As clichéd as it sounds, staying in Awra Amba was a life-changing experience. Witnessing the villagers’ commitment to total gender and economic equality, as well as their respect for the rights of both children and the elderly, can only be described as inspirational. I never thought such a place could exist, but Awra Amba really is a utopian community that actually works.
In Awra Amba, women do traditionally men’s jobs, men do half the housework, children receive an education and are not forced to work, and the elderly are collectively taken care of by the community. Work is assigned based on ability and wealth is distributed evenly.
But it’s a cult, right? Not quite, or far from it (there’s some room for interpretation). Yes, the community’s soft-spoken founder Zumra Nuru has cultivated a divine and omniscient image through sheer charisma, and yes the villagers are literally in awe of him. But what might seem like a cult of personality is actaully voluntary, and for good reason. I must admit I’m a convert myself. Zumura Nuru really is a visionary, and none of the other characterisations of him I heard were untrue.
So what is Awra Amba? It’s a syndicalist, feminist, puritanical commune that is somehow both atheistic and pantheistic. Just don’t call it any of those things. Their philosophy is too easily distorted by cultural differences and translations to be defined with a single word or phrase, according to their manifesto, and I’m one to agree.
The four tenets they really do embrace, however, are: respecting the rights of women, children, the elderly, and avoiding antisocial behaviour. Each of these sits in stark contrast to normal Ethiopian society, and pretty much all societies around the world, I’d imagine.
It’s easy to criticise Ethiopian society for its rigid gender roles or economic inequality but these very problems are just as if not more pervasive in the West. I tried to keep this perspective in mind during my visit.
If you’re coming from Lalibela like me, catch a bus to Gashena. From there, get a bus heading towards Worota (also spelled Wereta). On this bus, always look at the map every now and then so you know where you are. It’s time to get off the bus when you approach the town of Woji. If you’re coming from Bahir Dar or Gondar, catch a bus to Worota and then one towards Woldia. Again, hop off as the bus nears Woji.
Although the busses and minibuses in Ethiopia often stop for people to hop on and off throughout the journey, the driver and conductor were a bit hesitant to let a faranji (foreigner or whitey) off in what seemed of be the middle of nowhere. The name Awra Amba didn’t ring a bell, so they decided not to stop, telling me that our destination would be Worota. It was only after they saw me looking a bit agitated that I think they realised I really did want to get off here.
Once of the bus, walk down the road until you see a dirt track with a rusty old sign that says Awra Amba. The dirt track appears on Google Maps so you should know which direction to walk. That being said, the position of Awra Amba on Google Maps is completely off, so just know it’s at the end of the track.
It’s about a half-hour walk, and if you’re (un)lucky, the local farmers’ children will harass you for money, pens and “highlands”. I’m not sure why they would think foreigners would carry around an arsenal of stationery, or what use the children would have for highlighters, but they seemed pretty persistent. They only stopped chasing me once I neared my destination.
At the end of the track you’ll start to see some mud huts appear, followed by another sign telling you that you’ve arrived in Awra Amba. The difference the sign makes is amazing. Once you’ve passed it, nobody pesters you. Instead, people smile at you with angelic looks on their face. I immediately felt welcome, which was so nice after such a long day of transit.
I kept walking into the town centre, where a woman waved me over to the village’s lone restaurant. She didn’t speak English (very few people here did), but she called over the village’s tour guide for me. The guide is a resident who was born in Awra Amba, left to study and work in the tourism industry, and then returned to start a family. He gives tours of the village’s facilities, explaining its philosophy and history along the way.
The story starts when Zumra Nuru was just three years old. He explains his precocious upbringing in the community’s manifesto (note that while he is illiterate, he dictated this story to other villagers who wrote it):
My mother told me that when I was six months old, I started to walk. At the age of two, I began speaking and asking questions with the ability of an adult person. At the age of four, I forwarded my thoughts to the surrounding communities, and I discovered four basic principles, including respecting women’s equality, respecting children’s rights, helping people who are unable to work due to health problems or aging, and changing bad behaviour. However, the people living in the surrounding areas did not like my ideas. Instead, I was ostracised for my ideals.
This pattern went on and on, with Nuru explaining that no adults could answer his questions about life. The story might sound overrated, or partially fabricated, or boring, or mythical, or whatever, but the village is very much real. The four basic principles he outlined as a child really have been put into practice, and the results speak for themselves.
