Awra Amba, a current experiment of utopian socialism

, par Robert Joumard

The review of knowledge on this experiment from research studies, news report and accounts is given in 85 page report (downloadable below). Below is the executive summary.

In line with the long list of experiments of utopian socialism, Awra Amba is a community in the Amhara Region (Ethiopia) built on humanist values, which are implemented through its life style.

This study is a review of the available literature on this community, i.e. mainly of four Ethiopian master reports (Atnafu, 2005 ; Yirga, 2007 ; Yassin, 2008 ; Mekonnen, 2009) and secondly of Ethiopian and foreign news reports and accounts between 2006 and 2012. In a first step, we present our own methodology, i.e. the sources we used from a critical methodological point of view, then the numerous data collected, allowing us to draw a quite accurate picture of this original experiment. We try then to compare it quite systematically to the Amhara society.

The community was founded by Zumra Nuru in 1972. From his first years, this visionary from poor peasant origin rebelled against injustice, ill-treatment and dishonesty he was observing in his own family and around him in the traditional Amhara society, patriarchal and believing in God. He travelled in the region in order to find people sharing its ideas. Finally, he gathered around twenty people who established the peasant community of Awra Amba on around fifty hectares. But the neighbours were outraged by the fact that the men, women and children of Awra Amba had the same rights, and by the absence of religion in the community. A disturbed period followed with jail for the leader and exile at several hundred kilometres for several years. The community started again in 1993 on its present location and began to expand.

The data given by the various authors allow us to reconstruct the evolution of its population, going through a minimum of less than twenty people during exile to more than 400 now. We compare its composition per sex and age bracket with the neighbouring rural population of South Gondar. We describe the different administrative structures to which belongs Awra Amba, in terms of main geographical, demographical and economic characteristics.

In Awra Amba people share a strong culture and ideals, which differentiate them from the Amhara society and the neighbouring villages, and above all they shared common values : To live in Awra Amba means to share and to defend these values. The main values cited by the various authors are honesty, equality and especially gender equality, solidarity between human beings, work and absence of religion or rationalism. We examine each of these values as concept, in the way they are supported by the Awra Amba community according to the literature.

Then we present the various aspects of the social organisation of the community, which is especially developed : the community structures, the economic activities, then the social relationships, through the gender equality at work, marriage, divorce and family household design, the specific and original situation of children, solidarity with the most fragile, funeral, and finally the management of internal conflicts.

In terms of institutions, Awra Amba is organized in two structures : the community which gathers all the inhabitants who share same values and life style, and the work cooperative involving three quarters of the community members. The main decisions of the cooperative are discussed and decided in general assembly of members, which elects the members of about fifteen committees ; these committees are implementing the general assembly decisions and managing collectively the various types of activities of the village. Women account for 44 % of the committee members, who can be dismissed at any time.

The economy of Awra Amba is partially agricultural, but the available lands are much smaller than those in the region : between 0.2 and 0.4 ha/household at Awra Amba according to the author, but 2.1 ha/household in the region. The main agricultural productions are tef, maize (or sorghum) and beans, together with products from a small livestock. The yields are higher than regional ones by around 25 %. As they cannot live only from agriculture due to soil poverty and scarcity, they diversified their activities with weaving, milling and trade. These activities are conducted mainly within the cooperative, except weaving, of which an important part is made by each family at home and is privately managed.

These activities provide an average income per inhabitant, which seems slightly higher than the regional one, but data provided are not very clear, sometimes contradictory. The food needs of the inhabitants seem nevertheless fully covered all over the year, while two thirds of Amhara peasants cover their food need for nine month a year only.

Then we examine the participation to the different agricultural, artisan and household tasks of women and men, together with girls and kids. These tasks are mainly distributed according to capacities of each one and not according to the sex. The survey data provided show that there is equality between couple members as producers, as consumers, and in terms of task and work responsibility and of family responsibility.

Marriage is managed by the future spouses, their parents having no role, unlike the traditional Amhara rule. The studies give us quite accurate statistics on marriage age, we compare to regional ones. It appears that there is no early marriage in Awra Amba, the young women getting married usually between 19 and 22, the young men between 20 and 25, while in the regional rural population, 5 % of boys and 8 % of girls between 10 and 14 are already married. The couples have an average of one child less than the neighbouring ones of the region. A couple may divorce without formality by mutual consent, their property being shared equally.

The solidarity and the mutual respect between Awra Amba members are especially implemented for children. They have three tasks well differentiated : go to school, play, and contribute to community work. Their participation to household and firstly agriculture tasks is nevertheless very low, but all are going to school as long as possible according to their capacities and are encouraged to study after school. The solidarity is also implemented through a system of support of women near delivery, ill and elderly.

Contrary to the rural Amhara society where funeral ceremonies are attended by a lot of people with spectacular weeping, they are attended in Awra Amba only by some people for a very short period (a few hours). These funeral rites correspond to the social and cultural system of Awra Amba, whose members do not believe in a life after the death and privilege the life on Earth.

Finally, to manage the conflicts within the couples and between members of the community, several permanent bodies have been implemented. They seem very efficient to facilitate dialogue and manage conflicts in a wise manner.

Then, we study in detail the education within the community, because it is especially important for them. The learning processes are always directed to the promotion of the group’s interest, as well as of their own. Awra Amba implemented a self-help or mutual education system, for adults and mainly for the young children who do not go to school and for school children when not at school. This education is provided by older students and adults from the village, especially through a kindergarten and a library with many technical books.

All the children who are old enough are going to school. They are very active in social and ethic activities at school, very good in group discussions, very studious, but not very open to the students from other villages. The teachers find them more hardworking, more ethical and more cooperative than the children from neighbouring villages. Therefore, the education level of Awra Amba members, all from peasant origin, is far higher than the one of the rural communities of the region, with relatively few differences between men and women.

We look finally at the relationships of the community with the neighbouring communities, characterized by suspicion : Awra Amba people are perceived by their neighbours as a suspicious, secretive, cruel, lazy, pagan deviant cast group, while the Awra Amba members do not meet often their neighbours. This suspicion is due to the large cultural differences and to the past, seriously antagonistic between both groups. It would be very lightened today. On the other hand, the relationships with regional and Ethiopian authorities are excellent, Awra Amba welcoming a lot of visitors and being cited as an example very often. But the community is not very interested in external experiments.

In conclusion, we try to show how this experiment actually contributes to the struggles for empowerment, in line with the communities of utopian socialism, who aim at creating ideal communities here and now. It takes part in the present movement of revival of the countries and citizens called " underdeveloped " in the past. Therefore Awra Amba is by many aspects a living example for the neighbouring communities, for Ethiopia, and further for the empowerment of citizens and peoples, whichever their development level, including in Europe. This utopian community could nevertheless be exposed to some risks dangerous for its stability. It is especially endogamy, non opening to the world, heterogeneity and sclerosis through myth. Finally, we suggest some research topics able to improve the understanding of this experiment, and maybe to support it.

Also available : a notebook with 35 photographs and short texts presenting the various aspects of this experience.

The original version of this report is published in French.