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What Makes People Smile In The Saddest Country In The World?

Even in a country with devastating political strife, Burundians can still find reason to smile.
Ulrich Baumgarten
U. Baumgarten via Getty Images
Even in a country with devastating political strife, Burundians can still find reason to smile.

The happiest country in the world is Denmark, according to a new report from the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network. And the least happy is Burundi. Maybe someone forgot to tell the Burundians.

"I wouldn't say we are sad," says Burundi-born Elavie Ndura, 56, the presidential fellow for diversity and inclusion, and professor of education at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

The central African country does indeed score low on the U.N. survey's criteria for happiness: gross domestic product per capita, social support, health and longevity, personal freedom, charitable giving and perception of corruption. Burundi is one of the poorest countries in the world, and one of the hungriest. It's been wracked by civil war, genocide and political strife -- including a failed coup attempt just last year. So today, for World Happiness Day, we want to know: What do Burundians have to be happy about?

"Burundian society is grounded in family and community," Ndura says. "A major source of happiness for the Burundian people is time spent with and around neighbors. That's when you can see them come out of their shells, socializing with family and sharing whatever food they have. They visit one another even when it takes many, many hours of walking across the hills, so that they can spend time together. They're sitting down and having conversations — even though their stories these days may be told around difficult experiences due to the country's conflicts. The point is that they are together among relatives and neighbors and commiserating, listening and cheering one another up. It's the loud laughter that always rings in my mind when I think about how the Burundian people like to spend their time."

The majority of Burundians work as farmers — and that, according to Ndura, is another source of joy. "Even when work may be hard, you always hear laughter when people are working together on their small subsistence farms. They share whatever food they can gather."

"Honestly," she says, "when I travel to Burundi, even though I travel for work, I am always happiest. It's because of the way people interact with each other. Even though Burundi has been victimized and challenged by conflicts, you still see some kind of humanity, some kind of kindness, some kind of generosity. People are willing to share the minimum that they have. You know people are very humble. They don't ask for much. You see them congregating together to chat, to share a bottle of beer and some food. And even though it may not be enough for everybody, they share whatever they have with loud laughter. They are happiest."

Ndura has lived in the United States since 1989 but makes frequent trips to Burundi as part or her peace building work. While there, she says, "I provide professional development for educators at all levels, from elementary to college level, to develop teaching methods that foster social cohesion. Because social cohesion is central to sustainable peace."

Her dream to is to put together a "peace caravan" with her Burundian counterparts.

"We will hopefully take this around this country, getting secondary school and university youth engaged in this work. We will make stops at strategic locations for peacemaking development seminars," she says. "At the same time we will engage in community service at each place we stop, performing music, sport and other cultural events to engage local youth. We want to increase community awareness of working for peace."

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Corrected: March 19, 2016 at 11:00 PM CDT
Elavie Ndura is actually 56 years old, not 60. She is a Presidential Fellow for Diversity and Inclusion at George Mason University.
Maggie Zackowitz