The Price of Laughter

Max Siragusa - Senegal

November 10, 2012

G.P. Maxim “Dame A.M. Thiam”  Siragusa


In a seriously depressed economy, a little more can mean a lot. This rule applies to food, to money, to frivolous goods, and to basic things like water and electricity.

If you live in a place like Leona, Senegal, there are some realities that will color your life as long as you’re there. Statistically speaking, you are probably unemployed most of the year and any money you come by goes quickly — not always to what you need, either, but sometimes to what you want, as impulsive as that is. If you happen to be employed, life is still pretty tough if you’re not frugal. The essentials — food, clean water, electricity, healthcare — eat up most of your income. Whatever is left is set aside for short-term purchases like more food for later, or some water for the next day. That’s assuming friends or family don’t need it first. It’s tough to be wealthy here because it’s nearly impossible to become “well-off” to begin with.

It’s fairly easy to tell which families are well-to-do and happy, not by how much money they have or how much stuff they have around the house, but by how much they laugh.

My household can afford not just three big meals a day, but a good chunk of food for our neighbors as well. Some of them get by because of it. We can afford afternoon tea and snacks and presents for guests. We can afford clean water, electricity (when the power’s on) and soap and oils to clean our clothes and house. We also laugh. A lot.

We make jokes, we make fun of me, we poke fun at each other, we sit back and giggle at things we see happening around town and within our own compound- we can afford to do this because we can afford to provide our basic needs. We laugh often and it is because of the little we have alongside the extra we’re blessed with. In truth, that’s all we need; we provide contentment with it ourselves and we feel all the more wealthy for it. We can brew attaya and enjoy some beignets as we crack up at the gawky white guy practicing Wolof because we aren’t forced to work in the hot afternoon. We do not subsist — we truly live. And it’s a good life to live, too. It doesn’t come without a lot of hard work and intense networking on the part of the adults in the family, but a lot of good comes our way in the end.

There are some households that I don’t hear laughing. They are the ones with very few, if any, goats or chickens; the ones without lights on after dark; the ones you look at and realize there’s never smoke from a cooking fire coming over the walls of their property. Those households don’t laugh as much. To be unable to afford basic needs for survival is to be unable to afford the luxury of enjoying life and laughing at it often. That’s what laughter is: an indicator of those who are able to live and love life to the fullest extent possible.

The little things allow us to feel like we are kings. To enjoy some bread with tea or coffee in the morning while watching the news instead of waiting for someone to bring us some; to be able to go out to the street and greet friends as they walk by rather than needing to walk to the well to see if you can have some water; to be able to go home and enjoy lunch rather than go to someone’s house and clandestinely ask or beg for food — such things make me feel like like I am living a life of unadorned luxury with my family here in Senegal, and it’s because I can find laughter and enjoyment without excessive creature comforts. With the consistency of basic provisions, tranquility and laughter will surely follow. Let me correct myself: I don’t just “feel” like I’m living a life of unadorned luxury; I AM living a life of unadorned luxury.

In the United States, I live a life of true material comfort. I’m extremely excited to fly back to that life. But I’m more excited to fly back to my family. Because, for as much as we talked and laughed with each other before I came here, I understand now that we can do so because we are so extremely well-provided for. I love my life and those in it, but knowing now just what I’ve been afforded beyond the material has made me realize that as long as you have the essentials you can easily be rich beyond any physical measure. We are not rich for what it is we have, but because we can harvest the grain of life and distill it to form the sweetest of liquors — the laughter of enjoyment, sweeter than wine, that comes with being able to sit back and observe and enjoy all those to whom we’re tied, family and friends alike. Am I going to give up the frivolous, material things I love? No. But I can appreciate them infinitely more when I’m home, knowing that I’m lucky to even have them, and that they are only enjoyable because all else withstanding — my relationship to my family, my friends, my future — is taken care of beyond the need for worry.

Max Siragusa