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Opinion - Are we rich or poor? Putting the issue in philosophical perspective

James R. Mancham  Feb 16, 2016

OPINION - Last week a group of people who included two ministers, gathered around members of the National Assembly, principal secretaries, district administrators, statisticians and representatives of the private sector and of the civil society to try and define poverty. Unfortunately, it appears that there were no social thinkers able to put things in philosophical perspective. ‘Are we rich or poor?’ was the bold question Seychelles NATION posed in its issue of February 12, 2016.

For several years now I have been advocating at various international forums the need for the United Nations to move away from publishing just an economic index report of nations based on economic performance to one on human contentment. After all, in this life should we be in the pursuit of wealth at all costs or should we not go for the pursuit of happiness and peace of mind?

At a recent conference I brought up the case of an African living in a village far away from the city. Every morning he and his family wake up with the rising sun. Every day he has the challenge of going hunting for an animal or collect a few berries for his meal. This man and his family are relatively happy as every evening they sleep to the roar of the lions and other animals and to the songs of the birds. They are relatively happy until the day on a visit to the city they have the opportunity to view a CNN television programme on the rich and the famous.

And suddenly they come to think that if you are residing on the 55th Floor of a New York skyscraper you are nearer to heaven. They fail to take into account that up there you can neither see the rising or the setting sun. They don’t appreciate that to get up there you have to take a lift with the risk of being locked up on the way. They fail to appreciate that there in New York there is little ground available for children to play around and that in the evening instead of sleeping to the roar of the lions and the songs of the birds you sleep to the creaking and annoying noise of fire engines and ambulances.

So we see many of our African brothers leaving behind their lifestyle in the quest for life in a false El Dorado. They come to believe that the streets of New York, London or Paris are paved with gold when the gold is in fact still buried in the soil of their continent.

The point about this story is that the very rich Americans who have worked tirelessly to build up the skyscraper – now that he has all the money in the world to live any lifestyle, his ultimate dream is to find a house in some distant countryside or an island to pursue just a simple life.

In Seychelles once upon a time the old generation used to sing a song ‘Dan lakaz anpay nou de tousel nou a viv ere, Nou a manz sousout nou a bwar dimyel dan lafore,’ meaning ‘In our straw house we shall live a happy life, We shall eat sousout and drink honey in the forest.’ Now that we have moved away from thatched houses and live within blocks of concrete, do we hear at this time anyone singing ‘In our concrete house we are living a happy life, eating take-aways and chips with a lot of SeyBrew in our belly?’ It is therefore important to put everything in proper perspective.

Are we rich or are we poor? Are we blessed or are we cursed by the fact that we have so many days devoted to celebrations – Christmas, New Year, Easter, First Communion, Confirmation, Africa Day (soon maybe Diwali and China Day will be declared public holidays), not forgetting Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and of course Valentine’s Day. Are we blessed or are we cursed that over and above this we have National Day, Independence Day, Carnaval de Victoria, Festival Kreol, Miss Regatta, Miss Seychelles, Bazar Labrin and with nightclubs offering what is referred to as ‘Happy Hours.’

Are we rich or are we poor that with a population of less than 100,000 people we can support a brewery that has got to work round the clock in order to meet the market demand. What is the per capita consumption of beer in our country, let alone the ever increasing consumption of wine and other alcoholic beverages? We are poor because we are not wise enough to appreciate the many blessings which come our way.

Today fresh seafood is craved for in most parts of the world. Well, we are not doing too badly in this area and perhaps represent a nation ranking on the top for consumption of seafood in the world. Are we rich or are we poor for not having the wisdom to appreciate that it takes a European to save for a whole year to be able to come and spend 10 days in Seychelles. Are we rich or are we poor not to take advantage of our beaches to swim and keep fit? I recall an adage I came up with in my book called ‘Adages of an exile’: “A rich man without philosophy is a poor man. A poor man with the right philosophy is a rich man” – Are we rich or are we poor?

We speak about democracy. Now are we rich or are we poor, are we blessed or are we cursed when democratic latitude will allow politicians to promise the electorate that they can deliver what they know the country is unable to deliver? Because a government wishes to stay in power it will of course endeavor to be as generous as possible to those it wishes to support it at election time.

Therefore, we can envisage a situation where a government, aware of the real economic parameters of the country, appoints a committee to determine which is the highest basic salary it can go for. The study determines that it can support an increase of 10%; now what stops a political leader making use of the privilege of free speech to tell the voters that if I am elected I’d give you an increase of 15%? A few months after being elected it becomes obvious that this 15% is not realizable, hence we see a situation of discontentment on the part of the average person.

The political leader made the promise in order to get to power, therefore he played to the tune of rising expectations with the result of a situation of discontentment. That is why I believe that there are too many politicians around. The country today is more in need of statesmen than politicians. A statesman is interested not in power at all costs but in the transformation of the society, in the future and the welfare of the next generation and posterity. In other words, his approach is motivated by a ‘Seychellles First’ philosophy.

Last week I met a young man who was enquiring what the climate was in Ethiopia at that time. I asked him as to why he wanted this information and he told me that he had bought a ticket for himself and his wife at R8,000 per person to go to Addis Ababa to watch a local football team (St. Michel) play against an Ethiopian side. He said the package covered four days’ stay in Ethiopia in a four-star hotel plus a Valentine’s Day dinner and a ticket to attend the football match.

When I asked him how he was funding this four days’ Odyssey, he said that he had raised a loan of R35,000 to do some improvements to his house at 14% interest payable back within two years and that he had taken R16,000 out of this to pay for his four-day Ethiopian adventure. Is a society which encourages or make possible such an adventure a rich society or a poor society? In a few days’ time my friend’s Ethiopian Odyssey will be a souvenir in the cupboard of his memories – but at what cost? For the next two years he will have to find an extra R500 every week if he is to meet the requirement of his loan contract with the bank.

Finally let me say that as far as I am concerned peace of mind is a most important factor in evaluating an individual’s quality of life. You can have a bed made of gold but if when you get on it you still cannot sleep that fellow sleeping on the floor and getting a good sleep has a higher quality of life than you. In my book ’Peace of Mind’ I write about the richest man in the world:

“Tell us my soul about the richest man in the world.

Well I found him on an outlying island of the Seychelles archipelago beaming a two-billion-dollar smile under a coconut tree.

He had never seen any pictures of the world beyond his shores and was consequently not bothered about the problem of “rising expectations.”

Food and water was not in abundance –

Every day he had to fish to feed his family and collect water from a well on the other side of the island.

These conditions provided him with a challenge each morning and “job satisfaction” at the end of every day.

For music, he listened to the murmur of the waves, the songs of birds and the occasional thunder from above.

He had no master paintings to look at save the ones which are created by the Supreme Master around his island every day.

Every sunrise and sunset was a work of art ‘par excellence.’

And in the evening instead of watching the TV

He contemplated the sky, the stars and the moon

By virtue of which process he communicated with the Lord His Master

And gave thanks to Him to be alive.

He paid no taxes, had never heard about insurance companies nor pension schemes.

Nor had he ever dreamt about a will – or death duties.

He was just a “happy” and “contented” man with “peace of mind.”

There are many people with millions in the banks today

But with no smile on their face because
Neither Harrods nor Lonrho

Nor International Division of Sothebys Park Burnett

Has ever been able to put for sale

“Peace of Mind.”

Are we rich or are we poor? Room for thoughts, for prayers and proper guidance.

Opinion - Are we rich or poor? Putting the issue in philosophical perspective
Sir James R. Mancham

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