You could tell it was going to be a spectacular day. Mum had woken up at the crack of dawn to photograph the typically magnificent African sunrise. Looking out over the sea of deep orange haze that rests still between the mountain tops has always given me a feeling of completeness and tranquility – being above the clouds and on top of the world.
After the most inedible hotel buffet breakfast you could ever have imagined, my father and I began the 2 hour 4×4 venture through the rural landscapes, south from Gonder to a little community in Awra Amba. I had heard about this community previously in Addis and been very interested in paying them a visit and learning more about their unique values and ideas (unique to Ethiopia that is).
We made a few eventful stops on the way though some small villages. It was Saturday which meant MARKET DAY! Aka sensory overload! The vast array of aged faces, smells, haggling screams, bleating animals and movement – where the rawness of life and living it smacks you right across the face. There were people everywhere, much like any community around the world but maybe a little different somehow. Spirited children running around, gossiping women, cheeky young boy punks, giggling teenagers, drunken men drowning themselves in laughter and local spirits, not to mention the confused livestock with their googly eyes darting in all directions while their masters attempted to sell them for the highest possible price.
People were coming from settlements that were located deep inland. They were flowing in towards the only main road in the area to join the mass crowds venturing towards the markets as different streams flow into rivers and rivers into the sea. Walking barefoot from village to village to sell or trade the few kilograms of grain, vegetables, livestock or firewood they have collected throughout the past week, both men and women carry heavy loads on their backs for hours upon hours (sometimes days) under the harsh African sun.
I spotted one very old African women who could not have been a day under 90. I requested that the car come to a stop and we ask the woman if she’d like a lift to the markets up ahead a few kilometres. After raising our voices and articulating our words a number of times until she could eventually hear us, she accepted our offer and we helped her frail body gently into the car. The strength this woman possessed was unimaginable – virtually impossible! She was selling grain and hoping to make 30 birr ($1.50) for the day or alternatively swap the grain for some sugar. Normally the children do this work within the communities and look after the family’s elders. Why this woman was still working, I’m not so sure; maybe her children left her for the cities thinking they could earn more money, maybe they died young, maybe she simply wasn’t able to have children or maybe (like my own grandmother) she insisted on doing everything for herself while she was still physically able.
I understand even more clearly now, why Ethiopian parents feel the need to have more children. More children of course means more help – more people to share in the work load. So many families here require such basic education and support when it comes to family planning. It is so important that families become aware that along with additional support, comes additional workload. Unfortunately I can see that these families feel a huge load lifted of their backs – quite literally, with another family member around.
What a bonding session I thought, for strangers, friends, family, siblings, lovers even enemies during these weekend ventures through all hours of the day. A learning experience, social event and period of growth for people of all ages. A weekly routine stroll through the rural landscapes and areas of Northern Ethiopia. To buy, trade and sell possessions for the benefit for yourself, your family and community as a whole.
We finally arrived at Awra Amba community. The contained village was founded back in 1972 by a man named Zumra Nuru. Ato (Mr) Nuru spoke gently of how he spent his childhood asking questions of gender equality, children’s rights, care for the elderly and respect for all things that dwell on this earth. He preached his views for years on the road to surrounding villages before the community’s establishment, however was almost always turned away and cast out for his ideological views.
In 1972 with only 19 other like minded people, a socialist community was born. Men and women worked together and shared tasks such as farming activities, weaving, pottery, cooking, teaching & construction, dependent on their own individual abilities. People ate together with their families. They cared immensely for their children, the sick, disabled and the elderly. The community’s members all live and work together to benefit the village as a whole. Five basic principles they have are as follows: equality between sexes when it comes to all aspects of life; respecting the rights of children and nurturing their hunger for knowledge; caring for the disabled and the elderly; avoiding bad speech and deeds at all costs; doing unto your neighbours as you would do unto yourself – treating all human beings as brothers and sisters regardless of any differences you can see, hear or feel.
The community believes deeply in family and relationships. Communication and discussions between all families and their members are vital. Involvement and consistent interaction is encouraged throughout all meals and time shared in order to raise awareness for differing views and ideas throughout all age groups. The belief is that if problems are solved at a family level initially, the whole world will eventually be at peace with each other.
I found it interesting how birth, marriage and death are endured without much time, attention or effort spent. Excessive celebrations are permitted, however not encouraged to the extent that they are in most other communities around the world. Such celebrations are seen as an “unnecessary hype” and waste of time, effort and money. Work is a priority in the village; it is a part of life and enjoying your work and the people you work with is of upmost importance. Death is accepted almost forcibly. After ones death, an immediate burial occurs and family members most affected are told to get back into routine as quickly as possible and set an example for the rest of the community. The soul is not something that is thought to exist and once a body dies, any energy or spirit goes with it and ceases to exist. When Ato Nuru was asked about his belief in God, he explained that there was a strong belief in a supernatural power – an energy between people and throughout our earth and universe.
I personally believe that the most valuable aspect of any religion is that it provides comfort during times of confusion, heartache and anguish. It’s a connection with someone – or something, that allows people to feel as if they are not alone. People of the faith are given hope during times of struggle and feel love for their god, as they feel that their god provides the same love for them.
The Awra Amba community has grown to about 480 people today and is continuing it’s growth not only within the community but spreading their values around Ethiopia and the rest of the world as more people hear of their particular way of life. I asked the founder what his hopes were for the future. For his own family, for the community and for the world. He said that he hoped that his ideas would be heard and that peace would come between all people and between people and the earth, whether that be with his values or others. I asked him about education and if he encouraged children to go to university, to see the world. He explained to me that education was the basis of all development and that this is vital for any kind of positive growth in humanity. If it meant that children would leave the community never to return, at least they would be good people, spreading love and respect to others on their life’s path.