At the age of 13 he left his family to wander around the country as a vagabond, in a desperate search for like-minded people. Many years later in 1972, he finally came across a group of farmers near Lake Tana who were receptive to his ideas. After several months, they established Awra Amba.
People in the surrounding area were not pleased with Awra Amba’s positions regarding organised religion and gender roles. In the late 80s they were reported to the authoritarian Derg regime as members of the Woyane opposition (formally known as the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, which now oversees the current authoritarian regime ). The Derg set out to assassinate members of the village, who were in turn forced to flee in early 1988.
When they returned in 1993, they discovered the farmland that sustained Awra Amba had been seized by members of the surrounding communities. District authorities set out to equally reallocate farmland in the wake of the Derg’s collapse, but the people appointed to undertake this task supposedly struck a deal with the communities surrounding Awra Amba to keep the land in their hands.
The community became plagued by starvation and disease with residents dying at an alarming rate. To sustain itself, the village turned to weaving for extra income. This became another exercise in gender equality as weaving is traditionally a man’s job. But in Awra Amba, women weave both in the village’s shared textile factory as well as at home. This is now the village’s main source of income, with textiles sold in neighbouring towns as well as to visitors.
After waiting about half an hour while half of the village scrambled to find the key, I was taken to Awra Amba’s guest reception room. The walls are filled with Zumra Nuru’s quotes in both English and Amharic, as well as a photo of the man himself that would not look out of place in Pyongyang or Tiennamen Square. My initial rection to this photo was to blurt out: “is he dead?” “No,” the guide said, rolling his eyes and sighing a bit. “Would it be possible to meet him?” I asked. The guide didn’t seem so sure. I think I had just blown my chance. Oops.
The next stop on the tour was Awra Amba’s kindergarten. While children in surrounding communities may be expected to work from a young age, every child in Awra Amba is entitled to an education. Students whose families cannot afford supplies receive financial assistance from the community’s charity.
Fitting with the community’s philosophy, the curriculum encourages children to find both logical and creative solutions to social problems, in addition to the usual subjects. At the end of each school day, children recite an oath not to steal and work collaboratively. Sounds weird, but it’s still way better than the pledge of allegiance IMO.
The rights of children in Awra Amba also extend outside of the classroom. Every adult makes an effort to acknowledge and respect the opinions of children, who may also head fortnightly meetings between neighbours to solve disputes.
Children at the age of three or four would be given work beyond their capacity. When the work was not done properly because of their inability to do it, they were told off. Why did they fail? Without considering their capacity to do the work, they would be physically punished…
Out parents didn’t give us a chance to study. This really affected our lives. We shouldn’t repeat this situation to our children.
Next was the village’s aged care facility, which, while modest, provides safe and dignified care free of charge. In the surrounding communities, the elderly are expected to be cared for by their children, and those who are not in that situation are left to fend for themselves. In Awra Amba, these people instead become the responsibility of the entire community. The community’s aged care system has become so successful that it has even taken two people form the surrounding communities free of charge.
I observed people who were unable to work and who would fall on the ground because of ageing and health problems. The people who were able to work and to support themselves enjoyed eating, drinking and laughing with one another. But nobody was thinking about the people in need. These people are human beings just like we are. They also need to eat and drink as we do. However, they have no capability to work. If we ignore them, who will come to their help?
Houses in Awra Amba are also modest. Constructed in the typical style of adobe (mud) walls around a wooden scaffold, they each consist of two rooms: a kitchen and a living area. All fittings are made from a light but robust combination of three parts mud and one part ash.
There is some inequality between families’ homes, however. Some have running water and/or electricity, while others go without. This stems from the community’s two-tiered membership system.
Residents may choose to live by the social rules of Awra Amba as a community member, while others may choose to go further by pooling their labour and income as a cooperative member. Once a year, each member of the cooperative receives the same income regardless of their job. The remaining money is reinvested into the community’s industries (namely textile production).
This system is one of the reason why Awra Amba is such a successful utopian community where others have failed; people aren’t forced to commit financially, or they can try before they buy, so to speak. Furthermore, residents are free to come and go as they please without fear of ostracisation. In fact, residents are encouraged to leave when they become adults to work, further their education and just generally expand their horizons. Most return to start families, unsurprisingly.
Within the cooperative, work is assigned based purely on ability rather than age or gender. In start contrast to the rest of the country, men cook and women weave, and the oldest member is a cattle herder in his 90s! The cooperative controls the textile factory, restaurant, village shop and guest accommodation, among other things.
