Awra Amba

Philippa Willitts reviews a documentary about this community in Northern Ethiopia, grounded in principles of equality between the sexes

Philippa Willitts, 30 August 2010

The words Awra Amba mean 'top of the hill', and are the name of a small community in Northern Ethiopia which works together and believes in equal rights for men and women.

This half-hour documentary film begins with Zumra, the leader and founder of Awra Amba explaining, "“We believe that men and women are equal. They work together side by side. When it comes to decision making men and women have equal say. They are both heads of the household”."

And that explains the philosophy of this fascinating community. The work done within the community is mainly weaving, which they can then sell, and milling which they do for neighbouring communities, because their hopes of relying on agriculture have been repeatedly dashed. Their applications for land are turned down because the community is non-religious, resulting in it being ostracised by both their Muslim and Christian neighbours.

The problems with neighbouring villagers due to Awra Amba's lack of religion extends far beyond their inability to get approval for agricultural land: Zumra, the leader, has an armed guard due to death threats.

paulina_film.jpgIn the film, Zumra explains that the work that people do within Awra Amba is based on their abilities, so women and men do the work which they are best at, regardless of whether that work is traditionally thought to be gendered. It is not only the division of labour and presence of women in decision-making roles which makes this a place of gender equality, as we meet women who sought out the community specifically after leaving oppressive or violent relationships. The sense that this is a place of refuge against gendered violence comes across strongly, the message being that equality in some specific areas can engender a greater philosophy of equality in all areas.

The Awra Amba community has strong rules about conduct, through which we meet one of the three main characters in the film. Zibad is a woman who has left a disturbing and abusive husband, with her five children, to seek out membership of this community. She has so far been unsuccessful in her application, because she has not yet mastered the 'no bad habits' rule which is strongly enforced, which include no alcohol, no bad language, no aggression and no stealing. She is working hard towards "only pursuing good things", in order to benefit from becoming a member of Awra Amba, but her lack of ability to make a financial contribution also stands in her way.

It is difficult to watch her try so hard, and yet fail to gain a place; as a viewer it does seem somewhat harsh. However, I had to remind myself that the rules within the community are there for a reason, and perhaps it is so successful, visited by tourists, religious leaders and political leaders, all of whom want to learn from their model, because they have worked so hard to maintain it as it is. At the end of the film, Zibad continued to work hard, to support herself and her children, and to try to prove herself in order to eventually become an Awra Amba member.

The idea that would become Awra Amba was planted when Zumra was four years old

The other character we meet is Zeinab, who is Zibad's mother, and a member of Awra Amba herself. Her role in the community is to run the tea shop, a gathering place for community members, as well as people from neighbouring villages as they await the milling work they bring to be completed.

During a visit to Awra Amba by some university agriculture students, Zumra is asked what gave him the idea in the first place. He explains that the thought began when he was four years old. His parents were farmers. He noticed that when they came home at the end of the day, his father's work was done, whereas his mother's continued. He saw the inherent unfairness in this, and witnessing his mother being beaten by his father further enhanced his awareness of the difference in the way women and men were treated.

When he questioned these things, he was called mad, but clearly a seed was planted in his mind, which eventually resulted in Awra Amba.

And it seems clear from the film that this is an essentially good place to be. Zeinab is happy to be there, and Zibad is working hard to join. The children get education, and the adults share equally the profits of the weaving work. The attitudes of equality between the sexes, and the policy of 'good character' appears to lead to a respectful and generous existence, one which Zibad craves after the trauma of her violent and abusive husband.

The film is available as a free, legal, BitTorrent download, from Vodo.net. The audio is in Amharic, with English subtitles, which may make the film inaccessible to visually impaired Anglophone viewers. The film was made in 2009, directed by Paulina Tervo. The film's own website is here.

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