When I was 7 years old, I had stereotypes about Africa. These were based on two things – those poor, starving children on TV, and my colouring books with pictures of safari animals. As a result, in my little world Africa was hungry and dangerous. Then my parents told me we were moving to Ethiopia. They assured me that we were going to be fine and see lots of exciting things, but I remained a skeptic.
We landed in Addis Ababa at night, and were driven to the house we would stay in while we looked for our own. We passed a fruit stand that was closing for the day, and I breathed a sigh of relief. I didn’t like fruit, but at least I could find my way back here if something happened to my parents and I was desperate for food. I memorized way just in case. “Good thing I’m on top of this,” I thought.
Turns out Ethiopia was not what my childlike stereotypes had predicted. Yes, there was poverty. Plenty of it. But there was much life also. Bright colours and delicious food and cool people and interesting animals and adventure. All seen through the eyes of a child.
We left Ethiopia when I was in grade 6, and got settled in Canada. Oddly enough, during my junior high and high school years I developed a new set of stereotypes for Africa. I romanticized it. People around me who had gone on short term trips claimed that Africans were not like North Americans – that they were generous and forgiving and selfless and hospitable and kind. That they were content with little. I fondly remembered many people I had met in Ethiopia and agreed. I couldn’t wait to return.
And once again my stereotypes were shattered. In high school and university I returned to the great continent, to volunteer in South Africa and Namibia. I had my clothes stolen from my backyard, I learned about the Rwandan genocide, I had the outside walls of my house plastered with pages of porn in the middle of the night, I was gawked at and disrespected by men, my house mate was threatened with a gun. And I noticed something else – something that made me more uncomfortable than anything else.
Many Africans, just the rest of us, were not in fact content with making a living but wanted to make a killing.
Individuals, companies, and even some churches wanted to learn about get-rich-quick schemes. For the first time I saw Africa – and the world – through the eyes on an adult. It made me sad to realize that my romantic view was just as inaccurate as my childhood stereotypes had been.
In my travels around the world since then, I have realized that there is a common language of greed that is spoken with fluency by our families, communities, institutions, governments, and businesses. It cunningly masquerades under nomers like “The American Dream,” and we market it, sell it, celebrate it, worship it, honour it, and pledge allegiance to it. Success is measured by climbing the ladder, making big money, and being comfortable.
But I propose that the American Dream, or Canadian Dream – whatever you want to call it – has become an idol. I recently heard a message by Jeff Strong in which he explains that at the beginning, idols promise everything and demand nothing in return. It seems to work for a while. For example, in the beginning, money delivers fun and adventure and comfort and security and happiness. But soon the pursuit of money demands more and more, while offering less and less – until we reach a point in which we are giving everything to its pursuit and receiving nothing in return. We have money in the bank and a hot car in the driveway, but it has come at a high cost. We are stressed and discontent, and often it is our families and relationships that are ultimately sacrificed.
The same is true of lust, which fuels sex trafficking. It begins with pornography, and exciting discovery for any ten year-old boy. But just like the idol of money, it pulls us deeper and deeper, promising a better thrill at the next level. Not only do many women end up being exploited as a result of this monster within, but once again, it is families and relationships that end up being sacrificed on its altar.
A friend recently sent me this clip, which has gone viral in recent weeks.
This is where greed leads us, as a society. The spin-off effect is that people at the bottom are put in desperate circumstances. Many of us secretly don’t want the system to change, just in case we are the ones who end up at the top some day. But a system that thrives on such extreme inequality is what creates a perfect storm for all kinds of social issues – like increased gang violence, more teen pregnancies, prostitution, and homelessness.
But before you think I am going on a rant about corporate greed, I would encourage us to look at our own lives. I heard it said once that “direction, not intention, determines our destination.” Your intent to be generous someday means nothing if you fail to plan. Here are some ideas Jay and I have been throwing around.
- Set an income ceiling for yourself. Our lifestyle always inflates when our income increases. Determine the amount you need, and whatever you make above and beyond that, give away. This could make pay raises even more exciting, because it creates a bigger giving slush fund!
- Inch up by percentage points. Start giving, and increase the percentage each year.
- Support local businesses with your dollars. Multinational corporations siphon money out of local communities, leaving less opportunities for people to start their own businesses or have meaningful employment. The lack of corporate accountability and regulation leads to the inequality we see in this video. If you support local entrepreneurs, you are offering someone a chance to make a living doing something they are passionate about while keeping the money in your community.
- Employers, pay your workers a living wage and source your products ethically. This will require research and sacrifice. Visit the factories where your products are made and get to know the stories of those making them.
- Get to know people who are on the margins. The homeless. The prostituted. The poor. The vulnerable. Personal relationships can motivate unlike anything else.
We should all learn to promote equality. It will take some sacrifice, some discomfort, some risk. But I believe it is worth it. Let’s stop exporting and celebrating an American Dream that is built on the backs of the poor, and cast off the idol of greed that entangles us.