Finally, I was shown the textile factory, where men and women weave alongside each other. This equal distribution of work between men and women extends into the home, where men are equally responsible as women for housework and raising children.
My mother and father were farmers. In farming the land, they worked together. In the evening, when they returned home, my father was done for the day. But my mother’s work continued into the house. My mother’s duties were cooking wot, baking injera, collecting firewood, fetching water, nursing babies, washing my family’s feet, grinding grains by hand and more. These house tasks were my mother’s regular duties.
In addition to these my father would also give her further tasks, when we slept during the night; she stayed up and finished her work. At dawn she would wake up early and start the tasks that needed to be done during the daytime. Even if she worked around the clock, she was not able to finish all of the house work. If she did not finish something on time, my father would scold her. “What are you doing sitting here?” She was assaulted, insulted, cursed at and sometimes beaten. When I observed this situation, I couldn’t tolerate what was going on. Did my mother have more energy than everyone else? House work was only her duty, nobody else’s. Farm work was shared between my mother and my father. The children who lived and were cared for in the house were both f their children. Why didn’t my father help my mother with the house work when she helped him with the farm work? When she failed to accomplish all those house duties and farm work, why did he beat her? Does my mother have extra strength? Why didn’t my father at least wash his feet by himself? I couldn’t find a way to help my mother.
The tour was really eye-opening, and I was inspired by how such a small village had achieved so much. But I still had one question on my mind, so I put it to the guide: are gay and lesbian people also treated equally?
While the question didn’t make him angry or uncomfortable, he immediately dismissed it as being illegal in Ethiopia. I followed up: “but how would they be treated in Awra Amba?” “We’ve never had this issue, no one in Awra Amba does this,” he replied. “What if a girl born in the village grew up to love girls, or a boy grew up to love boys?” I asked. “Because the village is small, we can control it,” he said.
While his wording might sound sinister, he seemed to mean it in a more open-minded way that can be conveyed through text. And in a country where same-sex sexual activity can lead to 15 years in prison, this might not be such a bad response.
There are no churches or mosques in Awra Amba. While everyone is spiritual, organised religion is banned and people do not express faith publicly. Essentially, they believe that God and Allah are one and the same, and that he is to be found everywhere and in everything. “I couldn’t understand why I should build a house in one particular place, where I could go inside to meet the creator if he was to be found everywhere,” Nuru explains in the community’s manifesto.
Nevertheless, some women still wear loose hijabs while some men wrap themselves in white blankets worn by Ethiopian Orthodox churchgoers and pilgrims. Awra Amba’s religious philosophy isn’t intended to be restrictive, but rather inclusive, and it shows. Below is an account from Nuru’s childhood explaining why he shuns organised religion:
My parents were Muslims but they had Christian relatives. They were living in the same village. They drank coffee together, worked together, their children played together. So once I went to my Christian neighbours’ house and found the children eating. Their parents didn’t give me any of the food because they knew that I was a Muslim. But their children didn’t know about this. The food was meat; I knew what meat was but I didn’t know about Muslims and Christians. The meat was delicious and I ate it. If I had finished eating all the meat before I returned home, it would have been better. But I returned to my house carrying the remaining meat. As my mother saw me she said, “where did you get this meat?” I replied, “I found it at out neighbour’s house and the children gave it to me.” I thought it would be as delicious to her as it was to me. My mother cried: “Oh! It is a Christian’s meat!”
Even though I told her I liked it, she snatched the meat from my hand, holding it with a leaf in order not to touch it, and threw the meat away. As my eyes stared at the meat, a hen picked it up and then a dog snatched it and took it away. My mother washed my hands as I had touched Christian meat, in order not to get her utensils dirty.
I asked: “Mother, why did you snatch my meat?”
“Since it was Christian meat.”
“What is meant by a Christian?”
“A Christian is a human being.”
“What about us? Aren’t we human beings?”
“We are Muslims.”
“Isn’t a Muslim also a human being?”
“Yes, we are also human beings.”
“So I ate what human beings eat. Why did you snatch my meat?”
“I told you Christian meat is not to be eaten!”
“What meat to Christians eat?”
“Christians eat cow’s meat.”
“What meat do we eat?”
“Muslims also eat cow’s meat.”
“If all human being eat cow’s meat, and if all of us are human beings, why did you snatch my meat?”
