Grassroots peace: the story of Awra Amba

Initially written for MasterPeace blog (here), I’d like to share with you another feature on Ethiopia. While I was researching my route, I realized that people who travel to/through Ethiopia are generally either 1) hate it, or 2) have enough money to go to all those famous places like Lalibela and Danakil and Aksum. I must say, that Ethiopia was quite tough for me as a female traveller, and it was also the funniest place full of legal drugs, crazy disabled people and green beards. Ethiopia doesn’t cease to appear in the headlines with their violations of human rights, arrests of bloggers and journalists and all this tra-la-la. Maybe if places like Awra Amba received more attention the world could become a better place indeed. ____ Tinbualel looked very young. She told me she just got married – of course, after finishing her school. ‘I want to study more later and learn more languages,’ she said in perfect English, and then added: ‘Here, you can leave your bag. And don’t worry, nobody will steal it.’ The day I spent here was probably the only 24 hours of my 8 months in Africa when I finally relaxed. I did not have to be extremely aware of everything that was happening around. I did not have to watch my back. Children did not throw rocks and called me ‘You!’ and ‘Money-money!’ I had a cosy bed in the local guesthouse behind the local bar. In the north of Ethiopia, somewhere between the tourist hub of Lalibela and local lake paradise of Bahir Dar, there is a village called Awra Amba. There are not many villages in the world that have their own website, but Awra Amba is one of them ( IMG_0499_2 Awra Amba is not just a place. It is a community and an idea that sprung to life in 1972, when the village was founded by a man called Zumra Nuru and his fellow like-minded people from Amhara region. Growing up in rural Ethiopia, where gender inequality, materialistic values and religious prejudice prevail, Zumra had to work in the field instead of going to school, watched his mother being abused by the father, and was being told that there is a huge difference between a Muslim and a Christian (the two religions co-exist in Ethiopia on more or less equal rights, but the rift between them is growing bigger). Since the age of four, however, young Zumra was thinking of a way to change this society, to build a world where women and men could do the same job and be treated equally. Where children and the elderly would have care and respect. Where education and peace will be the core values, rather than money and religion. A prosperous society is not where people don’t do a damn thing and still get money flowing into their pockets. A prosperous society is the one where everyone does what they choose to do and gets a fair remuneration for his or her abilities. IMG_0518_2 The road to this life was paved with hardships and strong resistance from the nearby villages. Nuru and his people did not try to ‘convert’ local people or occupy their land. Their only purpose was to find a place to build their community and live in the society they wanted to have. Probably their deliberate lack of religion (neither churches nor mosques are built in Awra Amba, because the Creator doesn’t need housing, but would rather rent a room in your heart), their view of family values and equal rights of men and women, along with multiple other ‘oddities’ made Zumra and his companions mostly unwelcome among local conservative population. But they gained new supporters as well, from the locals and even from far away, and nowadays Awra Amba accounts for about 500 people. Even here, a few kilometers off the highway to Lalibela, Awra Amba is still just a small drop in the ocean of ‘normal’. Normal for Ethiopia, is following the religion of your fathers, living in a male-dominating society, begging foreigners for money. In Awra Amba, instead of a prayer the children sing their anthem before classes:

We growing children don’t take anyone’s property. If we find something lost somewhere, we will turn it back to the owner. We develop ourselves by working collaboratelly and sympathetically. Our peaceful life will progress.

IMG_0508_2 Begging or stealing are considered the worst of all human deeds in Awra Amba. Despite the fact that children in Awra Amba are never forced to work, receive pre-school education and have an open access to the local village library (packed with books in Amharic, literature in English and several textbooks to teach yourself German or French), they attend the same government school as their friends from outside the community. It seems like a significant flaw for a community that wants to put an emphasis on good education, and probably future investments should be focused on introducing an improved teaching system for Awra Amba. Government schools normally have teachers appointed by the ministry, and they may be from any other part of the country. In Ethiopia, students who don’t score enough after examination in grade 10, cannot attend grade 11 and 12 and apply for University. Instead, they are directed to CTT, teacher training colleges, to become teachers. It does not necessarily mean that the most incapable students end up being teachers, it simply means that teachers earn no respect and are considered second-sort students that just didn’t make it through the cut to become professionals with a ‘real job’.

School library
School library

Now after all this, Awra Amba might sound like a sort of sect: once you’re in, you are in forever. Quite on the contrary, the young are encouraged to leave and get University education in big cities, and afterwards they can either return and work for the improvement of Awra Amba community, or continue their endeavors elsewhere. One most inspiring thing about Awra Amba community is that words here do not simply float away into thin air, but actually turn into rationalised actions. Ideas are brought to practice. «In your leisure time you should form a cooperative in which a large number of people can generate a lot of different ideas. These ideas may help you support and foster creativity within your community. As you try to create new things your children will observe you. Hence they do their best to practice what they have observed and learn to create new things. In this way you should lead your children where to go.» (words of Zumra Nuru, as taken from the official website) Women here can work in the field along with the men, as well as men can stay at home and cook food for the family. There is no such thing as ‘woman’s job’ and ‘men’s job’. Many women remark that plowing makes them feel more strong and independent, and men admit that cooking food at home brings them more sense of responsibility. IMG_0525_2 The community has its sustainable food production, and also practices weaving and spinning activities. The income generated by the latter is used as community money to maintain a house for the elderly. Nowadays it has 8 old men and women (some of them are not from within the community) who are looked after by caretakers and visited by their family members. Awra Amba is a perfect example of a grassroots initiative that started with a single idea of an extraordinary person, grew on Ethiopian soil and, as the idea spread in the local and international media, acquired enough support and funding from the outside world.

Zumra Nuru
Zumra Nuru

0 Comments Add yours

  1. psychanaut says:

    Awra Amba Awra Amba Awra Amba . I’m sold.

    1. caorarua says:

      Going there to teach and plow the fields?

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