Overcoming Poverty Is Not Life Fulfilment

The art of being happy lies in the power of extracting happiness from common things.

Henry Ward Beecher

Poor was the normal in my hood.

One of our neighbours was a fascinating family. They never used to cook, never took children to school or clinic, never went to church, never tilled land. They were the perfect example of freedom in my early days. But even at that age, they made me come to terms with the definition of extreme poverty.

They would eat crappy food or, in most cases, substitute it with a local brew made from fermented bulrush (pearl) millet. We call it marwa in my language and commonly known as busaa in many other parts of Kenya. Anyone, including their children, were free to enjoy the drink. Their huts had barely any walls or semblance of a homestead. There were many such cases in the village, but our home was different.

I grew up in the middle class of rural poverty. 

Our houses were no longer grass-thatched by the time I was born. My mother and father, a seriously hardworking couple, had managed to build rectangular shacks and roofed them with corrugated iron sheets. The walls remained of sticks and mud, and the floor earthen. Most of the huts in the village were round and thatched, dark and damp all the time. Ours had tiny wooden windows with drilled tin bolts and sometimes with a luxurious split in the middle. Opening them as a child felt like vanity.

We had a toilet, unlike our neighbours who used thickets or the farms. It was illegal to use the bush in my family unless my mother permitted. She would occasionally do so to my kid brother and I during some seasons. Those were moments when she went to the market and bought some fruits, mostly purple passion and guava. She would wash and give them to us to eat, then sternly instruct us to no longer use the pit latrine until further notice!

We had to go to the designated family orchard in the garden to poop there, something we would joyfully do while happily chatting and sizing our dumps. The science behind my mother’s instructions was because passion fruit and guava seeds, if uncrushed in the mouth, are never digested and come out clean and ready to germinate. This is how my kid brother and I propagated our family fruit trees for years. 

My father had some assets.

A radio, a bicycle, a plough, some oxen, and a knapsack sprayer. We had a farm by the river, and we could grow subsistence crops like maize, beans, sorghum, cowpeas, pumpkins, and pigeon peas. There were goats and chicken too, so we never lacked milk and a few eggs. Unlike most children in the village, we never slept hungry, even though we could still wear torn shorts with our bums sticking out.

We had other fruits like mangoes, mulberries, and papaws. We grew some small-time cash crops like mung beans (green grams), yellow daal, coriander. When harvested, we would spread them on bare earth and shine the sun on them to completely dry. We would call other boys to form a full, wide circle around the mound with sticks. Then a few of us would then crazily whip cows to stump and shell them in a swirling style. It was a very dusty and exciting affair. 

It was also one of my most favourite seasons because it coincided with maturing of green maize. I love corn on the cob even today, freshly grilled or boiled. After the grain-shelling frenzy was over, we would use the waste straw from the grains to cover a massive heap of freshly harvested maize, and light a huge bonfire. Within a few minutes, we were savouring some smokey, aromatic corn in the after-party. It was so much fun. My brothers and I would then get invited to other homesteads to pay back the help. And the parties went on and on.

Then there was cotton. 

That backbreaking, poisoning, and visually blinding crop! We would spend days fetching water to fill metallic barrels for my father to mix pesticides and spray its evil bugs. Eventually, we consumed more time harvesting and grading the fluffy stuff in hot, dazzling sun. But it was exciting in the end when my father got paid for the harvest. 

We would get new Bata Bullet shoes, and I so much loved the white ones even though our soils were as coloured as ochre. My mother would get a stipend to buy us some new clothes for going to church on Sundays, and we would downgrade the old ones for daily wear. She would also bring some goodies and buy a few household items to make our life better.

The river had plenty of fish and wild fruits.

Including eels that we could trawl and snack on while grazing, or my father could occasionally buy from the village fishermen. There were small game and birds to hunt too. Our riverine had wild fruits like water berries (mbueno), lantana, sour plums (ndula), wild figs (nguyu), gooseberries, horned melons, num-nums (ngawa), snot-apples, monkey bread (mikura) and many others. There was a fruit for every spell.

Water berries and sour plums were king in my school.

