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Time-tested Wisdom

“The beginning of wisdom is humility,” said Dr. Ephraim Isaac at a lecture last week, followed by “the arrogance of educated people has to stop.” With three degrees, including a doctorate from Harvard, this Tanenbaum Peacemaker from Ethiopia is hardly an uneducated man himself. Yet, he has spent countless hours listening to the ideas and concerns of what he calls “ordinary people.”

For Ephraim, famous for rejuvenating his country’s tradition of eldership, this has a point: Ordinary Ethiopians – ordinary people everywhere – are essential to the transformation of conflicts and social problems. They, especially the elders among them, must be included in local and national efforts for change. And the Western educated, whether African or from the U.S. or Europe, should not forget or ignore these sources of wisdom.    

It is with credibility that Ephraim calls on young Ethiopians to listen, to study their country’s literature and to learn from ‘our people.’ Having worked steadily with international institutions, he is not being rash when he says, “do not run to the UN or to Washington, DC” with all problems. He knows first-hand the potential and limitations of both “the internationals” and “the locals.”

Though he has lived on and off in the U.S. for many years, I’ve only ever seen Ephraim in traditional Ethiopian dress, flowing white gabi scarf and a hat that I describe as a pillbox because I don’t know it’s name. People often notice that he quotes scripture as if talking about old friends. He also likes to quote Greek myths and, of course, traditional Ethiopian tales. I especially like it when he sings the stories.

I recommend Ephraim’s chapter in Tanenbaum’s book Peacemakers in Action. Even better, look for him around New Jersey and New York and hear his stories in person. At 71, he is an example elder. Because of his lifetime of work for Ethiopians, and also because he’s got a great outfit. 

Dr. Ephraim Isaac offered the lecture “Time-Tested Wisdom vs. Modern Conflict Resolution Mechanisms” on March 5, 2009 through Young Professionals in Foreign Policy, in conjunction with the Ethiopian Lawyers Association of North America.