A British man, a Japanese man, and an African man walk into a bar...


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Africa » Tanzania » West » Kigoma
May 11th 2011
Published: May 26th 2011
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I first met Hideki Ota, the Japanese man from the title, on the bus from Bujumbura to Kigoma - Burundi to Tanzania - a few days ago. After brief introductions, and explaining that he was travelling around the world for two years, he remained fairly quite, chipping in with conversations here and there, but just as happy to sit and let us talk the night away. That all changed last night, when he exploded out his shell, and spent the majority of a very interesting evening talking.

It turns out, that he’s not just travelling around the world, content to avoid work for a few months like the rest of us, but at has three personal projects on the go as well. The first is to encourage Japanese professionals to follow suit, and to start working globally, by meeting Japanese expats wherever he can and writing about them. The second is to write and publish a book to encourage his fellow countrymen to travel independently, giving them advice from his travels, strongly in praise of couch-surfing. And, if that wasn’t enough, he’s also writing a column for a magazine back home – this week he talked about the ‘mobile money’ systems that allow people, in Africa especially, to transfer money using their mobile phones without the need for a bank account. On top of that, he’s been supported by Skype, and even before finished University he had started his own company, and has now sold his shares to fund the trip. It seems he’s not happy just kicking back and doing nothing, but is single handly trying to drag Japan kicking and screaming into the rest of the world (his implication not mine) – for their benefit, and for Japan’s as a whole. And he’s no more than a few years older than me. I suddenly felt a pang of guilt, seeing all of his projects, and his motivation, stacked up next to my endless cups of tea, empty beer bottles, and countless hangovers.

After a short time we were joined by a Tanzanian (who’s name escapes me), who had reasonably good English, and a big interest in the ‘developed’ world. He began by asking me to compare Tanzania and the UK, and as I often do, I tried to counter the popular perception that our streets are paved with gold, by saying that although we may have money, it seems to bring with it just as many problems (yet alone expenses and bills). I have a feeling my reasoning fell onto deaf ears. He then went on to ask about how he could ‘succeed’ in life, at which point Hideki jumped in – it turns out he’s a part-time lecturer in Japan too, speaking to student’s how to use their time effectively (I think he advice my differ from mine slightly!).
On one side Hideki, a clearly very focused businessman, urged the Tanzanian to get into either IT, HR or advertising, saying that don’t need much capital to set up, and are very profitable areas in every corner of the world. Also trying to sway his listener, he told that if you constantly work hard and never give up, you’ll succeed.

On the other hand, I was saying that although this is true to an extent, even one laptop is an unobtainable luxury and expense for someone who works six days a week, yet can’t even afford the 30p door fee to watch their beloved Premier League football team at the local TV room. Furthermore, what exactly is success? I can’t say the Japanese reality of working 60 or 70 hours a week fits with my definition of the world, and the high suicide rate in Japan shows a dark underside to this too. And looking back at the UK after my time in Africa, it becomes clear that we’ve definitely lost sight of a few key things in life in the race to keep up with the Joneses. In my six months here, I’ve really come to admire the vast majority of Africans – an almost unstinting happiness and zest for life, combined with contentment with a bed, a roof, a good meal, and a close knit community around them.

But then, I’ve got money haven’t I? And having money gives you the freedom whether to spend it or not, and without that freedom, choices, and life, becomes a lot starker. It’s also true that life in Africa isn’t exactly trouble free, constantly working for the next meal, and struggling to pay the school fees, or the medical bill.

I guess I just want those Africans I’ve met who idolize the West to realize that it’s not a land of untold riches, and endless happiness. And for those who want to change Africa into Europe, that Western development brings with it it’s fair share of social problems, and in doing so, they may well take a few steps backwards in terms of happiness and contentment – two things that Africa can teach the whole world about.

And those of us in the West who are obsessed with money and materialism, well maybe it’s time to spend a few weeks in a Ugandan village to see another way to happiness? Africa’s not perfect by any means - the overcrowded schools, decrepit hospitals, and sky-high HIV/AIDS rates show that – but then neither is the West. Infact it’s just as far from perfect, and I’m sure that we could learn a thing or two about ‘living’ from the Majority of the people we share this world with…

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