During their season, they turned the classroom peddling upside down. Our pockets were constantly bulging, and our cheeks were always popping. Everyone was carrying and chewing something at the same time. The barter trade marketplace went on a severe overdrive. 

Some famous ‘merchants’ would spend the whole weekend in the wild harvesting fruit and reporting to school on Monday with concealed bag loads. For some of us who could not do that due to controls by parents, we had to be the buyers.

There was no money, so the main items of trade were stationery. Ink was dope—especially a brand known as ‘Quink’ that ‘well-to-do’ kids like me wrote with. We would trade-in ink droplets depending on the forces of supply and demand, and the principle of willing-seller, willing-buyer. I have never known to date why my parents never realized how quickly our ink vanished during the fruity seasons.

Leaving the village for the city changed everything.

Armed with a reasonably good education for a third world economy, I ventured to fulfil my urban dream. The working-class ambition that I had yearned for all my life started to unravel. A well-paying job, a beautiful girl for a wife, countable well-spaced English-speaking kids, a car, a house in town, and eventually one in the village. Then other things were to follow. Retirement, lifestyle disease, salvation, and death. That was my script, just like for most normal African working class.

Money became the new attraction.

My main social interactions were full of people wanting to talk about how we made money and how to make more money. The one who had more money got more attention everywhere, including the family and the church. Our motivation was to overcome the poverty that most of us had been raised in by all means possible. Self-preservation was our modern-day slavery.

Looking back, I believe in the words of author Rita Gonzalez, “poor is the man who is not content with what he has.” My achievements were not at all fulfilling but leading me into endless misery. The more money I made, the more dissatisfied I became, and the more I wanted to accumulate. The more I got, the more deprived I felt. 

I was busy pedalling a hedonic treadmill.

Returning to the base level of own happiness despite whatever happens. The achievement becomes a must-have, and the determinant of happiness turns into a new desire. Satisfaction is never about what one has accumulated. But in our communities, it is usually interpreted as visible material gains. 

Our modern society is governed by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, with an intense longing to covet what others have and play a catch-up game. This never ends, because there will always be somebody with more than what you have, someone still ahead. A better paying job, wealthier parents, a faster ride, a bigger home, a more beautiful wife, brighter kids, a better body, name it. 

Eventually, you will find yourself competing with the whole world and digging a bottomless hole in your heart and sending your head in a frenzy! This insatiable desire for material things is a permanent ingredient of our capitalistic world, whereby the more you have, the more successful and fulfilled you are perceived to be by the society.

The pride we take in having made some money is all hogwash.

Modern-day poverty, that of the mind creates unlimited desires. Infinite yearnings lead to advancement of the ego and uncontrolled destruction of self and that of an entire society. It becomes all about what one visibly has to get a meaning in life.

What appals me is not just the way we flaunt the little that we have accumulated, but also the way we tell our life stories to our children and peers in most times. How I schooled without shoes, went to the river to fetch water every morning, how the meals lacked meat, blah, blah blah! Don’t get me wrong, I have done it all the time. And there is nothing wrong with these stories. After all, they are the foundation for most of my blog tales.

The problem is that we use them to show how heroic we are, to those who do not come from that background or those who never made it to own the much we have, as if it matters in the end.  We also narrate the tales to terrify our children so that “they do not make a mistake of becoming poor.” We tell these stories, not to pass wisdom, but to bloat our egos. To crown our conquest of poverty.

Defeating poverty of money has little value in the end.

We will not die smiling because of the much that we have amassed. Studies have shown that an increase in our incomes does not translate to a meaningful positive change in happiness. However, more personal satisfaction is likely to lead to higher incomes. So we are better off reversing the conventional notion and start focusing on being happy than in making more.

In my social cohorts, I have heard it over and over again, how people work hard to invest for their children. This is the new form of self-actualization. Permanently stemming out the likelihood of them slipping down into poverty and leaving them enjoying a happy, carefree life. In the end, it will not make you or them happy. You are most likely going to die happy by giving out nearly all of it and leaving your future generations more pleased by making their own. 

