Life in an Ethiopian village is hard. Every morning Ethiopians wake up, roosters crow, sunlight filters through a straw rooftop. The animals are led to graze on what little grass is growing through the rocky soil. The woman starts a fire, tea and bread… coffee is better, sometimes there is sugar.
The man shoulders his single-furrow plough and leads his ox to the land he plans to plow that day. He harnesses the plough frame to the beast and digs the ploughshare deep into the fertile soil. Meanwhile, the woman continues working, sorting and milling the grain, forming and drying dung patties for fuel, hunting and gathering firewood in the deforested hillsides. If her children are too young, she carries several 30-gallon jerrycans of water on her back, often as far as five kilometers. In her free time, she prepares homemade beer and injera and she serves her husband a meager dinner. The animals are herded and corralled into the hut to stay warm for night.
Life in an Ethiopian village is no pastoral retreat, and notice the woman’s work far exceeds that of the man. Furthermore, when it is time, the woman also harvests the grain whilst juggling all the aforementioned activities. Combine that work with the woman’s maternal duty to bear children, usually 4-5, and a full time job hardly describes her lot.
Zumra Nuru, 63, realized the disproportion of duties between his mother and father when he was four years old. A visionary, he often asked his parents why when his father’s work finished, his mother continued to work? Were they not a family?
From his early age, Zumra set out to create a new Ethiopian society. His dream of gender equality and ability-based labor came to fruition in 1978 when he established Awra Amba, a village located in the hills around Lake Tana in northern Ethiopia. Four years earlier, the military had hijacked the student Marxist revolution against the monarchy, and the Derg regime ruled Ethiopia until 1991.
Today, Zumra is a celebrity in Ethiopia. Media about his “Utopian Village” have attracted visitors from all over the country feigning interest in gender equality and wishing to meet the creator of this revolutionary idea. Each visitor from a country where gender roles have gone unchanged since Lucy was dug up with a jerrycan strapped to her fragile backbone!
Most Ethiopians know the name Awra Amba and the first reaction is the simplistic: “Where the men make injera” (a woman’s duty). It must be more than men cooking injera, so I decided to visit Zumra and his small Utopia since life in Ethiopia is not remotely utopian.
A bus drops me off on the Debre Tabor road, and I walk a rocky road 2 kilometers to Awra Amba (meaning Top of the Hill in Amharic). The first thing I notice are two banners hanging above the village entrance reading : “Knowing your Country begins with Knowing your Village” and “Save a Little and Do More.”
Welcome to Awra Amba!
AWRA AMBA TOUR
On Sunday morning, Zumra and the Village Association gather under the huge sycamore tree in the village center. He sits in the center and more than one hundred adults participate in the village’s civic duties, voting and taking turns speaking.
The Village Association is made up of 146 members: 83 women and 63 men. The Association votes democratically on every issue in the village, from rules and regulations to work assignments for every adult of the 433 people living in Awra Amba. The Village Association resides over 13 sub-committees. I was met by the Guest Reception Committee, one of the sub-committees.
Derrasa, 25, is currently assigned to run the tea house. He was born in Awra Amba and has never lived outside in the un-utopian parts of Ethiopia. Village children fill the tea house with high pitched laughter and watch a small color TV showing Friends in English. Some outsiders are interspersed among the locals, and I was the only farenji in Awra Amba that day.
“Our biggest asset is our people. We share everything. Happiness and sorrow,” begins Bertukan, 30, one of the tour guides assigned to show me the ins and outs of society, lifestyle and work ethic practiced in Awra Amba. The tour costs 0.35 cents.
“Education is our biggest source of income,” she continues. Every child attends first the village pre-school at age 7, after one year they go to elementary school. Awra Amba boasts 100% literacy and the smartest people are assigned to be teachers. “Our teachers don’t have teaching certificates. The smartest people become the teachers,” she says.
In the pre-school, children begin Awra Amba indoctrination at an early age. They learn an oath that is repeated over and over until adulthood: “We shall never touch other’s belongings, and if we find something we return it to the original owner. We work together and that’s how we live,” thus, the need for the Lost & Found Committee, one of the Association’s sub committees.
The library is next door to the pre-school. Here all the village books are housed, both textbooks and Harry Potter. The walls are decorated with gifts from groups that have come to visit as well as Zumra’s honorary Doctorate degree from Bonga Unversity. Zumra is the only PhD in Ethiopia that never went to a university.
FREEDOM FROM RELIGION
Awra Amba is surrounded by small villages predominantly practicing Islam. Before becoming famous, Zumra’s village was heavily persecuted and threatened, and saw farmland gradually slip into the hands of the neighbors. In addition to gender equality, Zumra’s style of utopia does not include any official religion. Curiously, there are no Orthodox churches or mosques in Awra Amba. To join the community, one must first shed his or her creed.
