I am often bewildered that gender inequality, like racial inequality, is still an issue we struggle with in this country and around the world. How have we not abandoned those thoughts along with our beliefs that Earth is flat and Earth is the center of the universe. But even with all our gender equality struggles in the U.S., there are many, many other countries that are much further back in the road to equality. They are so far back, in fact, that they make America look like the destination of equality. There are also other places, unexpected places, that appear to have surpassed us. Take Awra Amba for example.
Awra Amba is a tiny town in the Northern region of Ethiopia. It’s founder, Zumra Nuru, had a vision decades ago for a community where gender equality and work rules over a traditional way of life. He started that community and attracted like minded people. The town has been a focus of various studies and attracted international attention.
In order to understand how radical this idea was when the town was founded (and still is), you have to understand Ethiopia. In most communities in Ethiopia, from small towns to large cities, women have been subservient to men. The region Awra Amba is located in is especially extremely traditional. If a man cooks or does anything that is considered “a woman’s job”, he looses his manliness in the eyes of society. Back breaking burden is put on women on a daily bases.
Girls get pulled out of school at a much younger age then boys do so they can get married off. This, of course, is nothing new in Africa and in most other continents. Women being treated as second class citizens somehow feels like a world tradition. In recent years, Ethiopia in general has made great strides to change this tradition.
In Zumra’s Awra Amba, men and women are treated equally. Women do work that is traditionally considered a man’s work and vis versa. Girls get educated alongside boys and grow up to have equal say in their community of an estimated 470 people. Work is divided up evenly and the profit gets re-invested in education, health care, and senior care.
The community of Awra Amba firmly believes work, not charity, is the way out of poverty. While neighboring towns pause work and celebrate one religious holiday after another, the people of Awra Amba work. That is because religion is not actively practiced in Awra Amba. There are no churches and no mosques. That might be the most radical idea for a town in one of the most religious countries in the world. Ethiopia has deep and old roots in both Christianity and Islam.
That type of work ethic has earned the residents of Awra Amba twice the income of neighboring towns, but some of the residents of these towns are not impressed. In the 35 plus years this revolutionary town has existed, there have been conflicts with outsiders who view the lack of religion in the town as ungodly.
With all this amazing progress being achieved in this town, it is difficult to shake the lingering question in my head: is this town a utopia or a cult? Anytime i see a small community with a male founder they highly revere, whose presence is seemingly everywhere in the community (his quotes are posted all over the visiting center), the most natural reaction is “this is a cult.” However, from all the research I have done, there has been no evidence of any mistreatment, abuse, or any other issues that are often present in cults. Also, it would be interesting to see how this community carries on after him.
Awra Amba’s experiment is one that needs to be repeated all over Africa. Whatever you feel about their stance on traditional practices of religion, their embrace of equality, their choice of work over charity is very applaudable. It is the type of mentality that will pull us out of poverty permanently.
To learn more about this fascinating town, click here.