unity of community

Photo by Sam Weintraub

Photo by Sam Weintraub

I met a 17-year-old name Tuji who was puzzled about why students in America leave their homes to go to college. He said he could never imagine leaving his community to go to school. I told him that students like to go to the university that teachers their subject of interest best. It was apparent that we have different values. I do greatly value my community and I would like to feel like it is not really my decision to leave, but really it is. I made the judgment that my education is more important to me than my community—a judgment that Tuji could not understand making.

In America we are taught in economics never to leave any “money on the table.” This metaphor teaches us that when there is a positive economic transaction to be made, it should be made. Ethiopians act on this principle as well, just as any human culture would. The difference between American economics and Ethiopian economics is that Americans take the metaphor more literally. When there is money to be made, we make it. But this economics principle is much deeper. An economic exchange is not an exchange of money, but an exchange of value. This is a distinction Americans often fail to make. Sometimes there are situations when an experience that generates no money has more value than an experience that does. For example, going to a top college in your field away from your community is directly correlated with greater income. Therefore, many Americans move away for college. Ethiopians, however, place a greater value on community than they do on the increased income from which they could benefit.

Education is not the only income opportunity lost to the value of community. Even in the marketplace opportunities for profit are let go in the name of community. In America, community is used economically only as a means to further personal economic success. Here, personal gains are compromised for the community. In a market in Harar I walked by about 20 vendors sitting in a row selling beats at the same price. If a customer decides not to buy because the price is too high, no vendor will lower the price, even if the customer walks away. The vendors will subsequently miss out on economic gains in order to retain good relations with the other vendors. Taxi drivers also lose opportunities for profit in order to help the community. As I drove in a taxi (with open sides) through Haramaya, many people hopped on and off while it was moving for no price. Only the person to hale the taxi must pay and anyone else who can fit can ride free.

American culture could learn something here. While Ethiopians will place community above education, money, food, and basic needs, many Americans fail to place it above amusement. We make money to buy amusement when we could instead leave the money and find free natural enjoyment in each other that outweighs the value of the money.

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