Awra Amba, Ethiopia: A True City Upon a Hill

Awra Amba (pronounced: Aw-ramba) is a cooperative society hidden in the rolling hills northeast of Bahir Dar. By all accounts, this is one of the most special places in Ethiopia. Lonely Planet describes it as a utopia hidden away from the typical tourist trail. When I told my Ethiopian friend, Yosi, that I’d gone there, he exclaimed that it is “the best place.”

Our journey to Awra Amba began on Sunday, September 8th, when Yanush, Nathan, and I left Bahir Dar for the town of Woreta, a waypoint on the route between Bahir Dar and Gondar. At Woreta, we sought a microbus headed eastward along the China Road towards Awra Amba, but the microbuses we asked demanded exorbitant rates. So we decided to go the 17 km to the village on foot. It would be great exercise and the countryside was gorgeous, so why not!

Before we’d even exited the Woreta town border, Nathan, Yanush, and I found ourselves surrounded by a throng of children, ages five to fifteen. At first, they just wanted money, but after some time, they were really along for a fun walk with some farenjis. Most of these kids had no shoes, tattered clothes, and were quite dirty. But they were incredibly high-spirited—always laughing, jumping and running around, and eager to get a word or photo from their new foreign friends.

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Nathan and Yanush chillin’ with the child posse we picked up along the way!

A boy named Yeno really stood out to me. He must’ve been only eight years old, but spoke quite decent English and walked virtually the whole way—about 12 km—by my side. Yeno was shoeless like all the rest, but he covered more ground than me, running into roadside culverts, doing cartwheels and flips in the road ahead of me, rushing into a nearby field to pick flowers for me and then rushing back to tie them into my pack. Yeno also liked holding my hand. Even after I said no to hand-holding after a while—we were trying to lose our child posse before we hit Awra Amba—he kept on, walking with a hand on my arm. One time, he and another boy latched onto my arms, so I held my arms upward until their feet dangled above the ground and they were forced to drop off. It was so much fun walking with them. Yeno also helped translate between me and local farmers whom I would ask for directions and time estimates to Awra Amba. He was a really good kid, and I was sad to see him go when we parted ways.

Yeno and me!

Yeno and me!

We finally turned onto the dirt road headed towards Awra Amba’s village center at sunset, and as soon as we did so, I felt the atmosphere changing. We were headed into a more bucolic environment than I’d stayed in in Ethiopia previously, to be sure, but more than that, the disposition of the people around us changed markedly.

The first people we met from Awra Amba were an older man and woman walking in the same direction as us. Unlike the hustling denizens of every other town and city I’d visited in Ethiopia, the couple walked relaxedly (ß haha I made up a word) as though headed someplace where worries were foreign. They treated us with kind smiles that touched their eyes. Closer to the village, we were met by the guest caretaker, a man named Darassa. At first, we feared him to be a hustler. But his kind smile and soft-spoken manner soon won us over. He took us to the airy, mud-walled meeting room, where I had my first shiro—a bean-based dip eaten with Turkish bread or injara—which was absolutely delicious.

Yanush, Nathan, and I spoke with each other and a wonderful Spaniard, Laura, who was staying in Awra Amba for the same period as us. For the first time in a while, I began to feel completely relaxed. Maybe it was Darassa’s genuine way of asking to make sure we were full and happy, or perhaps it was Laura’s evident faith in our hosts’ good intentions…Whatever the reason, I felt at home very quickly that night.

That night, away from all ambient light, I saw the Milky Way for the first time. The sky was positively littered with stars big, small, bright, and twinkling, with the Galaxy itself painted thick across the sky’s center. Looking upward, I felt an intense awareness of how small I am in this universe and an even more intense excitement for all that remains to be discovered in this world and beyond.