In the absence of organized religion Awra Amba feels completely different to the rest of Ethiopia. Instead of invoking Egzabier and Allah in their salutations and everyday speech, Awra Ambans simply say “life is good,” and if there is a need to refer to a higher power, they resort to fatari, meaning creator.
Organized religion is a distraction. Instead of worshipping four times a day, or punishing oneself to earn the forgiveness designated by a priest or imam, people in Awra Amba spend that time working, weaving, milling, and taking care of each other. Awra Amba is the only place in Ethiopia I have seen with a convalescent home. The Elders Committee –one of the 13 sub-committees— is assigned to take care of 8 people who are fed everyday and washed once a week.
If every church and mosque in Ethiopia were turned into a convalescent center… I wondered.
Nonetheless, Awra Amba’s stylized freedom from religion does not sit well with the rest of Ethiopia. In the village, I met Muslim, Protestant and Orthodox believers doing business in Awra Amba, each with his and her own opinion, which speaks more to his religion than to Awra Amba’s lack thereof.
“We like doing business with them because they are near, but if they were Muslim, the whole surrounding area would come and join,” says the Muslim.
“It’s easy to do business with them because they are honest and they accept a creator, in our eyes, we are all Christians, except Muslims,” says the Orthodox.
“I have taken many steps to teach them about Jesus, and buying their clothes is one of those steps,” says the Protestant.
A clip from a 2009 documentary about Awra Amba that illustrates the friction between Awra Ambans and outsiders.
WEAVING A REPUTATION
In 1988, Zumra was under tremendous pressure from the neighboring communities and decided to uproot his followers and move to southwest Ethiopia near the city of Bonga. He stayed there until 1991 when the Derg was toppled, and the current government allowed Zumra and his people to return, giving them 17.5 hectares of land.
With fewer acreage than before Awra Ambans were forced to change their work habits from farming to weaving. In the mid-nineties, they self-trained in cotton ginning and mechanical weaving with modern machinery. Eventually the Association purchased sewing machines for finishing touches. Today, the weaving co-op funds the majority of the village activities and is the most important source of income, followed by the local store and the mill.
Seven days a week, weavers work from 8am – 6pm with an hour lunch break. They buy raw materials from the city of Bahir Dar 70kms southwest. Awra Amba weaving has also become synonymous with quality. At a restaurant in Bahir Dar, the curtains and pillows are all made with Awra Amba cloth. “In quality and price, nobody compares,” the owner tells me.
Every Tuesday, the village weavers meet under the giant sycamore tree and weave, an activity organized by the Weekly Development Committee, one of the 13 sub-committees. The fruits of their labor are donated to the village sick and poor.
CHANGE THROUGH EDUCATION
In Awra Amba, children do not work, they go to school. Both the secondary and high school are located on Awra Amba’s 17.5 hectares. The secondary school was built by the regional government and serves 600 students, the majority of which are outsiders. The high school is currently under construction and has been put on hold due to lack of funds. Today, there is one classroom for 180 students, of which 13 are from Awra Amba.
“You see what Awra Amba society has sacrificed for the surrounding communities?” school director, Abraham Mekonnen, asks me. “The high school is being built with money solely from Awra Amba. In September, we expect 300 more students.”
The community uses the schools to inculcate their values of respect, tolerance and peace. “This is an island of peace. The surrounding people are always fighting. We preach peace through compromise and discussion,” Abraham explains. Every Friday afternoon, Zumra visits the classrooms and gives lectures on ethics.
The two schools receive some 7,000 birr ($415 dollars) a year, which is used for school materials as well as salaries for 12 teachers. Abraham estimates the high school needs at least $5000 dollars for completion.
When documentary filmmaker Paulina Tervo finished a 30-minute film about the community in 2009, she started a fundraising campaign for the high school, see the link here.
I spend the night in the Awra Amba guesthouse and pay 20 birr for the night. The bed is made of mud and grass and surprisingly comfortable. At night, people disappear into their homes, where men and women often continue weaving as each house is equipped with a mechanical weaving apparatus. Every member of the society is allowed and encouraged to do his or her own business in addition to the work performed for the community.
The next morning, I go to the corner store, where a young Christian girl is looking at a gold cross for sale. The store has the necklace priced at 3 birr, 0.50 cents cheaper than any other store in the valley. The little girl already has a cross hung around her neck.
“Two crosses are better than one,” I say in Amharic.
While eating a yogurt-breakfast in the tea house, I watch Ethiopian Television. The program showcases religious leaders—Muslim, Orthodox and Protestant— each preaching the virtues of driving safely and obeying traffic laws. Confused, I ask an Awra Amban what the religious leaders are saying.
“The Ethiopian people cannot live without religion, so when these men tell them to drive safely and avoid traffic accidents, the people will listen.”