I apologize in advance. This is a long post. But it’s worth it – I promise.
Usually when I travel, I prefer venturing into the unknown, but it always proves to be a challenge. When I was planning my trip to Ethiopia I found a tiny blurb in my friend’s Lonely Planet that went something like this: Awra Amba is a quiet weaving co-operative community that is worth a detour off the beaten path.
Well, say no more. I dragged my new Australian friend with me, as this journey required some hiking and I didn’t want to go it alone. (thanks to Catherine for sharing her pics with me. She took most of the amazing pics below)
When we finally arrived, we sat down and took in some of the village. Everyone seemed very happy and busy, except the school kids, who were on break.
Our morning started out with a tour around the community with a brief history lesson and explanation of how the weaving cooperative works. We finished our afternoon with a meet and greet with the man behind everything, Zuma. I’ll explain this a little backwards starting with Zumra and his reasoning for starting a community like this:
Zumra grew up, like most Africans, in a household where is mother did all the housework, farming and child rearing while her husband was off working and/or drinking in the bar. His father would get home and demand dinner and not participate in any of the household operations. Zuma grew up questioning this way of life. He envisioned a community of equals. Where men and women pitched in. Since his thinking was very radical for the times, he was ostracized and ended up leaving home at 13 in order to find like minded people. He wandered around Ethiopia for five years and finally decided to return home (unsuccessful in his search) to become a farmer. He started working to provide for those less fortunate, giving away most of what he made – which provided the opportunity to be criticized by family and friends. He took to the road again during the rainy seasons in search of his ideal community – one without discrimination. In 1972 he finally found the group he was looking for and founded the Awra Amba community. His basic principles for this community to be successful were:
– respecting the right to equality of women
– respecting children’s rights
– helping people who are unable to work due to old age and health problems
– avoiding bad speech and bad deeds
– accepting all human beings as brothers and sisters
Sounds spectacular doesn’t it? I’m sure you are asking “Well how does this work – especially in Africa?” Here are some key points on how the community works:
The community is based on two kinds of membership: Community members, these members can be from anywhere as long as they subscribe to the beliefs of the community, and Cooperative members, the members that actually live, work and participate in the community.
There are 13 committees that lead the community. Anywhere from Guest Reception and Lost and found property to Edlerly and Oprhans Care and Security and Education. Each committee plays their own role in ensuring the community operates smoothly. They have a committee that identifies problems, one that resolves complaints and even a hygiene and sanitation committee
For work, women and men partake in the same activities as long as they have the physical strength to do so. Men weave, women farm, there are no restrictions. They select workers for each task based on their specific skills, interests and ability to do the job. Gender and age do not matter. To foster this equality, all salaries for any work done in the community go into a communal pot and is distributed throughout the households, committee funds, library, school, and clinic.
They have schools built in the community for the young kids and the high school age kids go to a nearby town of their choosing. When children are finished high school, they have the option to remain with the community, or seek work elsewhere. The majority of them stay based on the strong foundation and principles the community has to offer.
When it is time for marriage, it only occurs at the full consent of the two parties. Either party is welcome to marry outside the community. Women are not allowed to marry before 19 and men 20 – giving them ample time to finish their education and make the decision to marry on their own. Couples are monogamous (a rarity in a lot of African communities). There is no special celebration after weddings – it is recognized as a paperwork activity. All decisions are made equally. In order to get a divorce you have to go through the Complaint Resolving Committee and they will work to help resolve issues before resorting to a divorce.
I think one of the most crucial foundations of the community is that they all care for one another. The community has something called Lewegen Derash, which is a fund that supports the elderly and those unable to work. On a designated day of the week all money raised from activities done within the community (weaving and spinning) are donated to Lewegen Derash. This fund supports things like providing educational materials for children, provide treatment for sick people who have no money, support people who are unable to work and even to help people from outside the community.
Here are some pics of our tour:
My favourite part of the tour was getting to see the weaving happening. It is utterly astounding and I probably could have watched them for hours:
After the tour, we got to meet Zumra and ask him some questions. He was a very interesting man. I think the most intriguing part of his story was that he was fighting hard for a community of peace and equality in an era (1970s) when this was completely unheard of. He has received support from a few other areas in Ethiopia and he knows of one other community that has been inspired by their beliefs and principles, but his dream would be for his community concept to spread around the world!
Catherine and I got to spend the night in the village in some newly constructed dormitories. It was a wonderful experience (except for the flea bites I seemed to accumulate) and we were very pleased with the reception and incredibly humbled by the energy, passion and dedication that all community members seemed to posses for their lifestyle. We were escorted (for the whole 5kms) back to the main road by Zumra’s youngest son (he was 19), who was attending University in Bahir Dar (about 2 hours away). He said that he couldn’t wait to find a wife and build a family in Awra Amba one day.
Once again, sorry for the length of this post, but this was probably one of my favourite highlights of my trip to Ethiopia!