In April this year, I was honoured to give a keynote talk at the jesuit university, Xavier University. I’m sharing a video and transcript from the talk below. On one end, the talk’s intention is to inform about Awra Amba, a utopian village in Ethiopia, but at its core it is about the need for imaginative ideas in Africa.
An African utopia in Ethiopia – On the need for imaginative ideas
Before I begin, I want to state my goal with this talk. I am here to motivate and inspire us to engage with the world of ideas. This is my intention because big ideas can change the world.
In true African fashion, let me start with a true story, it’s a story about a village in the highlands of Northern Ethiopia, east of the enchanting city of Bahir Dar, and west of Lalibela, the city of those incredible ancient rock-hewn churches. The village that I speak about consists of clay houses, a textile factory, a grinding mill, a tourist hostel, a school and a library. The village is known as Awra Amba.
However, to refer to Awra Amba as a village is misleading, for villages have features that are characteristic of village life, and Awra Amba defies all characteristic definitions whatsoever. Instead, what is rare in most villages is the norm in Awra Amba. For example, in Awra Amba, women and men are completely equal. They are not equal in the sense that gender equality is predominantly thought of today. You know, the corporate and gimmicky empowerment lingo which is used in terms of empowerment and which focuses above all on economic growth. Rather, they are equal in a graceful and intuitive way, one which recognises that equality is essential for social harmony and spiritual mutuality between the genders.
In Awra Amba, women participate in public life to the same extent as men do. They are doctors and decision-makers, they plough the fields, and they handle the oxen, because it simply makes sense that they do. Simultaneously, men share the responsibilities of household chores. As one of the residents put it, “Women are not the only ones who eat. I also eat therefore I also cook. I am not ashamed of it. On the contrary, I am proud.”
Extraordinary as they are, reciprocal gender relations are not the only standout factor in this small-in-size but ample in heart village in Ethiopia. The economy in Awra Amba is also organised in a way that is socially conscious. The main income generator in the village – its weaving and milling industry, where all residents who are able to work, work – divides its profits evenly among citizens. The remaining profits are invested into social services such as health care, elderly care, and a community school.
Furthermore, environmental sustainability is not a goal in Awra Amba, it is a reality. What is now a necessary but catchy concept, namely “the green economy”, is not a new idea in Awra Amba. The community even decided to tell aid agencies to stop giving them food because receiving food aid was preventing them from generating sustainable streams of income.
Similarly, religious attitudes in Awra Amba differ from those in the rest of Ethiopia. Awra Ambans are neither Muslim nor Christian, as most Ethiopians are, but nor are they theologically skeptic. They simply do not believe that “God should be locked up in churches and mosques” but rather that “God can be felt everywhere”. Not only is God felt everywhere but you could argue that Awra Amba is one of the few places in the world where in the words of Buddha, “However many holy words you read, what good will they do you if you do not act upon them”, could be said to underpin life.
By the way, from the research I’ve done, it seems Xavier University might be another one of those few places where religion is approached in this enlightened way. It’s been inspiring reading about some of the dialogues that take place here on campus.
The Ancient Greeks came up with the concept of democracy. More specifically, Plato defined democracy as “rule of the people”. Plato’s democracy, however, was more despotic than many of us would approve of today, but he left us with a view of what political life may look like. This is a view, which few societies have managed to emulate. Awra Ambans have, however. Their democracy is democracy in its truest sense – as a rule of the people. Every two weeks, residents meet to discuss, and reach consensus, on matters that equally affect them. It was during such a meeting that, for instance, it was decided that elderly care would be the duty of everyone, and that health care and education would be free.
Harmony is often mistaken for monotony, but this is far from the truth. By contrast, harmony is the acceptance of difference. In Awra Amba, students are encouraged to learn various languages – French, English, Spanish, German – not only because knowing how to communicate in a language other than one’s own is pleasurable, but also, because the youth of Awra Amba are encouraged to study in international universities and then return, if they wish, to Awra Amba.
But how did Awra Amba come to exist? This was the question I posed, in 2014, to filmmaker couple Paulina Tervo and Serdar Ferit, who introduced me to Awra Amba through a documentary they had filmed. “It all started with one man having a big idea,” they said.
