In 2010, French researcher Robert Joumard published an article entitled Awra Amba, an Ethiopian Utopia. He wrote: «The Ethiopian village of Awra Amba is a well established community with a truly extraordinary life style, especially in terms of equality between men and women, community spirit, absence of religion, honesty, hard work, democracy and even ecology».
Although a Utopia - literally - is a non-existing-place, Awra Amba can be reached, and pretty easily too. Everybody had heard of it at Bahir Dar's bus station: in order to get there, I was told, I simply had to take a minibus heading to Debre Tabor. That is what I did one sunny July morning: as I got on, the minibus quickly left the city and after about one hour, the driver dropped me off by a rusty post.
From that point, I had to walk for two kilometres, which I did chatting to a kid and an old man. The latter turned out to be Sisay, one of the founders of the community; he is 96 years old and still working as a farmer.
Once in the village, I was welcomed by a young guide, Asnake, as visitors are not allowed to roam freely in Awra Amba. It reminded me that, in Thomas More's masterpiece, foreigners need the help of a local guide to reach the island of Utopia, navigating through the perilous submerged rocks that surround it.
The guided tour starts from a hall where the visitor is introduced to Awra Amba's history and values. Handwritten posters explain the simple, although ambitious, vision underlying the community's everyday life.
I was also handed a two-page summary, written in English. I have copied the text here below and divided it in paragraphs, adding short titles and comments to each:
The founder, Zumra Nuru, and his four basic principles
Honorable Doctor Zumra Nuru is the founder of the Awra Amba Community. When he was six months old, he started to walk. At the age of two, he began speaking and asking questions with the ability of an adult person. At the age of four, he discovered four basic principles: respecting women's equality, respecting children's rights, helping people who are unable to work due to health problems or ageing, and changing bad behavior.
Zumra Nuru, now a seventy year old charismatic leader, was born in a Muslim family in Semada, a district in the South Gondar Zone of the Amhara State. His community is based on humanistic principles and its members are not followers of any religion; nonetheless, the description of his superhuman childhood presents him as an almost mythological being.
Zumra Nuru's parents
His mother and father were farmers. On the farm, they worked together. In the evening, when they returned home, his father was done for the day. But his mother's work continued in the house. His mother's duties were cooking wot (traditional sauce), baking injera (traditional pancake), collecting firewood, fetching water, nursing babies, washing his family's members feet, grinding grains by hand etc. These house tasks were his mother's regular duties. 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, his father would insult, curse at and sometimes beat her. When he observed this situation, he couldn't tolerate what was going on. He said “House work was only her duty, nobody's else. Farm work was shared between my mother and my father. The children who lived and were cared for in the house were both of 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?” When he examined life outside his family he realized that it was exactly same in other families.
This is the first of four paragraphs in which the origin of the above mentioned four principles is traced back in Zumra Nuru's childhood experiences.
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. Without considering their capacity to do the work, they would be physically punished. At that time, he started asking questions why this was happening to children. “Aren't they also human beings? Why are they given work beyond their capability and then punishing them?”
People with ageing and health problems
He 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. He said “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? If we leave them behind when they need us, then perhaps in the future we may also be in their situation. When we are old and sick, we will need people to help us. As we will need help from others, why don't we help those who are in need?”
The basic concept (indeed a revolutionary one for the traditional Ethiopian society in the 1970s) is that women, children, the elderly and the sick are human beings like men, with the same rights.
He saw and heard people insulting, cursing, lying, stealing, snatching, beating and sometimes killing one another. When we do to others what we don't want to happen to us, what is it that differentiates us from animals? If we don't think to our relatives, and if we do bad things to our relatives, what makes us better than animals?
The reaction of his parents
When he was promoting his principles his parents said, “You don't like [how?] other people think. You don't want to do what other people do. If you are already like this now, we don't know what you are going to do in the future. We don't think that you are doing these deliberately; so you must be mentally ill.” When they told him he was mentally ill, he started doubting himself if he really had a mental problem. But he couldn't figure out his illness. All he said was let us trust, collaborate, cooperate with one another, so how is he ill? Being considered he was ill, he stayed with his parents for many years.
