I’m being sarcastic. But I think we do sometimes let ourselves get sucked in by cosy clichés about people on the other side of the globe being ‘so poor, but so happy.’ My Facebook feed is littered with photos of children from the slums of Kenya or Colombia or India smiling joyfully at their Western visitors – and if Facebook says it, it must be true, right?
I recently met a man who smiled constantly. It was infectious. And I didn’t get it, because there didn’t seem to be much to smile about.
His name was Ramu, and I spent a few days in the west of Nepal visiting his house and meeting his amazing family. Ramu’s free, casual smiles might give you the impression that life hasn’t tripped him up and left him stranded. That it hasn’t left him spending most of each day alone, looking out at a world that hasn’t made a way for him.
Ramu had an accident. He was driving on one of the world’s most dangerous roads when his steering locked. And that was that. He plummeted off the edge of a mountain and survived – mostly. The doctors told him he would never walk, or sit, or move anywhere. They told him to wait to die. And so he waited.
His 10-year-old daughter tells me that there were no smiles then. She tried to cheer her dad up by reading to him and telling him her happy thoughts, but it was no use. He’d been told there was no hope.
But now, thanks to a small mission clinic and a brilliant British occupational therapist – who didn’t believe the comforting platitudes about the poor people on the other side of the world being happy with their plight – Ramu is in a wheelchair in a new house with wide doorways. Now he can wheel himself outside his house and watch the world, and so he smiles again.
He smiles when my colleagues and I arrive with our cameras, clipboards and questions to capture his story. And he smiles proudly when I interview his daughter and she speaks to me in the English she’s been learning at school.
Yet I know he used to live a bigger life; a life that wasn’t confined to a chair and a few square metres of concrete. Because being disabled in Nepal is different. There are few tarmac roads, and little government support. There’s a lot of stigma and there are so many obstacles. Ramu’s house is surrounded by fields – he can’t even get out of his front garden without being carried.
His life is so very much better than before, but so much harder than the life before the before; the life crippled by poverty, but not by disability. So I ask the mission worker who’s made this better life possible why Ramu smiles when there is such a long way to go. “It makes me angry when people say, ‘oh, they’re so poor but they’re so happy,’” she tells me. And you can tell by her crisp tone of voice that this is a cliché she’s heard one too many times. “It’s not happiness. It’s an amazing resilience. It’s amazing that he can smile despite the unhappiness.”
And I don’t know if it’s wrong that, perhaps despite myself, I do find comfort in Ramu’s smile. Comfort in the way that he and his remarkable family can smile and be thankful for the small blessings, despite all the challenges they face. And when I think of them, I smile too. Because it amazes and inspires me; their resilience and their generosity. This family, living in one of the poorest parts of the world, who were so quick to want to feed me, a rich stranger, when they heard my stomach rumbling as I stood outside their house.
I think we need to stop pretending that everyone who smiles is happy – because it’s a way of letting ourselves off the hook. People can and do, of course, find joy aside from material wealth. But there is also great suffering and so much injustice in our world. And we have to help. To give, go, pray, do something. Because Ramu’s smiles and resilience are absolutely worthy of admiration. But if we never get past comforting platitudes, we’ll never really change anything.
Image credit: BMS World Mission