Awuramba: An Experiment in Village Life

Thursday, February 4, 2010 | Awuramba, Ethiopia

One of Awuramba's residents weaves a blanket on a traditional loom.
One of the more interesting points of our road trip so far was a trip Jacqueline and I made on a whim to the peculiar little village of Awuramba.

Back in Bahir Dar, a friendly Australian lady urged us to make an extra stop on our drive northward, at a small village that produced excellent woven products, but whose name she couldn't recall. We communicatd her directions and description to our driver, Yoseph, who knew the place immediately: "Ahh, you mean Awuramba." We arrived a few hours later, and found much more than a mere weaving village.

Yoseph parked our Land Cruiser in the center of the village, under a large tree surrounded by simple huts, with goats and chickens picking over the grounds. A tour guide quickly materialized and, in very rough English, set about explaining the village's history and organizing principles.

Awuramba was founded in the early 1970s by Zumra Nuru, a local man who, for reasons unknown, thought far outside the box. He established a community on the beliefs of equality of the sexes, respect for the elderly, the natural rights of children, and spiritual tolerance. All people being equal in Awuramba, for our tour we were asked to pay the same rate as local visitors: three birrs (about US$0.20).

Awuramba's principle of gender equality was the most immediately evident during our tour; men and women worked side-by-side to perform the farming, teaching, and weaving that sustain the community. Our guide showed us the small library, the schoolhouse, a resident's home, the village guesthouse, and the large weaving workshop, filled with the whir of spinning wheels and clacking of hand-operated looms. We also saw the elders' dormitory, as well as a special home for Awuramba's orphans.

There is no church, mosque, or temple; Awuramba's residents profess a non-demoninational spirituality, and have no prescribed place or time of worship.

Overall, the tour was professional, the residents friendly and welcoming to cameras, and the village humming with activity.

* * *

Already an incurable cynic after just a few years working in the development field, I spent most of the tour wondering why the place seemed too good to be true. The sign at the entrance, welcoming visitors to Awuramba and mentioning a few projects financed by international aid donors, had raised my suspicions that this place was simply a showcase meant for tourists, rather than a truly functional, socially-conscious model of locally driven development.

The test, I imagine, will be to see whether Awuramba's model is adopted—in whole or in part—by other communities in Ethiopia and beyond. (Locally, expansion is now possible, in theory, since the regional government and local communities have in recent years stopped persecuting Awuramba's residents for their very non-traditional beliefs.) If the village is indeed a scalable model—rather than just a one-off experiment aiming to satisfy the desires of donor agencies—then I would expect to see it grow in the future.

For now at least, Awuramba remains a peculiar outlier among Ethiopia's many rural villages. It was an interesting destination, in any case, and a place I'd be happy to hear about again down the road.

Read more: I found an interview with the founder here.

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