By BILL COOK
PUBLISHED: SATURDAY, APRIL 22, 201
I think the story that I am going to tell you is something of a parable about what America is slowly but not inexorably becoming.
For several years, the Bill Cook Foundation has sponsored three boys in Ethiopia to attend the Ambassador College of Travel and Tourism in the city of Bahar Dar. I met them when I was doing research in another Ethiopian city, Lalibela. They approached me to ask if I would buy them a book. This was a novel approach since most kids asked for money or food. They explained that they owned one book and had read it and had mastered its contents. Now they were ready for a second book.
The book they had was about Europe, and they proudly announced that they knew the capitals of all the nations of Europe. So, being a teacher, I gave them a test—France, Italy, England, Spain—too easy. Then I did Austria, Belgium, Poland, the Czech Republic—again too easy. Next I asked about Bulgaria and Finland and Croatia—no problem. Finally, I told them that I would ask one last capital and that if they got it right, I would buy them a book. “What is the capital of Moldova? Without flinching, one answered, “Chisinau.” So I bought them a book and gave them my email address.
A few months later I got an email asking if I would pay for them to attend Ambassador College. It wasn’t too expensive, even if I also provided housing and food, so I said yes. About a year after that, I decided to visit them in Bahar Dar. They lived in one room with a mattress and a hot pad. Their toilet was about 200 meters away, and they bathed in Lake Tana, a 10-minute walk. But they showed me their notebooks and other materials to demonstrate that they were studying.
They began to tell me their story. Their families were all farmers in a remote village where there were no schools. So with their parents’ permission, they left home at age eight for the city of Lalibela where they lived on the streets, usually sleeping under a kind of porch and shining shoes. They took in enough to pay for food. And they went to a public school. They did this for nine years. That is when I met them. So their “carefree years” were spent sleeping on the ground, shining shoes and getting an education.
Last October, Yohanis, Abu and Mareg (I collectively refer to them as YAM) graduated from Ambassador College. On a recent trip to the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, they showed me their transcripts and gave me a photo of them in their caps and gowns. I was overwhelmed with joy and admiration for these guys. In addition to their diplomas, they also have drivers’ licenses since that is a prerequisite for being travel agents and tour guides.
The young graduates moved to Addis Ababa and live in a place much like their home in Bahar Dar. They have been communicating with me about getting their careers launched. They explained that they needed a car in order to start their careers. I could not imagine that was true, and I suggested that they look into leasing a car. They insisted via email that this was not an option for them, and I became concerned that they were whining to me so I would buy them a car; something the Foundation could not do and that I could not afford to do.
So, when I was with them in March and they reiterated their need for a car, I suggested we make sure this was so by consulting the Ministry of Culture and Tourism located in Addis Ababa. We met a pleasant bureaucrat, and I did most of the asking. Could they not lease a car at those times when they had clients. The bureaucrat insisted that they must own a car in order to do any business. I asked if it was possible to buy a car with a down payment and use it to start a business while they were paying it off. No. They must own a car outright. Then I asked about the cost of the cheapest car that the government would accept as their business vehicle. $25,000!
This means that rich kids who want to start a travel agency can get money from daddy and start immediately in their business. Poor kids with the same credentials cannot get started without a sugar daddy somewhere. Now we all know that people of means have lots of advantages in life. But this is absurd. To state the obvious, the government could allow people like YAM to work with a leased car or one being bought on credit. But, no, that would give them a fair opportunity to compete with those of wealth and power.
The government could establish a low interest loan program for budding entrepreneurs, but there is no such thing. Yes, Ethiopia is poor. Yes, Ethiopia is a dictatorship. Prime Minister Desalegn’s party and one allied to it won 547 out of 547 seats in Parliament in the 2015 election. Still, for YAM to have no realistic chance of entering a profession for which they are qualified and for which they essentially sacrificed their youth is patently wrong and highly immoral.
But, in the world’s richest country, how much better are we doing? We see growing inequality and all the advantages that accrue to the wealthy. We know that rich folks take expensive SAT prep courses and can pay up to a quarter of a million dollars for one of their children to attend Harvard or Amherst. We know about poor students saddled with student loan debt that might be enough to buy a starter house. Instead of our nation’s way of doing things rebuking places like Ethiopia, are we in fact becoming more like them?
Bill Cook is a distinguished teaching professor and emeritus professor of history at SUNY Geneseo.