I’m not the first volunteer to remark that, despite what I consider extreme conditions of poverty, lack of opportunity, and poor public institutions, my friends and host family in the rural village of Koyan seem on average much happier than my friends and family in the States. The people in Koyan know they’re poor, they know the government doesn’t provide them with the services it should, like a school with well-educated teachers, and they know how hard it is to find a job in Mali – and yet they smile more, laugh more, dance more, and are more resilient to the travails of their daily lives than almost anyone I know in the States.
Amartya Sen writes in Development As Freedom:
. . . [D]eprived people tend to come to terms with their deprivation because of sheer necessity of survival, and they may, as a result, lack the courage to demand any radical change, and may even adjust their desires and expectations to what they unambitiously see as feasible . . . It is thus important . . . to favor the creation of conditions in which people have real opportunities of judging the kind of lives they would like to lead. (Sen, Amartya. Development as Freedom. New York: Anchor, 2000.)
Does this apply to my friends in Koyan? Have they adjusted their desires to what they see as possible – so that they don’t expect to make a decent living, always have a full belly, or have all their children survive – and can’t be disappointed when these seemingly universal desires aren’t fulfilled?
I recently had a conversation with my host mom, Sitan Kane, in which I explained to her the rights American women have in the divorce process and generally the different American norms regarding marriage. To Sitan, divorce is an impossibility because if she were to divorce her husband, her four children would remain with him. And while she certainly complains about her husband’s philandering to me, she doesn’t see it as a reason for divorce; she accepts it as a relatively normal aspect of a Malian marriage. So when I told her that if she was an American woman and she divorced her husband because he was cheating on her, she would almost certainly have custody of her children, she was quite shocked and more convinced than ever that she’d like to move to America.
Sometimes I worry that I am planting a dangerous seed in the minds of Sitan and her younger co-wife Mama, that I am making them unhappy in a marriage they don’t have the means to change. But then I think, as Sen claims, that it is more important that these two women have the ability to judge the kind of lives they would like to lead than that they be ignorantly satisfied with their current situation. As Sen writes, I believe Mama and Sitan have adjusted their expectations to the possibilities available to them. Therefore, it is possible to see their happiness as a product of a world view in which the ideal of womanhood involves obedience, hard work in doing household chores, conformity, and having many, many children. Based on this worldview, it is easy for Malian women to be happy since they spend their lives doing household chores, obeying their husbands, and bearing and raising numerous children.
What I have tried to do is to expand Sitan and Mama’s world view by showing them the possibility of a different ideal of womanhood: that a woman can be her own master. It’s too late for these women to change their marriage; my hope for them is that they do not have so many children that they don’t have time for anything other than raising them and that they take the initiative to start small businesses that will give them some degree of independence from their husband. Unfortunately, I think that their first priority is having a lot of children and they’re willing to give up their ability to gain financial independence for the sake of reaching this goal. Sitan and Mama were brought up in an environment in which child-bearing is what women’s lives are all about and it’s very difficult to change that mindset now. I hope that it will be different for the younger generations, especially now that girl’s education has become more of a priority.
So I may have lodged a little speck of dissatisfaction in Sitan and Mama’s minds, but I can’t do much to change their ultimate happiness, which they get from their children and their place in the community. If you’re going to talk about the happiness of Malians, you have to talk about community. Each individual has his or her own well-defined role in the community, which is organized along gender and age lines, and thus fits into the functioning of the whole like a well-fitted cog in a machine. Malians reap an extreme amount of joy from friendships and family relationships and they get to spend a lot of time with their friends and family, so they tend to be happy. And yet still, I have to believe that if they were more fully conscious of the rights they were being denied (the right to not have one in five of your children die, the right to clean drinking water, the right to a year-round food supply, etc.), they wouldn’t be this happy. There’s a way in which they know that they’re screwed compared to the rest of the world, but it doesn’t register with them on a daily basis; they’ve adjusted to their situation.
So what is the moral of this story? First of all, it is a valuable activity to try to expose Malians to different ways of living and to teach them the basic human rights that they’re being denied, even if it may cause them to become slightly less satisfied with their lives. Secondly, development work is important because, even though Malians may seem satisfied with their current situation, the ultimate goal of development is not to make people feel good, but to enable people to choose the kind of life they want to live.