Max Siragusasenegal 2013

Photo Comp - Final

The Price of Laughter Published on 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.

There are 12 comments by other visitors:

  • Natalie Davidson

    Thank you for writing this beautiful piece. You are so right — so incredibly on point here. It’s only November. Imagine how much more ingrained these lessons will be by the time you’re moving out of the village? I love that you’re taking the time out of your experience to notice and understand these moments. Continue living your life of unadorned luxury to its fullest — time will truly begin to fly by!

    Can’t wait for your next blog.
    Natalie (Senegal 2012)

    Response shared by Natalie Davidson — November 10, 2012 @ 1:03 am

  • A lovely expression of the experience you are having in Senegal. I am so honored to know you. I can’t wait to sit down with you and share a cup of coffee across the kitchen table. Love you, Max.

    Response shared by J. Siragusa — November 10, 2012 @ 5:50 pm

  • Dear Max,

    You cannot imagine how very proud I am of you! The little boy that I taught in first grade, smart as you were then, has grown into a man of rare insights. Life as we know it, is truly happy and full of luxuries, but you are correct in saying that all you are experiencing in this little village in Africa, will stay with you forever, enriching your life beyond measure and filling it with so much laughter!

    Love and many blessings to you! Mrs. Shouse (Athens, Ga, USA)

    Response shared by Sharon Shouse — November 10, 2012 @ 6:07 pm

  • Lucias Potter

    I always love you blogs man. Your metaphors never cease to amaze me. You just made me realize another lesson or subliminal form of education I received. My connection to things used to be lonesome before coming back from Senegal. Since being back I don’t do anything alone anymore. I’m always with family. I don’t even think I’ve played single player on any games. Where you are is very a sublime place. I bet you’ll come back with lessons learned that you never paid attention to.

    Response shared by Lucias Potter — November 10, 2012 @ 7:34 pm

  • Max,

    I know your Mom from writing class and think the world of her. Now even more so, as she and your father raised a caring and sharing young man. Your appreciation for your wonderful life is a gift any parent would be proud to hear from their children. In the “me” world we live in, especially in the U.S., how refreshing it is to read your blog and hear the concern you have for others. Bless you for what you’re doing, continue to enjoy your experiences there and safe travels on your return home. I know your family is anxious to see you again.

    Response shared by Lila Schwenk — November 10, 2012 @ 7:59 pm

  • Thanks, Max, for another update. What a mature man to realize at your age what is truly important in life. NJ/NY have dealt with a lot in the past 2weeks, no gas, no power, no heat, no school but they know in time all will be well. Maybe not the same but well. These Americans who lost everything will be able to rebuild. There are resources available for their recovery. Not so for many in Senegal, survival is their hope. It’s important every once in a while to be reminded about what is really important. God Bless!

    Response shared by Nancy — November 11, 2012 @ 5:55 pm

  • Conor Farese

    How right you are, Max, and I’m glad you’re sharing your thinking with the rest of us. It’s a healthy reminder to keep focusing on our happiness — whether in Senegal or the U.S. All the best!

    Response shared by Conor Farese — November 12, 2012 @ 5:29 pm

  • Hey Max, I’m glad I finally found your blog, I’ve been enjoying it all night. It’s beautiful. You are an incredible writer. Can’t wait to get a coffee or take a walk or something of that sort when you are back. Be safe.

    Response shared by Abby Juhlmann — November 16, 2012 @ 7:04 am

  • Our family is so blessed, and you have added so much to our awareness of just how much. I am counting the days until I can sit with you, and your family, and laugh,and learn of your journey.I ADMIRE YOU SO MUCH,AND LOVE YOU DEARLY! For Now, Nana

    Response shared by S.Bean — November 22, 2012 @ 4:51 am

  • Meg Crenshaw

    Wonderful post, Max. Thanks for sharing!

    Response shared by Meg Crenshaw — December 1, 2012 @ 6:41 pm

  • Max–What a great experience you are living. You will have to get Snuffy to tell you about Aunt Maude and her banana boat travels to Central and South America, going into jungles to sketch natives and write travel stories to send to “Lands of Romance,” a travel magazine.

    Response shared by Carolyn FIles — January 1, 2013 @ 3:48 am

  • Max, can’t wait to see you and eat some venison sausage with you. John Cougar Mellencamp stated the the best thing in life is “the hang.” I am no huge fan of the man but I do agree with his statement. Life is nothing but the connections you have with friends and loved ones, the rest is sausage…..I need to kill you a deer because I seem preoccupied with processed meats. See you soon, Uncle Willie

    Response shared by Willie — January 14, 2013 @ 12:34 am

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