Happiness according to Gallup

A Gallup poll report published in April 2011 found that the residents of my adoptive country Canada are among the world’s happiest.The same poll found that the residents of my home country Kenya are among the world’s saddest people.

Residents in countries rated high on Gallup’s ‘happiness’ scale are probably less startled with the findings than those from countries situated on the lower rungs of this ladder. A review of Kenyan news media showed a pre-occupation with this poll, and attempts to either challenge or explain the findings. A review of other media revealed the findings were new fodder for historical rivalries: “Pakistanis happier than Indians’ read one news story.

The results are as intriguing as they are startling. Apparently the pollsters asked people in different countries to rank their lives on a scale from 1 to 10 on several indicators such as physical health, emotional health and their work environment. My attempt to obtain the actual questionnaire was fruitless, so I comment here based on a summary from the Gallup website on the survey contents.

It seems to me the survey is based on a white, western, middle-class understanding of ‘happiness’. Integral to a valid transnational comparative study is a shared understanding of the variables under scrutiny, which seems not to be the case in this Gallup poll. The survey appears to transpose certain values across different cultural contexts, to subsequently draw conclusions on responses given outside a reciprocal shared understanding of the concepts.  Take for instance the questions on Gallup’s ‘healthy behaviour index’ within the happiness survey. Whether one exercises 30 minutes or more, or has five or more servings of fruits and vegetables are western preoccupations that are also out of touch with a different reality. If my mother had time to spare she would not spend it exercising. Her daily diet is composed of vegetables, so she must do extremely well on this indicator, but this should not be equated to happiness.  Or Gallup’s ‘physical health index. Did she feel well-rested yesterday? Has she been told by a doctor or nurse she has any in a list of medical conditions? Being ‘well-rested’ is not high up on my mother’s list of priorities: she is most satisfied when she is tired from hard work. She has a superstition about doctors as do many of her peers and had not seen the inside of a hospital for more than a decade. When she feels unwell she self-medicates (and successfully) for two common ailments – malaria and typhoid. So no, she has not been alerted to any medical condition and would answer in the negative to this question. Far from being eccentric, my mother’s attitudes reflect those of numerous others like her with more or less similar life experiences. To paraphrase an elderly participant to my (unrelated) research, questions that are valid in one context are not necessarily so in a different context. This seems to be self-evident but it is surprising how often this truth is ignored.

Further, what are the demographic characteristics of the respondents? To what extent are women’s responses different from men’s? One ethnicity’s from another? An intra-national rather than transnational comparison would be a more interesting and useful analysis. According to information on the Gallup website, the poll is not simply about happiness, it is about a nation’s ‘state of mind’ that is in turn instructive for the political leadership. Given that 2012 is an election year for Kenya, demographically disaggregated results would not come at a more opportune moment.

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Posted by on April 26, 2011 in Uncategorized


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Life journeys: ordinary or extraordinary?

life journeys: seeking destinyLast Christmas my wife gifted me with a voluminous coffee table book – a five-pound (yes, I weighed it), 354-page tome profiling over 70 Kenyan women that the author defines as ‘high achievers’. I leafed through the book eagerly, anticipating the surprise and inspiration the author claims the stories will evoke. 

True, most of the women profiled are known entrepreneurs, corporate executives, politicians or leaders in various professions. No surprise there. Most of them too, particularly the under-40s, were born with silver spoons in their mouths. No surprise nor inspiration there either; childhood privilege has paved way to power in their adult lives, albeit with some extra effort on their part. I shelved the tome away with a plan to one day pick through it with a fine tooth comb in search for that elusive inspirational story.

The day arrived yesterday and with it, a renewed determination to find at least one story that would ‘surprise’ and ‘inspire’ me. Hidden in the profiles of predictably affluent women are a handful of stories of ordinary women who by their visions, life philosophies and/or actions have achieved the extraordinary. 

The older women whose stories are inspirational lived through the hardships of the British colonial era and an array of struggles post independence, gender-based and other. Muthoni Likimani remembers “I have suffered because I am a woman”, recalling being passed over for promotion at the public broadcaster Voice of Kenya (now Kenya Broadcasting Corporation) immediately after receiving the highest commendations for her performance. A woman I admire tremendously former member of parliament Phoebe Asiyo has relentlessly pursued the gender equality and anti-female-discrimination agenda in spite of the heavily patriarchal political and cultural context.