Interestingly, drugs and alcohol are banned in Awra Amba as part of Nuru’s belief in eradicating conflict and antisocial behaviors. Sex before marriage is also a no-go. Women can marry at 19, and men at 20, but both parties must consent (which might sound weird, but keep in mind arranged marriages are a thing). Divorce is allowed, and it’s not restricted to exceptional circumstances.
For me, part of the appeal of Awra Amba is it being a remote and quaint village. This was an unintended benefit, really.After spending days in buses going around the country, it was really nice to finally experience the type of villages I kept seeing out the window.
Awra Amba is far away from the road, and there are no cars or heavy machinery. Nobody yells or blows horns, and there are no religious chants to be heard. The village is simply quiet and peaceful. Wandering around, nobody every bothered me, with everyone instead smiling and giving the occasional “hi!”
So how is Awra Amba governed. Is it a cult? Is it Zumra Nuru’s personal fiefdom? No and no. Thirteen democratically-elected, autonomous committees govern the community, with each committee responsible for different things such as taking care of orphans, hygiene and sanitation, assigning work to the cooperative members, and managing the lost and found.
Positions on the committees are unpaid, performed in addition to a primary job and elected triennially. When I probed the guide about how much influence Nuru has over these committees, he explained that while they usually respect his wisdom, there have been instances when they have gone against his suggestions.
To me, this system resembles Murray Bookchin’s philosophy of libertarian municipalism both in theory and in practise (I’m no expert so don’t quote me on that ugh). The difference is that Bookchin began to formulate these concepts in the 70s, while at the same time the people of Awra Amba were actively applying them.
Breakfast was another interesting interaction. After finding the village cook, I asked for breakfast by saying a bunch of Amharic and English food names in the hope they’d have something. There are no menus and he didn’t speak any English. The cook, who was extremely friendly (if a bit shy) waved someone over from the village centre to act as an interpreter.
This guy spoke hardly any English himself, and after listening to me and the cook unsuccessfully, he just asked me if I wanted pancakes. It wasn’t what I expected, nor what I was even asking for, but on no planet would I ever turn pancakes down. After a longish wait—I was the only customer in the village, after all—I was presented with a single, thin pancake (not a crepe, I promise) with sliced banana. It was definitely nice, but it’s one of those situations where the thought counts more than the result, in my opinion.
I should probably also mention the accommodation. It’s basically the same style of building that residents live in, i.e. basic except for the fact that the walls were painted. The walls are also covered in children’s drawings, which was really cool!
Most importantly, these rooms were absolutely spotless. It was by far the cleanest accommodation I had in Ethiopia, which quite a feat considering the walls and bed are literally made of mud and ash. It’s also insanely cheap (less than ETB 100, if I can remember correctly).
To leave Awra Amba, I walked back down the dirt track to the main road. From there, I waited to catch the next bus heading for Worota. While waiting, one of the local farmers walked up to his fence and started screaming “HEY! YOU! FARANJI” non-stop. Normally this is a pretty common experience for a foreigner in Ethiopia, and similar things happen in many other countries. But this man was extremely aggressive. He didn’t just want my attention—he seemed legitimately angry at me.
At the same time an elderly man and a small child walked up beside me and shook my hand. It turned out they were also waiting for a bus. This man spoke no English, but he gestured that the young boy was his grandson. I asked if they were from Awra Amba and he nodded proudly. This would be my last reminder of how different Awra Amba is from the surrounding area, and the less-tangible benefits of working collaboratively towards equality, benefits which we all could learn form in my opinion.
When I go on the next minivan, the conductor actually had heard of Awra Amba and was shocked that someone had visited it. He knew little about it but was full of questions—“How was it? Was it really good?”
This guy was actually so nice and helpful, and he even asked the next minivan driver at Worota to give me a front seat for the drive to Bahir Dar. He was also one of the only bus conductors throughout my whole trip to help my tie my backpack to the roof. And no, he didn’t try to overcharge me or ask for a tip, he was just another example of the immense kindness, helpfulness and generosity I experienced around the country.
Ethiopia and utopia. There’s got to be a pun in there, right? Probably, but the reality of Awra Amba is so much more fascinating. It’s a quint village and immense learning experience rolled into one.
Update: I’ve just come across this fantastic initiative to share Awra Amba with the world. The Awra Amba Experience is an immersive, interactive website which allows people to explore this amazing village. It’s beautifully made and really does take me back to when I was there. It’s also a great tool for students. I encourage you all to sign up now!