My Ethiopian guide had mentioned a possible visit to the village of Awra Amba. I had never heard of the place, so I looked it up on the Internet. When I learned that it was a “utopian” community in northern Ethiopia, I decided I to pay a visit. I had previously traveled to a similar “utopian” enterprise–Gaviotas–in Colombia in 2010.
So in early February 2015, my Ethiopian guide Derebe and I stopped briefly at Awra Amba, located just off the northwestern end of the Addis Abba-to-Lake Tana highway.
Ethiopian Zumra Nuru founded Awra Amba over 40 years ago as an alternative developmental model to what then existed in northern Ethiopia. He wanted his community to be based on:
- gender and social equality,
- absence of organized religion,
- emphasizing hard work,
- highly valuing education, and
- caring for the elderly.
Eager to get the “inside scoop,” representatives from organizations like the Ethiopian government, the World Bank, developmental organizations like Oxfam International, and the new’s media (particularly European) frequently visit the village in an effort to discover its secrets to success.
Derebe and I arrived at Awra Amba just after lunch, and were immediately ushered to the visitor’s center. Yes, this community of approximately 460 has a visitor’s center. We were charged a very modest tour fee and then assigned Asnake–a young man in his twenties–as our tour guide. On the wall of the visitor center were the sayings of Zumra Nuru.
We started our tour by peeking in on their nursery school. The facility was nice and clean, and students were happy and friendly. Outdoors was a small playground facility.
Next we toured the senior living facility. At the time, there were 7 seniors living in what would be considered a very modest assisted living center. In this small building, each had their own enclosed place to bunk. I asked about the ages of the seniors, and Asnake said he didn’t know. Because of limited records, estimating the age of seniors in Ethiopia is not always an exact science. The guide mentioned that 5 of the seniors were from Awra Amba, and 2 were from nearby communities.
Since I’m almost 70, I asked if I could move into the Awra Amba assisted-living center. The guide indicated that since I looked reasonably healthy that I would be required to work. I told him I was tired and just needed a place to live out the remainder of my life. His smiling response was: “We don’t have room for the lazy.”
Awra Amba’s model is highly egalitarian. Most of the village’s labor force–which in the early days concentrated on agriculture–works communally, money is reinvested back into village projects and the profits split evenly. The village is run through a series of committees which determine bylaws and make village decisions.
After visiting one of the homes, which was equipped with a very environmentally friendly stove/oven, we walked over to the community’s hostel and cafe which is provides board and room for visitors. The cost to stay in Awra Amba is quite modest.
The communities major industry is weaving. We were shown various components of the operation and then escorted to a store, where the community’s woven products can be purchased. Adjacent to the store was a computer center. But the village only has a slow-speed internet hookup. So the computers are of limited use.
I asked Asnake about the problems and needs of the community. He indicated that they needed to diversify their economy further, beyond agriculture and weaving; he specifically mentioned improved shops (repair, metal, and wood).
One of Awra Amba’s major innovations (or trouble areas) is their disconnecting of community and religion. The community does not have a mosque or a church; it has no organized religion. In neighboring Christian and Muslim villages, the residents respect the Sabbath and holidays. And Ethiopia has frequent religious holidays. But on those days, in Awra Amba, the villagers work.
The traditional religions and culture in Ethiopia segregate gender roles. But Awra Amba embraces gender equality. You can see women plowing the fields, a job traditionally considered men’s work, and men running the weaving machines.
The lack of religion is not the only competitive advantage for Awra Amba. The village invests a lot of energy into educating its children and diversifying the economy. The village has a mill, where grain is ground into flour. There is the previously mentioned textile factory where villagers make clothes and bedding for themselves and to sell. There is also the tourist hostel and cafe. With all of these businesses, Awra Amba has managed to pull itself out of poverty. The average income in the village is twice that of the surrounding region.
By ignoring the region’s customs, Awra Amba has found itself occasionally under attack. Some neighbors view the residents as heathens, and in the past the animosity has turned violent. But reports are that relations between the village and its neighbors have recently improved.
But has all this come at too high a price? Gerebe, my Ethiopian guide, thinks it has. Ethiopia has a very venerable form of Orthodox Christianity. It is a colorful, and to many, an important part of daily life. Islam also has deep roots. Ideally, it would be great to see Awra Amba’s innovations integrated into the more traditional culture, particularly for those who want or need religion.
I wonder also about the “cult of personality” that has developed around the founder Zumra Nuru. What will happen when he passes away? I’m a little uncomfortable having his sayings posted all over the walls in the visitors centers. I’m not a real slogan-type guy.
So is Awra Amba a potential utopia? One definition of utopia is: “a community or society possessing highly desirable or near perfect qualities.” In many context, these communities are imaged as a sort of static perfection. For this reason, libertarian transhumanists developed the idea of an “extropia,” an open, evolving society allowing individual and voluntary groupings to establish the institutions and social forms they prefer. The keyword in this definition is “evolving.”
It is impossible to make any real observations after a two-hour visit, but it would appear that Awra Amba is on to something, and perhaps it is more of an extropia than a utopia. It would be interesting and beneficial to further assist the community and its neighbors with the diversification of their economies. Particularly, investing in improved technology. This could be accomplished at a fairly low cost. This would make for an interesting, evolving, and continuing social experiment.