With a freshly minted Ph.D. in Experimental Condensed Matter physics, I boarded an airplane destined for East Africa. Behind me were years of 15 hour workdays studying Quantum Mechanics, Nuclear and Solid State Physics. I had obtained a two-year appointment as a Professor of Physics at Addis Ababa University, the premier educational institution in East Africa.
I expected the experience to be wonderful. I expected to make a difference in the lives of young Ethiopian physicists. I did not expect to be humbled.
Had I been born an Ethiopian, all other things held equal, I would be bussing tables in a coffee shop instead of teaching physics at the University. Since I left high school with a 3.0 GPA, I would not have been allowed to enter the university system in Ethiopia. There are no opportunities, such as community colleges, for those who realize the importance of education a few years too late. At Addis Ababa University, 50% of the incoming freshman class is failed out in the first year. In Ethiopia, you are not allowed even one mistake – a bad semester, a few late assignments, and you are sent home…permanently.
This is not even an appropriate comparison, for even if I had a 4.0 GPA in the U.S, that does not mean that I could have done the same in Ethiopia. Assuming I was one of the lucky ones who had the opportunity to attend school, the Ethiopian students are taught in a second language, not their native tongue, so gifted linguists have the highest chance of success. Furthermore, I had adequate medical care and a full stomach each night unlike so many in Ethiopia. Most of us born to American parents have the wind at our backs and our journey though life is comparatively easy compared to the rest of the world. If I were born to African parents, the wind would be in my face and the journey treacherous. Since I did not chose my parents and nationality, can I really claim the benefits as earned?
In my friend Amde, I see what my life would have been like had I been born an Ethiopian. Graduating from high school with the same GPA as mine, he lives in a small, tin-roofed, mud-walled, three-room house in Addis Ababa with his parents, his two sisters and his brother. Because of the poverty, there is no sewage system in that part of the city. Amde and his family share a pit latrine with five other families. The entire family lives on less than US$50 a month. They are always hungry.
Each morning at 7:00am he arrived at the coffee shop in our building. He worked all day, with one 30 minute break, until 8:00pm. He works 7 days a week. Amde desperately needs this job just so that his family can live, for his father was injured in the Army and his mother is crippled. There is little chance for advancement, as the manager of the coffee shop needs a job, too. I felt so bad for Amde that I searched unsuccessfully for another job for him. Therefore, I know for a fact that there were no other jobs in Addis for him.
This discovery is very disconcerting, because it is more comfortable for me to believe that my education, my work ethic and my bank account were earned. For if they are earned, then I am justified in having those things and do not need to feel the pain of those who do not. If I have “earned” my circumstances, therefore, they have “earned” theirs. I now believe this is simply wrong. I believe my abundant life is a gift which must be used to help those who did not have the same unearned advantages I had. This I believe: to whom much is given, much is required.
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