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CONTENTMENT: An Important Aspect of Happiness – By: Ahmed Ibrahim Awale

Ravaged by a civil war, the situation in Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland, in 1991 was very precarious. It seemed like a ghost town. That was the time I returned with my family from one of the refugee camps in eastern Ethiopia.

The civil war has left its deep scars on the city. The houses were roofless, windowless and everything around me expressed desolation.   In an open space near the destroyed building of Radio Hargeisa – now the bustling Gobannimo market, hundreds of returnees originally displaced by the war pitched temporary shelters made from sticks, burnt roofing sheets etc. 

Then as a head of a local non-governmental organization (NGO), one day I received a Canadian researcher who was on a mission to report on the situation of Somali returnees. I took him to that very location, and shortly after, dozens of women with children crowded all around us. They had the mixed feeling of expectation and inquisitiveness.  They were expecting if we came with any kind of material assistance. Children were particularly sneaking their looks at us (strangers), with occasional gaze on the hairy arms of the white man.

As much as our eyes could tell, the group was in a state of destitution and abject poverty. However, if some of them could manage to get a meal that day, but at the same time  were convinced that there would be nothing for breakfast, still they would not fail to say “Al-hamdullilaah!” (Thank to Allah).

Our short discourse with them started with the usual Somali salutation “Iska warrama?’ {literally: What is the news/how are you?” to which they all replied “Kheyr!”  {an Arabic word for blessing).  They were proud people humbled by difficult circumstances. The character of the Somalis has been conditioned by centuries of harsh environment.  Therefore, the following Somali proverb vividly illustrates their resilient nature: Haddii aad dhimanayso, dhareerkaa la iska duwaa (even if you are on the verge of death, do not let the spittle spoil your body and clothes).

My Canadian companion could not easily grasp the reason why such beautiful smiles were waxed on the faces of those women and children.  He admitted that he found in them something that he has been missing for a long time. Some people who seem to have ‘nothing’ can wear such big smiles, while, on the contrary, others who seem to have ‘everything’ are not happy.   

Personally I experienced this kind of feeling many years earlier while working in Saudi Arabia. The workplace was a multi-ethnic environment and many of my workmates hailed from the Indian subcontinent.  There was this man in his late fifties who was drawing far less salary than mine whom still in certain occasions I regarded him in an envious way… I wished I had been in his place! His face was beaming with spirituality and expressed contentment in contrast to the inner turbulence that has been raging within me which carved its physical marks on my face.

Contentment is an important aspect of the many definitions of happiness.  It is a source of strength amid adversity. It has its origins in spirituality. This aspect of happiness is beautifully illustrated by a Somali poet, Ismail Mire, who lived during the early part of the twentieth century:

“Kulligood adoomaha rabboow qaybsha kibistiiye
Qof kastoo kabtiya ama kallaha ama kur dheer fuula
Bad kalluun ku jira kolay ku tahay ama se koob shaah ah
Nin ba kadabkii loo qoray Ilaah wuu la kulansiine
Inaan ruuxna soo korodhsanayn kaana ha la ogaado”

Literal translation:

“Among all His servants, God shares out the bread,

Whether it is the fish in the sea or a cup of tea,

Every person shall receive what is allotted to him,

Even though he sets out in the morning, or runs or climbs a high hill

That no man will gain more (than his share), let that be known”

Having said this, contentment emanating from spirituality has to be balanced by material contentment. Again a question with no clear answer will be: What does someone need to be satisfied materially?

Personally, for over two decades, I have been finding joy in trying to put a smile on the faces of the vulnerable segments of my community, mainly focusing on assisting them to attain a degree of material contentment.  Because it was so important that material contentment can be compared to a stabilizing peg.   This is again illustrated in another Somali supplication which is popular in the pastoral area: “Eebbow na astur, iimaanku waa aragga xoolaha e”.  In this saying, the state of being poor (meaning of livestock) is compared to nakedness.

One important lesson I learned during my long years in development work is:  The greater the trait of spiritual contentment within a community, the more that project inputs are impactful. Resource based conflicts are also less common to occur as contentment creates discipline. Finally, spiritual contentment facilitates better targeting of beneficiaries as well as reaching the most vulnerable.

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