The relatively younger women whose stories are inspirational have either turned around otherwise adverse situations to spur social change, or have been proactive in countering inequality. Asunta Wagura’s life is one seamless, deeply motivating whole; no strictly public nor purely private nor anything in-between persona. Her work to challenge stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV and AIDS since her public declaration of her seropositive status at a time when such openness was taboo is well-known through her regular newspaper column. Lorna Kiplagat is another of the handful who, with her earnings as an Olympian, has established a philanthropic foundation and a sports academy for underprivileged girls. 

These, in my opinion, are stories a person engaged in everyday struggles of the masses can relate to and from which inspiration can be readily drawn. Acknowledging privilege is a first step towards enabling us separate the extraordinary from the ordinary, the inspirational from the mundane, in any meaningful way. 


Posted by on April 19, 2011 in Uncategorized


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The token African

goats int eh villageThe invitation to deliver the presentation arrives unexpectedly, and with very little lead time to the event. Has the research to which she devoted almost two years attracted a following in this crowd as well? She devotes precious time to writing her speech and preparing a stunning Prezi presentation, asks for a second, third and fourth opinion on whether the Prezi animations are over the top. ‘You’ll be fine! Don’t worry. The animations will bring the statistics to life.”

She catches a taxi to the airport in the wee hours of the morning, just in time for her flight and barely makes the connection to the final destination.  “We’re so excited you’re here! Thank you so much for accepting the invitation”. The excitement is a bit excessive, she thinks. What are they expecting and how will she live up to it? No way to disappoint, she realizes, when the motivation for the invite reveals itself. It’s not because the meeting organizers believe the research findings are an amazing contribution to knowledge production. They were looking for someone ‘different’.

Not to be deflated, she takes the new revelations in stride. The big day arrives several hours later. She goes over the technical details with the technician who, despite the quizzical looks that yours truly here IS the keynote speaker, provides top-notch support. He hooks up her notebook computer to the projector and ensures her microphone is working fine.

The big moment arrives. After a pompous introduction she walks to the podium. The audience appears to be as quizzical as the technician, but willing to give her a chance. Some minutes into the presentation, she becomes aware of a shift in the room. No longer are they simply looking at her, they are actually listening and actively engaging with the ideas she is presenting.  The intellectual debate that ensues evidences a genuine grappling with the ideas. Forty-five minutes later, the moderator calls the discussion to a close with a comment “that doctorate was well-earned”.

Activists of all hues, what is your verdict?


Posted by on April 15, 2011 in Uncategorized


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Dare to object to prejudice

dare to object to prejudice and injustice - Gloria Ray Karlmark

“Dare to object to prejudice and injustice” – Gloria Ray Karlmark.

Feminist standpoint epistemology theory has crystallized for me in a whole new light. I am no longer surprised that individuals, and indeed institutions, can profess to be ‘progressive’ yet remain unable to recognize systemic injustice. Standpoint epistemology explains to me the inability of an individual differently located to recognize identity-based oppression and discrimination occurring in their immediate environment. How does one explain to a different ‘other’ that talking through what the ‘other’ believes to be a ‘personality conflict’ will not lead to real or lasting transformation? Should one even try?

Well, this past week I resolved to follow Gloria Ray Karlmark’s exhortation. I dared to object to prejudice, to call discrimination by name and say yes, it was on the basis of racism, sexism and ageism, at the very least. To my surprise, my objections evoked yet another intersecting explanatory variable – a remnant colonial mentality; in a different era, my ‘oppressor’ (if we were to call him that) and myself would have had a colonizer/colonized, exploiter/exploited relation. A refreshing analysis indeed from a ‘different other’ but with whom I share the female and feminist identities. My proposal for a structural solution – to put in place an explicit institutional anti-discrimination policy – was well received and accepted.

There is hope that those in positions of epistemic privilege can help willing others in different social locations ‘see’ – perhaps not ‘understand’, but nevertheless ‘acknowledge’ – prejudice, oppression, discrimination – in hues they cannot experience.


Posted by on April 14, 2011 in Uncategorized


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