In Ethiopia, one man's model for a just society
Zumra Nuru founded a village based on ideals of equality. It's now lauded by leaders of all stripes.
Awra Amba, Ethiopia
He can't read or write, but Zumra Nuru created a society that would have made Karl Marx proud. The 60-year-old Ethiopian farmer founded and cochairs Awra Amba, a commune where men cook, women plow, and religion has no place.Skip to next paragraph
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His inspiration came from his childhood: He was sent to the fields instead of to school and beaten for eating meat at his Christian neighbor's home.His mother had to work much more than his father.
"It made me sad," says Mr. Nuru. "When I asked my parents about it ... they acted as if I were foolish."
In the 1980s, Nuru finally launched the egalitarian society he dreamed of with 19 other people who adopted his vision.
Today Awra Amba has some 400 members and is lauded as a model to alleviate poverty and promote gender equality in a country where women generally hold a subservient status to men.
The experimental community first came to national awareness when Nuru gave an interview on national television a few years ago.
Since then numerous camera crews have driven out to the northern village. They are not alone.
Government officials and members of parliament, sheikhs and priests, and local and foreign nongovernmental organization workers have made the trip via a rocky road only accessible with a four-wheel-drive vehicle to see the success for themselves.
"I was completely captivated by my visit to the community," says Ambassador Tim Clarke, head of the European Union delegation to Ethiopia. "I regard it as the model for the world community on how gender issues should be treated. I have come across nothing else like it anywhere in Africa – and indeed the world. I am using it to inspire the work of my office here on gender mainstreaming and empowerment of women."
Once ostracized, now lauded
But achieving this level of recognition was a long time in coming.
Since his childhood, Nuru was ostracized by his family and his neighbors not only for his support for gender equality but for his opposition to institutionalized religion.
"My family is originally Muslim," Nuru says. "I visited my Christian neighbors and ate meat at their home. My mother got angry and beat me. She said, 'We can't eat meat slaughtered by Christians. I said, 'Is it not the same animal?'
"I began thinking about these issues of religion. Later I thought why not make one family? There is one God. So why not unite? Honesty and love for fellow human beings is our religion."
Not surprising, there is no picturesque church or mosque decorating the village and religious observance is shunned.
However, in a tour for visitors, locals proudly show off the simple but clean mud-built library and the classroom, where children ages 3-5 study before attending the district public school.
Nuru never had the opportunity to study and when he was 13, he was thrown out of his home, he says.
"They said I was mad," says Nuru, whose name means 'Father of the Village.'
In his 20s he became a wandering preacher of his own ideals.
"I traveled to find people who would accept my ideas," he says. In the 1980s he gathered a group in the Amhara region and together they established Awra Amba – meaning "top of the hill."
For years the small group of farmers was ostracized by neighbors who saw its ideas as radical. Eventually they were forced to abandon their land for political reasons.