First attempt to get out of intellectual loneliness
When he turned thirteen, he was desperate to meet some like-minded human beings. To satisfy his desire, he decided to go and find people that might share his ideas. Hoping to find such individuals, he traveled to Gojam, Wollo and to Gonder and spoke about his ideas with the people in different social gatherings away from his parents for about five years. When he did this, even if people didn't say he was mentally ill unlike his parents said him, they said: “What is this child saying? He has big ideas but who would ever put them into practice?” He couldn't find people to accept his ideas. He wished that he could get people to hear him out or at least ask him what he had in mind. But he couldn't achieve either.
Back to the village
He decided to return to his home village and became a farmer, like his parents. They thought that he was mentally ill because he had traveled from place to place on his own. When he eventually asked them to find him a fiancée they said if he was thinking of marriage, then he must be cured from his madness. They soon found a fiancée for him and he got married. He thought he would find peace within himself if he shared his harvest with elderly people or those who are struggling with health problems. When his parents saw him giving his harvest away to those in need, they said to him he hadn't been cured after all; the disease that he had caught could not be healed. They said that he didn't eat and drink well or wear good clothing. He was giving it away to non-relatives.
He asked them, “Among us human beings, whom do you consider a relative and whom do you not consider a relative?” For him, everyone is equal. Nobody can decide whether they are black or white. Making someone black or white is the task of the creator. Being black or white is not only for us humans but also for other creatures. Humans originated from Adam and Eve, and we all stem from the same root. Then, how can human beings not to be related? As he asked this questions, he was told that he was unable to distinguish between relatives and non-relatives because he was mentally ill. They said that after seven successive generations you are no longer related. He said, “Who decides the moment when humans are no longer related after seven generations? When you reach the seventh generation, who says you will no longer be related? Humans have created the idea that we are not related if we are not from the same family. This notion brings about hostility; and hostility brings about fight. Human beings frighten other human beings just like ferocious animals. I thought that if we could live by considering all human beings as sisters and brothers, there would not be any difference or hostility among human beings.”
From ostracism to the foundation of a new community
When he realized this discrimination among human beings, he felt lonely. He was ostracized by the community due to his unique ideas. He couldn't live in such isolation. He still believed that he would be able to find people who would accept his ideas. He began travelling again during the dry season, returning home in the rainy season. He spent several years traveling. Then, one year, he was traveling from his village to Gondar and he came across some farmers in Fogera district who listened to him. When he realized they shared his vision, he kept going back to them several times to discuss his ideas with them in details. He thought that if he went there and llived with them, his wish might come true. So he left Estie district and went to live in Fogera district in 1972 with these people. This is when the Awra Amba community was established.
The rights of women
The first concept Zumra and his friends discussed was about respecting the rights of women. Woman in her femininity is a mother, and a man in his masculinity is a father. As they become mother and father. Why did the woman become a nursemaid and man become a commander? If this is because of physical strenght, let us use this strenght to work. If there is no mother, there is no father either. If calling women our wives gives the impression that they are distant relatives, let us call them our mothers. Therefore, woman and man (mother and father) both should have equal rights.
The eradication of conflict
The second topic of their discussion was how to eradicate conflict from the world, and how they can bring about peace and paradise on earth. The people who listened to his ideas asked him how conflict could be eradicated. He replied that conflict has no root. Conflict is the product of our imagination. Instead of imagining conflict in our mind, let us imagine love. The causes for conflict are bad speeches and bad deeds. We don't like it when someone does something wrong to us, so we should also avoid bad speech and bad deeds. If we live in such a way, conflict will not exist.
Achieving peace on earth
The next question his friends asked him was how we could bring about peace. He answered that peace can be achieved when the human race treats each other as brothers and sisters. If someone has a problem, all of us should lend our hands to solve that person's problem. This will make that person happy. Seeing someone feeling happy is our wealth. We should share his/her happiness. When we live harmoniously and act lovingly with one another, we feel delighted. Having created delighted life, we will bring about peace. If we bring about peace, we can bring about the paradise we want to have. Bringing about paradise is what we do before death. After death paradise cannot be created. Avoiding conflict and bringing about peace cannot be expected to descend from the sky. We have to make the effort to achieve this when we are alive.
