During my first week in Nigeria I was posted in Kano, a Northern city where volunteers of the VSO (similar to the peace corps) learned basic culture and wellbeing.
After landing, I remember standing in the open doorway of the plane and feeling the heat for the first time, it was hot, really hot. I was assigned a shared room with 3 other guys, a room with one bathroom and mattresses on the floor. On the first morning I awoke to cockroaches on my sleeping bag, not something I was used to or happy with and gathering them up in a bucket then throwing them outside became a morning ritual that week
That wasn’t the thing that surprised me the most however. What surprised me the most was how happy people were, especially the children. Walking through the alley ways and streets of Kano was an education in itself. The slum like living of many families was familiar to me from watching TV shows and movies. Now I was experiencing it for real it was something I could never have prepared myself for.
Back in the UK kids would get upset and cry if they weren’t given the Playstation or Nintendo game they wanted. It’s common for kids to get upset when asked to go to bed at night, even though it would be a comfortable bed, with heating in the house and food on the table for breakfast the next day. The kids I saw in Nigeria had none of that, they had nothing yet they had everything. They had no material belongings, what they did have was a whole lot of love and friendship.
So love and friendship was part of what made them happy. This was the epiphany I had that week, the realisation that we don’t need things for happiness. I wasn’t overly materialistic yet I’d never really understood that belongings and things don’t make a person happy and can ultimately lead to unhappiness.
“The things you own end up owning you. It’s only after you lose everything that you’re free to do anything.” – Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club
It’s been 20 years since that time and it’s still one of the best life lessons I’ve had. A lesson that’s stuck with me, one I’m passing on to my own children as best I can.
Anytime I find myself upset over losing something or not being able to get what I want, I think back to those kids I saw in Kano and remember I already have everything I need.
“You have succeeded in life when all you really want is only what you really need.” – Vernon Howard