A Visit to Awra Amba: A Cooperative Village

There are four tenets of life in the cooperative Awra Amba village*: Religion is a choice, men and women are equal, kids go to school, and the elderly need to be taken care of in their retirement. These ideas are a part of daily life for the Western visitor, in Northern Ethiopia there is a separate village that practices them.

My guide Samarawit and I were driven 10 kilometers off the main “China Road” (named by those who built it) between Bahir Dar and Gondar in the Amhara state in northern Ethiopia. She listed these tenets and the story of the man, Dr. Zuma Nuru, now in his sixties, who had founded the 400-resident village.

My view of villages had now been formed after four days in Ethiopia. This morning, we’d passed several towns and villages after leaving the Lake Tana town of Bahir Dar. The view from the road followed the same pattern between each: vast farmland tilled by men with a hand-plow pulled by two oxen at the prompting of his whip; women carrying sacks or yellow plastic gallon containers of water on their head; young boys carrying staffs across their shoulders like yokes or whipping groups of goats and cattle; donkeys carrying eucalyptis firewood; and clusters of children moving aside at beeps from passing trucks and cars. Samarawit explained that 75% of the country’s grains come from this area, supplying the main ingredient of the Ethiopian staple injera bread.
Village life

But the Awra Ambra village is not an agricultural village, their self-sustainment was from the textile cooperative, a hotel and restaurant where visitors could stay for a sampling of village life, and a mill where they grind and sell grains from nearby farms. Every resident has a role, a job. There are no churches or mosques, but villagers are free to worship, they just have to travel for it. According to Samarawit, this has drawn the biggest criticism from religious groups, but Dr. Nuru’s reasoning is that religion doesn’t prevent poverty.

Welcome to Awra Amba

We pulled into the village, the only car around. Four boys who looked between ages 4 and 8 joined me at my open door. They were dressed in t-shirts and short pants, some barefoot, some in sandals. “Money, money,” they said meekly. My heart dropped and a thought popped into my head, how real was this cooperative? I pushed the thought aside, maybe they had gotten money once from a tourist and were hopeful that this behavior would repeat with more tourists. I reasoned this because one of the main lessons shared with village children was to not take anything that was not theirs.

Our tour guide Tringu, one of the sister’s of Mr. Nuru’s second wife, showed me the school and the library – two clean, cement buildings filled with world maps, the Amharic alphabet, shapes, colors, the human body, but no children. On the wall of the library was two identical save for the language posters: The Golden Rule spelled out in the major religions of the world: Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, Sikhism, Zoroastrianism…A version of “do unto others as they would do unto you.” A core of the village ethos. I asked, “when do the kids come to the school?” 10 a.m. It was 9:30.

The library

Tringu showed us a village home -three rooms: a kitchen with a stove for a fire, a burner for injera, and a chimney that also boiled water; a bedroom, and a sitting room for guests and day. Tringu sat at a small loom and demonstrated her weaving technique.

We visited the “retirement” home where seven elderly residents lived, sleeping in clean berths and resting the shade. Four women were out, one of them, in her sixties was Dr. Nuru’s first wife. A Ms. Yamrot came out into the daylight to show me her nick tattoos, which she claimed, “sparkled and shown from a distance when she was a young woman.” I took this picture. I thought she still shined.

Ms. Yamrot, a retired woman.

We visited the hotel where one can stay for 40 birr a night (a little less than 3 USD) and there’s a “very clean bathroom and shower.” We were brought to the weaving cooperative, men and women at the looms. This is where the equality is seen – in all my travels to rug and fabric cooperatives or stores in Morocco, Turkey and India, I have never seen a man at the loom, just young, pulsating women whose fingers blurred with wool. Here, men pumped away at the looms same as the village women.

Samarawit explained that it was gender equality that inspired the founding of this village. According to Samarawit, Dr. Nuru had seen his father mistreat his mother, hitting her if her work was not perfect. He wondered why this was when most of the work was done by women in his village. He thought this unacceptable and decided they needed to be treated better, and it became one of the tenets of his utopia.

The founder Dr. Nuru

After the tour, Tringu took me to the shop where I bought a bedspread and pillow cases of the same pattern I had just seen woven in the cooperative factory. We headed towards the car with my purchases to leave. I looked up and saw the kids out in a yard near the school, they were hand-in-hand in a large circle starting the school day. I jogged to them.

About 20 kids were standing in pairs, front to back. I stood behind one pair and put my finger to my lips. The kids were about 4-6 years old, dressed in some form of a blue uniform with short pants and vest, some girls wore basic black or brown dresses. They half smiled when they saw me, I couldn’t tell if I was an intruder or a welcome guest. The teacher, standing in the center smiled. I watched their game – they played a version of musical chairs, having to run to a broken pair and complete it when the teacher’s singing stopped. I joined in and raced with the kids, finding single child to race to and stand behind. They and the teacher warmed up to me, the visitor witnessing for one hour their way of life.

*Full disclosure: My trip is a “familiarization trip” that I am taking on behalf of my employer GeoEx, a high-end, adventure travel company. I am on a customized tour and experiencing the country through hotels, food, and activities as our guests would. These views on the blog are my own.

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