it is hope for the future and a great deal of ambition that might fuel this outlook on life. There is a Swahili proverb that encapsulates this idea: “Subira yavuta heri, huleta kilicho mbali.” Patience attracts happiness; it brings near that which is far. The hope of a bright future is what makes the Africans on these city streets beam with joy as they clap their hands along with “Happy.”
By Akinyi Ochieng