My friend Ibrahima was a rather special man. Not many school directors in his part of the world (Mali) would decide to become peasants. But such a man was my friend. While I lived in Africa I used to go and visit him occasionally when I felt the need to get in touch with the extraordinary wisdom of African tradition, to talk to a man with no guile, with no mask, to feel a knowledge so real and palpable that it makes our Western theories read like comic books.
One of the most beautiful lessons he and my African friends have taught me – and they have taught me many in the fine art of living – is that the greatest abundance, that which lights the clearest flame of joy in one’s heart, is of a nonmaterial nature. I’ll never forget a discussion I had on this theme with Ibrahima, his son Ali, and Thelonius, a black American anthropologist, during a moonlit night in Kinkiliba, Ibrahima’s village. Thelonius was telling us how a rich Western businessman touring the Dogon region in Mali (world famous among art connoisseurs for its sculptures) had come upon a superb pair of sculptured doors which hung in a village chief’s house.
He immediately asked the chief, through an interpreter, if he could buy them,” said Thelonius, who at that time was living in the Dogon village.
At first, the chief was indignant “Why do you want my doors?” he asked. “Don’t you have a door on your house?” Thelonius had inwardly chuckled: he knew the businessman had a large mansion with full-time day and night guards, burglar alarms and watchdogs. “I am just asking you if you’ll sell me your doors,” the man repeated, “for 50,000 Malian francs. “The chief was visibly taken back: this was at least a year’s income for him. He hesitated. Those “toubabs” (white men) were hard to comprehend. But he had not paid his taxes because the harvest had been very poor…. “75,000,” the industrialist added five more notes to the wad.
“It was the most obscene thing I had ever seen in my life,” Thelonius added. “This foreigner with two cameras at his belt and an embarrassed interpreter, adding bill upon bill until the chief said, “Come into my hut,” because the whole village was by then assembled.
He gave in at 150,000 francs, that is, $300, a small dry crumb for the businessman. The next day a Land Rover came from the capital – 300 miles away – to fetch the century-old doors while gaping villagers watched. So, their doors were as precious as that? Their doors were really money.”
Today in the businessman’s home country these doors are probably insured for $15,000. Today also, in the Dogon country, you will not find any more original carved doors. These century-old symbols – literally priceless, for how do you fix a price on beauty, memories, or symbols? – have been turned into money. They are no longer valued as expressions of beauty or culture. They have become things. We Westerners have turned thoughts into things to be possessed, hoarded, hidden away from envious collectors. Not to be loved, but to be insured.
“That’s the main problem with you Westerners,” Ibrahima interjected, “you turn everything into money. It’s as if you had big paintbrushes and went around the world painting large Euros, Francs, £ and $ signs on everything you see.”
“So, we do,” Thelenius added. “We say, Mr. Jones has really made it. He’s got a six-digit job. Is it creative? Does it give him joy? Is it one of service to others? How often does one see a Western newspaper running an ad like this: ‘A creative, loving, joyful person to lead a wonderful group of people in a work of great service to the community. Spiritual and moral qualities are essential, academic background less important. The exciting nature of this challenging opportunity to grow and help others compensates for the modest salary’?”
Ali said smiling, “Time is money” you say. But does that not sum up the spiritual misery of a civilization? Real time is the occasion, renewed day after day, to start living. Time is a pair of cupped hands that you lift up towards heaven that they be filled with beauty and joy, friends and parents, love and gentleness, courage and trust, dreams of holiness and adventure. Real living destroys time, and hence the belief that money can buy joy.”
The secret of abundance is to dematerialize. To know and to feel and rejoice that all real joy, all real abundance is nonmaterial. Everything beautiful I have ever owned, every courageous act I’ve ever witnessed, every gesture of love I’ve ever admired, every friend I’ve cherished, I carry then around with me, every day, every hour, not as memories of the past or hopes of the future, but as examples and realities to be enjoyed and treasured now.
Sometimes I think I am the richest person on earth.