The sad story is that we will all eventually yearn for those things we cannot buy with the money that we have worked so hard for. Yet we have missed the critical point of living – life satisfaction. Most likely, we will die regretting having worked so hard to ruin ourselves by running away from the very things that matter most. A strong sense of community that we associate with poverty.

But poverty has its riches.

It is well documented that about 40% of our happiness emanates from our actions, thoughts and attitudes, meaning that this proportion is dependent on our internal self-control. Just being human, enjoying simple things in life, being grateful for everything that we have, and exercising compassion is key to happiness.

I came to learn that whatever I was looking for to make me happy was what I had been mostly running away from all my life: simplicity and a good sense of gratitude. The foods I would not eat are the healthiest to my body. The people I would not spend time with were the most useful in my relationships. The exercises that I would pay no money for were the best for my fitness. The obvious things that I would not allocate time for were the medicine to my ill-health.

My reflections and learning taught me of the things that mattered most, and the utmost of them is what I associated with poverty. Walking barefoot, facing hunger, enjoying friendly conversations and spending time in nature. Sleeping, eating simple foods in season, plant-based meals, technological deprivation, tilling the land, sunshine and rain on my skin, and doing my chores would do magic to my wellness. 

What I had from the beginning is all that I need now to make my life better. My town life has not made a big difference to my body even after all these years. I remain the primal man, the one God made for the village.

I have now redefined poverty in my mind.

Despite having genuine empathy and a professional career to help the poor, my perceptions were in most times as convoluted as anyone’s. I still hated poverty and never wanted to associate myself with any of those things that depict financial deprivation.

Today, my mindset is entirely different. I realized that those who have less are in most cases, likely to be happier than I am. Unless I looked at things differently from the way I have always done in the past. Nowadays, I enjoy most things that I could not in my earlier self. Stuff that money cannot buy. 

And from the look of things, the list will become longer as I age, even though I do not think I will end up living in a cave to prove this point. Neither will I deliberately consider to be a pauper.

Like writer Frank McCourt said, “You might be poor, your shoes might be broken, but your mind is a palace.” That explains why, in many instances, poor people lead more peaceful and happier lives than the rich or working class.

I hope you will start looking for your real sense of abundance and putting money in its rightful place in seeking life fulfilment.

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Published by Kariuki Mugo

I live cherishing the outdoors, especially green, rugged and watery spaces, but still enjoy the city life. I dedicate in and cherish a family system that provides the foundation for nurturing strong, loving relationships. I trust in thriving communities that provide a better life for everyone, and I am highly committed to creating knowledge. I am a husband, a father, a friend, a development worker, and a teacher to many!

21 thoughts on “Overcoming Poverty Is Not Life Fulfilment”

  1. Peterson Mwangi says:

    This is an intriguing and thought provoking piece. Hum!

    1. Thank you Peter for being a reader. I love your change and empowerment enthusiasm. Keep reading and sharing my brother, to help build a bigger community of people like you.

  2. Justin says:

    So powerful interns of genre and a point in grammar…. I would want read more and more

    1. Thank you, Justin. There is more and more coming. Please read and share.

    2. Thank you Justin for reading and sharing. The grammar started hapo Murubara Primary School, and I would pass by your place to have lunch with Tata Mary. She used to make some really yummy rice and beans. I am forever grateful.

  3. Richard Mokua says:

    Many of things we take for granted are the true source of happiness. ????

    1. Like that smokey, fatty beef choma in Landmawe, seating on those flat benches, and devouring it while brushing off countless hawkers. You know! ????????

  4. Richard Mokua says:

    Our past struggles for perceived happiness could easily enslave us eternally if we do not find the nerve to emancipate ourselves from it.

    1. Our struggles are real, and so are we. We can make a difference for sure.

  5. Edith Kawira says:

    I feel you and I are going through the same life defining moments, though I do not poseess the eloquence. Thank you for telling your story, it inspires many, be specifically

    1. Thanks, Edith. Our stories are the same. And so is the message. And most likely, our life struggles of today.

  6. Beth Kahato says:

    Nice and interesting read Kariuki.

    1. Thank you very much Beth. Keep reading and sharing.

  7. Like!! Really appreciate you sharing this blog post.Really thank you! Keep writing.

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