Bluegrass concert in Ethiopia underscores wisdom of cultural exchanges

By Steven Youngblood, director, Center for Global Peace Journalism, Park University

(GONDAR, ETHIOPIA)—Anyone who doubts the benefits of public diplomacy should have seen one of yesterday’s performances by “Crow and the Canyon,” a bluegrass band brought to Ethiopia on a tour by the U.S. State Department.

In the morning, the band played for about 1,000 delighted students and teachers at the Gondar Community School, where I teach a weekly journalism class. Later, they played a 45-minute set for grateful onlookers in the residential compound where I live at the University of Gondar. The many children in attendance were especially delighted, and showed off their best “swing your partner” country moves while the bank performed.

Aside from uplifting the spirits of the American scholars and their families here in Gondar, the real value of “Crow and the Canyon’s” visit lies in its inestimable benefit in bringing together Americans and Ethiopians. America’s most valuable export is our culture, and what better way to share it than a performance of this quintessentially American art form. The phrase “goodwill tour” may be a cliché, but it is nonetheless valid. The goodwill and good feelings events like this generate will last well beyond the band’s brief stay.

In peace journalism, we talk about rejecting “us vs. them” narratives, and putting a human face on “them.” There is no better way to humanize Americans than to show our culture, our music, and yes, even our square dancing. When you recognize someone’s humanity, it’s hard to stereotype them, and even harder to hate them. Better to build goodwill through cultural sharing than clean up the mess created when nations are in conflict.

As an American taxpayer, I think of the money spent on cultural exchanges this way. The biggest conventional bomb in the U.S. arsenal, which was used against ISIS in Afghanistan and dubbed the mother-of-all-bombs, costs $170,000 each (Business Insider). I did a little figuring, and a one week trip by “Crow’s” five musicians to Ethiopia (airfare, hotel, transport, food) totals, at maximum, about $20,000. Ask yourself: are eight such cultural exchange trips more valuable to our nation, and to the world, than one giant bomb? In fact, I believe just one such exchange does more to enhance our national security, and buttress out international relationships, than a thousand bombs.

After leaving Ethiopia, “Crow and the Canyon” will continue their African tour in Uganda and Tanzania, where they’ll continue to share the very best of what America has to offer.

NOTE: I am in Ethiopia on a semester-long U.S. State Dept peace journalism project. You can follow my (mis)adventures on the Peace Journalism Insights blog.

Steven Youngblood

Steven Youngblood

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