Putting ideas into practice, facing hostility
As the result of their discussions his friends agreed on the ideas that he brought forward. The members made a promise to put these ideas into practice. When they started practicing their shared principles the people that resisted their ideology became obstacles for them to move forward. Even if the antagonists tried to harm them, they continued struggling to reach their ideas to educated people. Who do they mean by “educated people”? They mean academic intellectuals or religious leaders. They decided to sacrifice their life, until the educated people would hear their concepts, because when educated people hear and believe in an idea they will raise it. As time went on, the neighboring people continued their antagonistic hostility towards Zumra and his friends and they reported them to the Derg regime, the ruling government in Ethiopia at that time, claiming that they were members of “woyanie”, the rival front of the Derg regime. Thus the Derg regime decided to assasinate us.
The first community was made up of 66 individuals. In 1974, Emperor Haile Selassie was ousted by a military coup and power was seized by the Derg [committee], led by Colonel Menghistu Haile Mariam.
Escape and death
This resulted in us having to flee our village in Februray 1988. We went down to the southern part of Ethiopia, Bonga. When there is migration there is no occupation; when there is no occupation, there is no money. At that time we had nothing to eat, nothing to drink and we had no money for medicines or treatment when we were sick. During this period we lost most of our members and we buried their bodies under bushes. Despite this difficult circumstance, we were determined to continue our goal to reach educated people with our ideas.
A difficult return
In August 1993, we returned to our original place of residence, Awra Amba. When we came back, we found our farmland was occupied by nearby farmers. We applied to the Woreda [district], Zone and regional administrative organs in ordere to get our farmland back. The Woreda administration gave us only 17.5 hectaresof land to reside on. We didn't get enough land for agricultural purpose.
As a result we had no source of revenue and we suffered from starvation and disease. During this time, a large number of our community members died. At last we realized that we could not live only by farming, that we had to take up something else to survive. We decided to shift our focus to weaving.
Colonel Menghistu had been overthrown in 1991 by the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front.
The most striking aspect of the story so far is the unity and determination of the community, despite the terrible experiences its members had to go through; in 1993, the community was reduced to about thirty people.
A childhood dream comes true
From 1972 to 2001, we struggled to share our ideology. But in 2001, many journalists started coming here and they disseminated our ideas in different media. One of the most successful dissemination of our idea to the Ethiopian people was broadcasted on a local television channel called Amhara TV in 2001.
Spreading Honorable doctor Zumra Nuru's basic principles throughout the country allowed him to achieve one of his childhood visions, which was to find people interested in his ideas. He missed this at the beginning of his childhood. Since then, his dream has been to make people curious about his ideas and to get them to put this ideas into practice. Even if the people are not yet practicing the ideas, people are interested in them. In the last decade many people throughout the world heard about his ideas through different media such as magazines, journals, radios, televisions and the Internet. This is the first step for him. Getting human beings to know about his basic ideas is only the beginning. Those we are talkingabout are what we are practicing.
Levels of membership
In the Awra Amba community there are two level of membership. One is Community Member and the other is Cooperative Member. The difference is that community members live either in Awra Amba or in other places by sharing and disseminating the values, principles, rules and regulations of the community to the areas in which they live. On the other hand cooperative members all live together in Awra Amba and work communally, whether they are strong or weak in order to bring about holistic economy, love and peaceful developments.
514 people are now living in Awra Amba. 167 of them are Cooperative Members; they work eight hours per day and they all get the same wage, regardless of the job: farmer, weaver, shopkeeper, driver and so on. They can earn extra money by working in their spare time. It is up to the cooperative members to decide if an applicant is to become a new member, after a probationary period. The community membership is open to anybody who shares the values of the community, but, due to lack of land and jobs, only a very small number of people asking to move to Awra Amba are accepted each year.
The five fundamental ideas
The Awra Amba community lives according to Zumra Nuru's five ideas that are put into practice. These include the equality of women, respecting children's rights, caring for those who are unable to work due to ageing or health problems, avoiding bad speech and bad deeds (doing things to others which you would want done to yourself and not doing to others what you dislike to be done to yourself), accepting all human beings as brothers and sisters regardless of their differences and living in solidarity with everyone.