The man they speak of is Zumra Nuru, a farmer, who led by the simple conviction that there were better ways to organise society founded Awra Amba in 1972. Since childhood, Zumba Nuru felt frustrated about the way that women were treated. He witnessed his mother abused by his father, and was also disturbed by conflicts between Muslims and Christians, and of a system in which political ill-will and a lack of sustainable agriculture had caused one of the greatest famines in human history. In short, Zumba Nuru founded Awra Amba because he he had an idea that if people lived at peace with nature and with each other, they stood a better chance to live at peace with themselves.
I am not suggesting that Awra Amba is flawless. Far from it. The community is not wealthy, they do not have a university, they increasingly rely on tourism to get by.
Nor am I suggesting that Awra Amba provides the model on which all other societies should be created, although it is true that the community has attracted the interest of governments, religious leaders, and many others who have all visited hoping to learn about – and from – the “village” whose literacy levels, life expectancy, gender equality and economic growth far exceed the national average.
Rather, I share the story of Awra Amba because, firstly, it is a story that reminds us of who we are. As Africans, and friends of Africa, we find ourselves at a time when we are trying to make sense of an Africa caught in between what seems like two different eras altogether – one tremendously uplifting, the other equally depressing.
The African zeitgeist is a complex hybrid of postcolonialism, afro-optimism, afro-pessimism, and the likes. We are therefore a generation who find ourselves caught in the duality of the zeitgeist. But we are also a generation who have a unique and exciting opportunity to shape Africa. Most countries in Africa are still young and malleable. We are the ones who can mould the African future into a great one.
But to do that we need to have a vision of what Africa can be. The vision should neither be darkened by a sense of doom nor rose-tinted with false optimism. It should be a hopeful vision that is rooted in reality, and the reality is that we can build our continent into one of prosperity.
Radical prosperity in the 21st century depends on economic stability, sound infrastructure, accountability, education, health care, and environmental sustainability. But it also depends on imagination and implementation of ideas. If we don’t have ideas for the future, if we are not envisioning a flourishing Africa, we won’t reach our full potential.
Secondly, I share the story of Awra Amba because it is a story that the entire world needs to learn from. It’s a story that certainly defies the negatives stereotypes of Africa and that illustrates that forward thinking is not privy to the west alone, as many history books wrongly imply. I like how Wole Soyinka put it, when he said “Africa as we know it today, remains the monumental fiction of European creativity”.
Imagine that you were able to peel the African continent along its coasts. Imagine that from west to east, to north to south, when you peeled it a new but familiar world emerged. Imagine that this “new” Africa was magical but real, modern but historical, a continent waiting to be discovered only this time by Africans themselves. Imagine the astonishment you might feel at finding what you had always taken for granted, or, overlooked.
When I read about Awra Amba I find this hidden world. I find this other Africa. I find this Africa where deliberate care is taken to protect the ideas that are rooted in its land. I find an Africa ahead of its time.
Lastly, and most importantly, I share the story of Awra Amba because what is truly remarkable about Zumra Nuru, apart from having big ideas which, let’s face it, many of us do, is that he felt inspired to transform his big idea into a reality. They were nineteen at first, the founding members of Awra Amba. Today five hundred people live there.
On that note, I want to end with a proposition. I propose that you begin to craft your big idea for Africa. By big, I do not mean that you have to set up a village in some remote part of Africa, nor do I mean that it has to be a big political or developmental idea. I don’t even mean that you have to physically be in Africa, although that said, never underestimate the power of your presence. By big, I simply mean an idea that feels big in your heart. Because change starts in your heart, not in your mind.
The big idea that I had when I launched my blog, MsAfropolitan, was to make African women claim their power. After the Arab region, Africa remains the most oppressive of women in the world according to the Gender Equality Index. Our societies will not progress if they don’t value every citizen, girl and boy equally. It remains my goal to contribute in a significant way to a discourse about African feminism, and how it can inspire both men and women to create societies that are smart, harmonious and transcendent.
This is why I personally love the story of Awra Amba. It makes me feel proud. It inspires and motivates me. It reminds me that progress is not in imitation but in truly being yourself. It is a demonstration of what becomes possible when you have the courage to transform your ideas into action. Because ultimately, transforming an idea into action is like recording a song in a studio rather than humming it in the shower. So go ahead into the studio, and press record.