What Kenya taught me about happiness in a bottle

A few years ago I went on holiday to Kenya. We flew into Mombasa, went on a bizarre ferry ride, and then drove for hours to our hotel in what I can only describe as a broken van. It is a different world. The living standards are so far removed from what is considered standard in the UK. The funny thing is, whilst we were there we kept seeing adverts for a well-known soft drink.

Everywhere we went there was another poster with families enjoying the drink. I kept thinking it was strange that in a country where poverty is quite widespread, where families struggle to provide food, shelter and clothing – that a huge billion pound company were trying to sell bottles of their drink. Why would they possibly want this drink so badly? But that was just it, everywhere I looked I saw people drinking it. Clearly there was supply and demand.

It wasn’t until I really looked at the posters that I realised what was at play here. The slogan on the poster said something along the lines of “Choose happiness, choose our brand”. On the surface, yes, we should be choosing happiness. But there was an underlying current of capitalism that when you really think about it appears to be loaded with exploitation.

What the advert was really saying was “You won’t be happy unless you buy our drink”. The Kenyan people believed it. That they could buy ready-made bottled happiness. Many of them lived in poverty, with a low life expectancy, and little chance of making it out of their situation. Drinking a branded soft drink which in the adverts appeared as though it made people happy seemed to be the perfect way to escape their life situation.

That’s the moment it hit me. The modern world has tried to flat pack happiness into a product that you can buy and keep in your house. Just look at any advert of television. A huge electronics company has devised a new smartphone with a massive screen, clever voice assistant and a camera with ten trillion pixels. In the advert the users are smiling, laughing, hugging, they’re on holiday, they’re windsurfing, they’re in the mountains, they are the living the life you think you want.

The advert is not saying “Look how efficient and practical our phone is”. Instead it is saying “If you get this phone you can be happy”.

Unless it is a magic phone, you can’t and you won’t.

On the other side you have the newspapers telling you “Look at all these terrible things that are happening – because of this you will never be happy.” People are cold, hungry and poor. Crime is up, employment rates are down, and don’t even look out the window at the weather. Brexit is everywhere, petrol is too expensive, and why are Jaffa Cakes in packs of 10 instead of 12 nowadays?

You can help children to see that deciding to be happy is the answer. Not waiting for the latest modern gadget, or growing up to hopefully win a reality TV show. Help them see that being happy means loving your family, being enthusiastic to learn, enjoying a dance in the rain, and genuinely caring for others.

There are two simple truths which are common sense, but not common behaviour. The first is we have a choice and there is another way. The second is even though it’s simple, it doesn’t mean it will be easy.

For some children, you as their teacher, might be the only positive person in their life. If we can build a generation of young people who grow up choosing to be happy then maybe we can ensure that tomorrow’s children have more than one positive person in their life.

Leave a Reply