Television, Vegetables, and Economic See-Saws

It came out of the blue, as we were memorizing African countries and their capitals.  And so began a difficult, honest conversation with my 13 year-old friend Hanuk.  I told him that maybe, if I could save enough money this summer, I’d buy a TV so that I could watch the news on BBC every once in a while.  He told me how much TVs cost here.  I told him I could fly to India for that money.

“In your country, vegetables are expensive and televisions are cheap.  In Ethiopia, vegetables are cheap and televisions are expensive.  Which is better?”

I found myself in swirls of explanation, sinking in every justification or elucidation that came to mind.

Televisions are an example of technology.  Technology changes every-day tasks. 

Thinking innovatively transforms your way of life. 

In America, food is subsidized for the poor.

What I didn’t say:

In Ethiopia, everyone is poor.

I am no economist.  I am no anthropologist.  But there are a few things I’ve observed in Adaba.

The most well-off people in town, like Hanuk’s family, the people who have relatives living abroad funneling cash through Western Union, still survive on very little.  They wear the same recycled clothing items (see: are your t-shirts hurting Africa?). They rarely throw anything away.  Their kids play in the dirt with cars made of sticks and rocks the way my cousins race Hot Wheels over the hardwood floors in the dining room.

Tomatoes and bananas may cost about 1 Ethiopian Birr each, but that’s still too much for most families here to enjoy a salad or snack of fruit.

I know less than 5 people in town who could be considered overweight.  It’s normal for a grown man to weigh 100 pounds.

Compare that to America, where “food” is widely available, but we eat stuff like Wonderbread, packed with economically appealing mystery filler.  We make artificial conveniences like this so easily accessible so easily to the poor.

We make being healthy so difficult in the US.  Calculate calories, run, mix and match the newest diet trends.  Here—just the acts of living ensure health: waking, eating breakfast, fetching water, herding cattle, walking to school, playing football.

Who’s to say that either life is better?

I brag about America here—the diversity of thought, abundance of food, and creativity from my homeland.  I’ll complain about America when I return—the taste of pesticide on vegetables, packaging everywhere, and just too many cars.  It’s what happens.

Material items don’t make a life.  But they sure do make a life different, for better or for worse.

What I wish for my friends is the ability to choose their own good life.  But that can’t happen in a world with economic disparities as vast as ours.  Sometimes the universe chooses for you.  And when it does, you have to accept.

Whether you’re eating injera or Wonderbread.


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