I headed back to the guesthouse with Nathan and Laura as clouds rolled. We talked for a while, sharing our stories and reasons for being in Awra Amba that night. Laura was in Ethiopia doing physical therapy with special needs children in a town near Addis. This meaningful work, and the opportunities to build relationships across new cultures and experience something entirely new were her escape from the economic and apparent spiritual depression that afflicts Spain today. I was so impressed. I hope to find the same creativity and determination in myself during times of darkness that she showed in finding and seizing this opportunity to travel in her country’s period of darkness.

I went to bed that night truly carefree.

My room

On a side note: Rule #53 for hosteling in Africa—when wearing a headlamp, never ever look up unless you really want to know how many 6+-legged creatures are spending the night with you.

I awoke the next morning to the sound of a horde of children laughing as they ran to the village’s small schoolhouse. The morning passed with me and Yanush writing beneath an ancient, gnarled tree in the village square. Flies were crawling all over me but I didn’t even care. Roosters’ crows mixed with locals’ conversations, children laughing, and the sound of dozens of donkeys snuffling about nearby. (For the record: I think donkeys are so cute.)

After lunch, we all went on a tour of the village, and learned the history of this incredible place.

Awra Amba is a living manifestation of the ideas of its founder, Zumra. According to community legend, when Zumra was five, he became appalled by the social injustices committed in his small village and decided to create a society where equality directed everyday life. Firstly, Zumra imagined a place wherein all community members treated all other human beings as family members and equals, regardless of gender, age, nationality, or religion. He envisioned a place where work was assigned based on fitness and not gender, so women could feel fulfilled. His village would emphasize the education of youth, and guarantee care rather than abandonment to its elderly and infirm.

Zumra.

Zumra.

Today, the village is a utopia embodying each of these ideas. Within the village, there are two groups: the Community and the Cooperative Society. The Community includes everyone in the village. Community members agree to live by Awra Amba’s ideals, but the profits of their work are their own. The Cooperative Society, members of which are a subset of community members, is actually a communistic organization like the Israeli kibbutzim wherein the profits of the individuals’ collective work are shared. Both groups’ members share the responsibilities of caring for children, the elderly, and the sick. Hard work is fundamental to the success of the village, and everyone’s work supports the Community’s schoolhouse, library, museum, and senior citizens’ home.

The path to the schoolhouse!

The path to the schoolhouse!

We also learned about the mourning process in Awra Amba. When someone passes, only as many people as necessary to complete the burial accompany the deceased’s body to perform burial rites. The remaining villagers stay with the family to share in their sadness because, as the entire village is a family, any loss is a loss for everyone. When they leave the family’s house, the villagers take each family member to their place of work, and help them resume their work at the loom, in the field or elsewhere. I found this mourning process harsh, but genuine to the work-based philosophy of Awra Amba.

After the tour, we took a stroll through the fields around the village. When we returned, we found the village center alive with people dancing and singing, and children playing. I don’t think I have ever been some place where its inhabitants are as consistently happy and kind as in Awra Amba. It was a real privilege to find this human beauty in our wanderings across the globe.

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Despite the clouds, people in the town square were joyous, enjoying each other’s company and playing around the gnarled old tree that marks the middle of Awra Amba.

When we squared the bill the next morning, we learned that we only owed Awra Amba about 220 ETB for two nights’ accommodations and a ton of food and Coca-Colas. Just another reminder that they really saw us as fellow family members, and would treat us as their own in every respect.

I loved Awra Amba. Unfortunately, I don’t think this sort of cooperative society can be scaled-up. The larger such a society gets, the more defectors it will have to contend with, and the harder it will become to police and expel individuals who choose not to abide its principles. Those defectors would poison the effort. That being said, I do think that Awra Amba is an example of what communities of loving, like-minded people can achieve by working together and caring for one another. Theirs is a free society where no one wants for love or sustenance, and I think that speaks for itself. I plan to send a bunch of books from my youth to their burgeoning library. I sure hope they like Animorphs!

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Awra Amba’s burgeoning library.

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