Awramba: A community resolute
to self-help


A mural from Ura Kidane Mihret (A monastery on one of the islands on Lake Tana)
On my most recent expedition to Ethiopia in late 2005, I was determined not to use up all my vacation time just visiting relatives living in Addis Ababa and enjoying traditional cultural performances in the city’s top traditional restaurants as I have done many times in the past. I wanted to spend a portion of the time in North Ethiopia reconnecting with Ethiopia’s Christian roots by visiting ancient Christian churches, some that are over five centuries old. Relics and art found in these churches are special treasures that have survived several centuries of repeated attempts by Moslem religious crusaders to stamp out Christianity from Ethiopia.

An older sister of mine, who had visited the region with her family several months before my arrival in Ethiopia showed me pictures they had taken during their visit and encouraged me to explore on my own. Though my earlier visits to Ethiopia have always been brief due to job and family responsibilities, I wondered why I never visited the Church’s in North Ethiopia that, while I was abroad, I gradually came to realize their importance to my religious and cultural roots.

Three days after landing in Ethiopia, I headed to the Northern Ethiopian city of Bahir Dar. Of course, I brought my camera to take pictures of my journey. I knew Ethiopian friends back in my new home country would be interested to see the images.

Being my first visit to this part of the country, I was very interested not only to visit old Churches, but also to get an impression of the region in general in terms of its geography, culture, and living conditions. Bahir Dar’s major streets are lined with beautiful large palm trees that contribute to the beautiful ambiance of that city. The streets are filled with bikers. I was left with the impression that bikes are one of the major forms of transportation in the city, which I think is good for health, cost, and environmental protection reasons.

A few modern restaurants that were opened in the last decade, served inexpensive and flavorful seafood dishes as well as traditional Ethiopian favorites. My favorite dish was Asa Dulet, which was basically cubed chunks of Nile Perch from the daily catch at Lake Tana sautéed in bulb onions, garlic, and hot Ethiopian peppers. This dish is served in a number of popular restaurants in the city for less than 20 Ethiopian birr. If you are a connoisseur of spicy food and you find yourself in this part of Ethiopia, I heartily recommend this local dish.

A day after my arrival at Bahir Dar, I visited the churches in the highlands. We boarded a small motorized boat by the shore of Lake Tana, in front of the aging Ghion Hotel, and sailed for about an hour before we got to the other side of the lake and began hiking up hill to reach the churches. On the narrow foot trail leading to the Churches, we saw villagers young and old offering to sell over-priced handicrafts. We assured them we would buy some on our way back since we did not want to carry a heavy load uphill.

Young boys and girls asked if we had pens we could spare to give them for their education. Had I known this, I would definitely have come with a box of pens and shared it with those kids. You can image the situation in a rural community where kids have to struggle to acquire such basic tools for learning? Unfortunately, I only had one pen to spare.

Our guide, who spoke English with heavy North Ethiopian accent, had passion for this place. Having traveled this path numerous times, he knew exactly in what sequence we needed to visit the churches and he provided us with historical and cultural background to each place we visited.

Upon arrival at Kidane Mihret Church, we were made to pay entrance fees, different rates for locals and foreigners, and instructed to remove our shoes and hats before stepping in the church ground. The church was a round building made of mud walls and covered with galvanized roof. We were told the roof was a recent addition to protect the church from water damage. A resident tour guide began describing the numerous pictures all over the inside walls of the church depicting Bible history. The colors on the pictures are as vivid as if they were painted yesterday. We were told the church artists used local plants and mineral ores in extracting the colors they used for the church paintings.

It was not until later in the briefing that I realized the purpose of those church pictures was actually to describe the main accounts in the Bible. As these churches pre-date the invention of the printing press, these pictures must have been very useful visual aids for teaching Biblical accounts.

