I am sitting here, my laptop open on my knee, sheltered from the baking sun by a great shade tree in this upcountry village of Idah, 12 hours drive inland from Lagos, determined to find an answer to that elusive question that has pursued mankind down the ages: What makes for human happiness? There is a good and sensible reason to believe I might uncover the answer here — or at least some of it.
The World Values Survey, an inter-university study, recently reported that Nigerians are the happiest people in the world. The survey ranks only some 20 of 62 countries surveyed. Canada's ranking isn't listed but it's above the United States (16th) and Britain (24th) while Russians are ranked the unhappiest.
The survey, which has studied happiness since 1945, finds it has not increased in Europe and North America even though the societies have become wealthier. The desire for material goods, it concludes, is "a happiness suppressant."
Buy why Nigeria?
Everyone I pass in this village of approximately 5,000 says hello to me often with a smile, and yet I know many of them barely have enough to eat.
I have just been given lunch by the headmaster of the local technical school, Peter Ikani, cooked by his 28-year-old daughter, Ele. It is simple fare but a rather delicious hot peppered goat stew served with yams. Peter apologises for receiving me in his "hovel" (which it is, even by the standards of this village) and explains that teachers are badly paid and often paid late.
Ikani is well read, thoughtful and religious. Ele is highly articulate and perceptive. But she has been unable to find the finance to go to university and has a low-level job in the Social Insurance Trust Fund in the capital, Abuja, five hours away.
Yes, they both say earnestly, Nigerians are a happy people. Ikani puts it down to God and music.
"We have a great religious faith. Whether we are Christians like us, or Muslims, as in the north, we all believe ardently that God is looking after us. We believe in being our brother's keeper."
Ele is perhaps more perceptive. "People smile at you because that is the way they deal with the awful stress in their poverty-stricken life. I can take you to people in the village who are hungry, who are not happy, and God is just in their lives to give them solace. One reason why many of us are happy is that we don't ask for much. If God gives us food we easily become happy. We are not greedy."
A few days earlier I was in Abuja eating in a local open-air fish restaurant with the daughter of an Ibo king, together with an engineer and a successful businesswoman.
All of them believe Nigerians are unusually happy. Princess Gloria said, "You see it in how we move. It's a movement inside us and in society. We feel full of music and love of God."
Her friend, the businesswoman, added, "We Nigerians look after each other. If I know you and you are hungry or ill I will try and help."
The engineer said: "It was in our old tribal traditions and religion built on that. Have you ever seen such a religious people? (I confess I haven't.) Of course it goes too far in many cases and we become too fatalistic."
I walked the streets. I stopped the young men selling newspapers and phone cards and at one point was accosted by a talkative beggar. None said they were happy.
"We are too hot and have no money."
I quizzed them on how many cellphone cards they sell a day — "three or four," which, I calculate, gives them a daily income of less than $3 a day. At the Nigerian newspaper editors' forum where I had been invited to speak, the previous speaker, a freedom of information advocate, said, "I read about the survey. I was surprised and not surprised.
"If you look at our problems it is unimaginable to say we are happy. But then Nigerians appear to have developed a very thick skin. Fela, the great singer of the 1970s, had a song, `We suffer and we smile.'"
Two Sundays ago, I attended church with President Olusegun Obasanjo, a man who became a born-again Christian and Baptist preacher while in prison under the rule of the late military dictator, Sani Abacha.
Behind his gruff exterior, he is a man of great personal compassion and in his three years of captivity he became an unofficial chaplain to the tortured and the condemned.
"I am happy," he said in his weekly sermon, "but the only time I have had real joy in my life was when I was in prison. I felt then there was just God and me and my fellow prisoners whom I must try and help."
I can see all the ifs and buts, and have heard all the caveats, but "yes" I conclude, Nigeria has tasted happiness, and more than most.
Jonathan Power is an international affairs writer based in Britain. He is the author of 'Vision Of Hope', a history of the United Nations.
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