The charity fund
The Community Members have a fund called “Lewegen Derash”. This fund is meant to support people who are unable to work, for treatment of sick people who have no money, for providing educational materials for children and the like. The purpose of Lewegen Derash is reaching out to those who face serious problems and to provide them relief from that problem.
It is interesting to note that people unable to work are helped regardless of their age.
Achieving peace through dialogue
Twice a month, the community members participate in a family discussion about peace. The agenda for the discussion includes for instance how to divide household tasks or family activities, or how to avoid bad speech and bad deeds. The family discussion are a key tool to bring about peace and development throughout the world by discussing and solving problems at the family level. We believe that peace can be created all over the world if everyone participates in family discussions.
Time for a comparison: how many steps towards equality and peace the European societies have taken so far? Quite a lot, I think, in the twentieth century, and we must be proud of them. It is obviously much more difficult to achieve equality in a large country than in a small village. Still, other steps have to be taken to reach full respect of women, children and fellow human beings in general. Peace is at the heart of Utopia, and peace is not everywhere in European societies, workplaces, schools, families.
In the community marriage shall be entered with the full consent of the couple at the age of 19 or above for females and 20 or above for males. There is no wedding ceremony to mark the marriage. The couple continues their usual work activities. Therefore, no time or economy is wasted. Before marriage the female and the male should abstain from having sexual relations. After marriage neither the husband nor the wife should have any other sexual partner except the spouse.
The guide explained to me that community members can marry non-members from outside, but in that case the couple will be allowed to live in Awra Amba only if the spouse accepts the values of the community.
The Community believes in the existence of one creator that created the sky and the earth, night and day, female and male, air, sun and all the creatures that exist on earth. Our belief is conveyed by good deeds. Therefore we live by doing good deeds to people and avoid doing bad deeds. The community practices the golden rule: Do unto others as you would do unto yourself.
Grief, happiness and death
In the community every person shares the grief or the happiness of any other individual. The community tries to fulfill the needs of a person in his lifetime as much as possible. If someone is ill, we do the best to find ways to make him/her heal from his/her illness. If a person dies despite our best efforts to try and heal him/her people may burst into tears. But there is no extreme mourning period. While enough people attend the burial, the remaining community members will support the family of the deceased to help them forget their grief. After the burial ceremony, the family of the deceased will go together with other people to their regular work place. This is done to make them forget their grief. At this time, the mourning ceremony ends.
I asked to a senior representative of the community what happens to a member of the community if he/she does not follow the rules of the community concerning the religious belief or the sexual behaviour before marriage. If someone in the community does not follow all the rules of the community - I was answered -, he/she will not be regarded as a community member. If his/her act opposes the values of the community, he/she will be advised to return to the former community from which he/she came from.
I posed another question: is there room for a change of these rules in the future? Yes there is - the reply was -. If, through discussion, we find values or ideas which are much better for the well being of mankind than those that we have now, we can replace them by the best ones.
Is life in the village coherent with the principles of the founders? I cannot answer because I only spent two days there and saw what I was showed by the guide. I would say the community looks peaceful; there is no distinction between “male” and “female” jobs, children are not exploited, kids go to secondary school and about twenty people got a degree, eight elderly people are cared for in a specific building, a lunch break is enjoyed by everybody.
Anyway, it is not easy to distinguish between a community's wishes and reality. A comprehensive analysis of the community's life – with its contradictions - can be found in the above mentioned Joumard's article.
An update is perhaps necessary: alcohol, cigarettes, khat and even coffe are not allowed in Awra Amba because they are considered addictive and there is no apparent trace of consumerism; nonetheless, a youg man told me about his addiction to social networks. I wonder if they will be banned too and, if so, how.
When I was in Awra Amba, the electricity was off; apparently, it happens quite often. At eight o'clock in the evening, some people were still chatting in the dark room of the small café. In a few minutes, everybody went home; I spent some time in the alleys of the village, alone, in the dark. Very peaceful.