The Polish tourists had a tour guide with them that translated the description of the pictures he heard from the resident church scholar. What kind of caught my attention was that the Polish translator spoke for twice longer than his source. Anyway, his audience appeared to be enjoying the briefing they were receiving. Before the briefing was over, our attention was distracted by screams of highland monkeys chasing each other at which time all the Polish tourists abandoned the briefing and run to take picture of the mischievous monkeys.

After the first church, we visited the other churches that were located about 15 minutes walking distance from each other. I found the architecture of the churches, as well as the art lining their walls, to be almost identical suggesting that the drawings were probably made by the same people or the artists were aware of each other’s work.

In one of the other churches we visited, our attention was caught by an elderly priest and monk that were seated at the entrance of the church. Soon we learned that these elders were on a forty day fast, eating only dirkosh (dried injera) and kolo (roasted wheat), as their main staple. They were taking offerings from visitors to cover their living expenses. I appreciated the simplicity of their life and their dedication to their belief. Other visitors were munificent in giving donations.

We got back at the Ghion Hotel around 2:30 PM – so the trip to the churches lasted over six hours. After getting a brief lunch break, we boarded a bus to Blue Nile Falls. I had only seen the Nile River in pictures and movies and from the air as I flew many times over the Sudan and Egypt on my way to Europe. Now I was going to actually see the Nile River near its origin -- and that definitely was a special moment for me as an Ethiopian.

After about a thirty minute drive on a bumpy gravel road, we arrived at the spot where we needed to begin the foot journey to the river. It was a good forty-five minutes walking distance to the river. When we got to Nile Falls, to my dismay, the Falls were not the spectacular images I remember from pictures and movies. I asked our tour guide what had happened to the water that I expected to see. He said that ever since the river was dammed for hydroelectric use, the amount of water coming over the falls has decreased considerably. We took several pictures of whatever was left of the falls and then returned to the hotel.

The next day, at 8 AM, we caught a tourist shuttle to Gondor. As there was just one shuttle leaving for Gondor everyday, I made sure I showed up on time and got my seat on the bus.

Upon arrival at the shuttle stop in the morning, I learned that some of the European tourists had requested that the bus detour to visit a unique community called Awramba before proceeding to Gondar. They asked if I would support the idea. I told them I have never heard of Awramba and wanted more information about it. I was told it was a self-supporting unique community where the men bake injera and the women plow the fields. I was convinced it was worth my time to stop by there and see what was happening.

A British nurse that works for the French volunteer group “Doctors Without Borders” asked if she could be dropped at the town located before we take the tour to Awramba so she can catch a public bus to Gondar. She did not want to pay the extra birr 100 required to include the visit to Awramba. We agreed and started the trip to Awramba. It was around 12 noon by the time we stopped at the town and dropped off the British nurse. Soon we learned that the last bus to Gondar has already gone for the day. I convinced the British nurse that she was better-off coming with us than risking not finding transportation in small town Ethiopia.

We decided to get some lunch before heading for Awramba. Knowing the Europeans’ preference for good restaurants, I asked the shuttle driver to take us to the best restaurant in town. He said he knew one that was recently opened. I offered to translate the menu for the Europeans as the waitress did not speak English. Mostly everyone ordered soft drinks or beer and decided to skip lunch altogether - I suspected they were disgusted by the swarm of flies that hovered over the serving area of the restaurant. It reminded me one more time how much work needs to be done to improve the tourism sector in the country.

While the road from Bahir Dar to Gondar is paved and is in good state, once you take the detour to Awramba you will be driving 13 kilometers over potholed gravel road that sees dust cloud rising every time a vehicle passes in any direction.

Upon arrival in Awramba, we were met by two ladies who appeared to be in their early 30’s and we were lead to a shed that was used as a guest receiving area. We were told before we are allowed to visit the community they require all visitors to first describe the purpose of their visit. They wanted each one of us to tell them why we came to the community. I told the ladies this was my first time to hear about this community and I felt I can learn firsthand about what they are actually doing by visiting the place. Other visitors gave similar reasons as the driving purpose for their visit.

