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Offbeat – 26 July 2013

There has always been something African about making do with less. A board game can be made with a couple of stones and a bunch of pits scooped out of the sand. A toy car can be made from wire and tin. A toy ox can be made of clay.


You know that walk when someone is happy? It has a spring in the step. The person almost bounces. It’s a bit like a strut with major mojo. I don’t see it that often, so when I do see it I pay a bit of attention.
I saw it the other day in town. I looked the guy up and down, trying to spot something. There it was. The guy was holding new mug, one of those pewter camping numbers, with the black plastic lid. The yellow price tag showed on the side. He must have been happy enough to take it out the bag and carry it in the middle of town.
I thought about that sort of item. A thing as simple as a camping mug can give a sense of enrichment to an aspect of life.  Perhaps he was taking it to his workplace. Remember the first time you took your own cup to work? That’s the moment when you know you belong there, an important moment when it first happens, even if everyone else whines about the hours and the pay and Monday mornings.
I thought about the things in my life. For some reason, a yo-yo stuck in my thinking process.  When I was a kid, I always wanted one. All the cool kids had them. I wanted that thing for a long time. Reduced circumstances means there is less to go round, and when there really isn’t money, a toy like that is a luxury.
Finally one of the rich kids gave me one of their discards. I didn’t know how to use it well. It didn’t make me cool like them, and it didn’t make me belong, but it made me happy. I kept it for a long time, even after the string frayed and fell off. That’s happiness.
I remember tyres, the ones kids of a certain age used to run behind. I always wanted one of those as well. I also got one of those as a hand-me-down. I kept that one in the yard, long after the age when playing with tyres became uncool.
Familiarity breeds some kind of contempt. The more you have, the longer you have it, and the less the apparent cost of the item, the lower the value of the item.
I walk past a television shop quite regularly. It has a horde of big television sets in it, signs of wealth for people who need to see their movies in a larger size to make the stories better. Just a little way down in the mall, for a couple of days, there was a display of really expensive toys. The sign said words to the effect that kids who had those toys would be happier.
Happiness is reduced to a bottomless pit that needs to be filled with money spent. Buy newer! Buy bigger! Buy now! When the sensation diminishes, buy again. Happiness and self respect can be renewed with the application of money.
It makes things difficult. I’m so parsimonious with my wants that less really is more. A hand-me-down is something special. A hand-written note, a piece of craft made by the giver, those are the things that I value most. Expensive, unaffordable gifts make me cringe.
Planning the giving of gifts, an even greater joy, becomes incredibly difficult as well. How do you give something small and precious, when the value of a gift is measured on the axes of ‘big’ and ‘expensive’? How is it possible to spend time  and give joy by making a gift yourself, when the most wanted gifts are made in Asia?
There has always been something African about making do with less. A board game can be made with a couple of stones and a bunch of pits scooped out of the sand. A toy car can be made from wire and tin. A toy ox can be made of clay. A shongololo or a corn cricket can be an actor in any game of imagination. But those days and joys are passing.
Manufacturers have turned their eyes to Africa, to increase their productivity, pull themselves out of the mire of a market that can’t buy more large screen television sets, because they are running out of room to store the discarded ones. Perhaps they pity us and want to bring us civilisation, the same way the colonial traders brought beads and tat a couple of centuries ago.
All they are doing is digging holes that need to be filled with money, circuitry and plastic.
Real happiness is actually a cheap tin mug and a second hand yo-yo.

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