You can’t give it away AND save it

In studying Ethiopia lately, both histories and recent sociological studies, I came across something that really caught my attention after reading so many of Leithart’s recent research posts on giving and gratitude.

In the 2012 study I mentioned earlier where anthropologist Daniel Mains lived in Ethiopia for about 2 years and documented to daily lives and finances of about 30 young men, he found that virtually every cent they made was immediately given out to friends and family in the form of purchased meals, coffee, or small cash gifts. Investing in relationships with ones friends and family was considered by many to be the chief end of having money in the first place. Saving the money (accumulating capital) was almost unthinkable for most of the people he spoke with. Even young aspiring businessmen, when they needed a substantial amount of money for a new venture or to buy inventory for a shop, were able to get all the cash they needed from their carefully cultivated network of friends and relatives who were all willing to lend at short notice.
Stashing earned money away and NOT gifting it was seen as greedy and anti-social.

Now perhaps this dynamic is all old news to someone who studies various African cultures, but it was new to me and it seems rather foreign to our mentality here in the west. Especially in Protestant circles, I think saving money (accumulating wealth) is seen as an incredibly WISE (even Godly) thing to do. But, for all their other problems, these tight communities in Africa are often sustained by the opposite notion.

In contrast, the author cites a fascinating study among palm farmers in Kenya that converted to Islam. Here is the relevant excerpt.

The history of anthropology in Africa is rich with studies documenting the difficulty of accumulating wealth without undermining the social support on which that accumulation is based. David Parkin’s (1972) study of Giriama of Kenya has become a classic analysis of the balance between social relationships and material accumulation. Parking argued that Giriama palm growers who wished to accumulate material wealth were faced with a challenging problem. To accumulate capital, palm growers had to distance themselves from community expectations that they would redistribute their wealth in the form of feasts involving large amounts of meant and palm wine. At the same time, access to land depended on social support. For palm growers to accumulate material wealth, they had to avoid redistributing their wealth while maintaining the social ties necessary to ensure their access to land. In Parkin’s study, conversion to Islam enabled farmers to solve this problem. Islam prevented men from drinking palm wine and eating meat slaughtered by non-Muslims and allowed them to be more selective about their engagement in relations of reciprocity. Therefore religion provided a justification for refraining from expending one’s wealth on shared consumption without being exposed to accusations of selfishness.

-Daniel Mains, Hope is Cut: Youth, Unemployment, and the Future in Urban Ethiopia, p.115

Wow. My visceral reaction to reading this is to think “Good grief! What better reason to throw a party RIGHT NOW!” Islam gave these capitalists the tools they needed to effectively shut down the party and accumulate material goods. It seems that some variations of Christian culture have also been utilized to do the same thing. I am increasingly skeptical that this is always such a great and wonderful thing. We have accumulated piles of property, but we are more lonely than ever. It makes me wonder if the reason our communities have such weak bonds is our lack of generosity.