One of the priests at Ura Kidanemihret Church
Our lady guide briefed us that the community was established as a result of the vision of the village chief and founder known as Zumra. Zumra is a soft-spoken man who appeared to be in his sixties. He told us that all the clothing that he was wearing was manufactured in the community. Zumra told us that he had a dream in 1964 to establish this unique community, but his ideas were not well received. For 30 years he traveled from town to town looking for a place to establish a community according to his vision. He established the present community in 1993. In the earlier years, Zumra was regarded as a deranged individual by people who heard him share his dream for a new community and that no one took seriously.

At the end of the briefing, Zumra asked if the visitors have questions for him. One unique aspect of this community is that they are detached from all established religions that have existed in the area for hundreds of years. Community members do not belong to any religion; there is no place of religious gathering in the community. Zumra explained that they simply believe there is one higher being that made life on earth possible and the community practices and promotes just living characterized by honesty, hard work, respect for the elderly, and kindness to others. The community puts more emphasis in the manner people live day to day instead of on affiliation to any religious institution.

The Awramba community was established on 14.1 hectares of land. It currently supports 400 residents. It has a school of its own, a nursing home for the elderly and disabled, a childcare facility, a cottage industry producing different kinds of garment, and a farm producing food for the community. Though there are a number of persons from the surrounding communities that have expressed interest to join the community, Zumra explained that due to limited land and the current population size of the community they cannot allow new members to come and join the group.

The school that teaches basic reading and math skills is housed in a mud building. A slogan on the wall of the school admonishes all the students to be honest in all their dealings with their fellow men. It also promotes a strong work ethic for members of the Awramba community. Shelves made of mud are used to display donated books. These books are shared by all the students. The school offers instruction only up to the grade 3 level and those that want to advance their education can join the public schools located further away. The school facility is shared both by the children and adults on a shift basis.

After touring the school, we were led to the nursing home where we met seven elderly residents that were cared for. The elderly have rest area for day time and each has a separate bed for resting. The community provides the elderly with three meals a day; and volunteers bathe them twice a week. It was emphasized to us by our guide that the community does not desire to see people who have contributed a great deal to the community become beggars at an advanced age when their health fails.

Mothers with young children are also provided with a free childcare facility so that they can resume their normal tasks in the community after childbirth. An assigned attendant looks after the welfare of all the young children whose parents are working.

Next we were given a tour of a model home built by the community. One of the benefits of community members is they will have a house built for them. Each home is equipped with a fuel-efficient stove designed by Zumra himself. The stove is elevated from the ground to prevent accidental burning of young children and has a vent to release smoke outside the house. The stove is also said to conserve fuel.

Inadvertently, it was Sunday when we visited Awramba and there were hardly any idle souls walking around. We were told they work everyday and the spoils of their effort are shared equitably by community members. This is the closest to a class-less society I have come across.

We proceeded to the cottage industry facility that is located adjacent to the nursing home for the elderly. The cottage industry is used to produce clothing both for community members and to sell the extra to visitors to raise funds for purchasing other needs of the community. The cottage industry produces shirts, dresses, skirts, table clothes, scarf, hats, towels, blankets and many other forms of garment using attractive design. After we saw the workers in their normal duties at the factory, we were lead to the adjacent store where you can buy their products. We were amazed by the inventory control scheme they have designed. Products were neatly shelved, tagged, and priced very reasonably.

We were also told that community members are allowed to work for themselves during spare hours and sell their produce to supplement their cash income.

Upon concluding our visit, we were taken to a room and each of the visitors were asked to record in the guest registry any comment they have about how to improve the community and to leave their contact information. For Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) that are seeking a community intervention opportunity that will actually make a difference in the lives of a rural populace, they can lend a hand to this group by helping improve the drinking water facility, by opening a clinic for basic health service, and by providing assistance to allow irrigation farming to make agricultural outputs more stable.

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The author can be contacted for comment at hmamo64@yahoo.com


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