Growing up in a Northern Ethiopian village, an illiterate farmer named Zumra Neru related on a video titled Awra Amba Experience that he saw men including his father beat and insult their wives, even throw them out, so he wanted to set that right.[i] He started questioning general inequality and cruel punishment of children from the age of four, leading his family to believe he was mentally ill.[ii] He thought it was unfair that his father didn’t help his mother in the home while she worked with him in the fields: “When I was a child, I was furious about what I saw around me” including his father beating his mother when she couldn’t get all her work done on time. His parents threw him out of their home when he was 13.
He said, “I wanted to live in a place where women and men live as equals and where all of our children can go to school. I didn’t want religion and tradition to dictate every aspect of our lives. So I decided to create a place where everyone is respected equally, and works collectively, so we can stand a chance of coming out of poverty.” Some people accepted his idea, Neru said, but his first four wives divorced him him and his family accused him of being mentally ill (he had six wives). He was jailed and attempts were made on his life, but he formed the community called Awra Amba in 1972 with 19 other people he recruited in his travels. The village was attacked and they were forced to leave for several years. They started again in 1993 on their current land. Neighbors didn’t like that he rejected traditional religions for believe in Creator without a worship center. Instead, their website says they “believe in hard work and being good to people. They keep their houses and their surroundings clean.”[iii]
Neru said, “We work for the rights of children and women, to live in a peaceful environment.” Children are treated with respect while traditionally they were thought to be like animals, not to be hit or verbally abused. They’re encouraged to express themselves, especially in family meetings help every two weeks devoted to the children. No gender-based games are played and boys and girls play together; in school both boys and girls prepare tea. Children are expected to help each in their studies and repeat values such as “Children do respect people! Children do enjoy working!” Early marriage isn’t permitted, not before 19 for girls and 20 for boys, and the couple makes the decision to marry, not their families. This means teens go to school rather than start families. Not having a marriage ceremony or dowry saves money. Married couples use contraception and are not expected to have more than four children. Divorce is rare and should be justified to the community. Sex is for married couples only. Girls of course don’t suffer FGM in a country where more than 70% are circumcised. French researcher Robert Journard refers to the community as an experiment in utopian socialism.
Neru turned down donations from large organizations like the UN. To feed themselves, they built a loom to weave clothing and blankets to sell because they were pushed to the most infertile and malaria-infested land. Men traditionally do weaving but in the village both sexes weave, women plow the fields and men bake flatbread. Tshehay Gemar, age 20, is the kindergarten teacher, unmarried, who tells her students that school changed her life.[iv] About three-quarters of the villagers belong to the work cooperative and work five days a week, as well as another day to help the needy and do maintenance. New mothers get three months maternity leave and the village has a nurse who lives in the villages. Work is an important value so children are expected to contribute to the community as well as go to school. They also sell access to their grinding mills to neighboring farmers. In 2001 the media and government started to notice and visit them and tourists add revenue to the village, especially after Nuru was interviewed on national TV around 2006.
Their website shows a chart of the 13 elected committees that run the village with equal representation of men and women. Members serve for three-year terms. One of the committees coordinates weekly charity work done by all members of the community, another identifies “those in trouble,” another coordinates community work, while another helps new mothers, the elderly and the sick. The education committee developed an adult literacy program, a library and preschool. A General Assembly composed of members over the age of 18 coordinates the committees and makes final decisions and Nuru is co-chair. They meet once a week in “development days” under a tree in the village center while spinning cotton. About 500 people lived in the village in 2015 and Nuru is in his 60s, protected by an armed guard. He said, “The people in the area really do not want to see our ideas applied in their villages, even though they respect us more and more.”
[ii] Robert Joumard. Awra Amba, a current experiment of utopian socialism. 2012.hal-00916551
[iv] Daphnee Breythenbach and Ismael Mereghetti, “The Village That Cherishes Women,” Ms. Magazine, Spring 2015.