Ethiopia Utopia: A Village Finds Wealth Without Religion. Can You Guess How Its Devout Neighbors Reacted?

The 500 people who live in Awra Amba, Ethiopia, do things a little differently, by design.

The village has a mill, where grain is crushed into flour. There is a textile factory, where villagers make clothes for themselves and to sell. You will also find a café, a tourist hostel, and two stores that cater to people from outside the village.

With all of these businesses, Awra Amba has managed to pull itself out of poverty. Compared with the rest of the region, the average income here is more than twice as high. Literacy rates are higher than in neighboring villages. Mortality rates are lower.

Awra Amba’s public library lends out books in Amharic, English, and French (Gino Kleisen – PRI)

What’s the key difference between this town and others, according to Public Radio International reporter Don Duncan?

One reason the people of Awra Amba are able to work so hard is that they do not follow organized religion.

In neighboring Christian and Muslim villages, residents respect the Sabbath and holidays. “They have quite frequent religious days, so on those days, they don’t go to [do] farming work,” says sociologist Ashenafi Alemu of Ethiopia’s University of Gondar. “But for Awra Amba, this is not the case. They work every day.”

In Awra Amba, the rejection of organized religion is also an important driver for equality, and equality has brought further boosts to the villagers’ fortunes:

The village invests a lot of energy in educating its children and diversifying its economy. It also embraces gender equality. You will see women here doing what is traditionally considered “men’s work,” like plowing, which effectively doubles the workforce.

Such success is envied by many in neighboring hamlets. What stings is not just that the Awra Ambans make more money; it’s that they do it without communal displays of devotion. In an overwhelmingly pious country (about 61 percent of Ethiopians are Christians while another 34 percent are Muslims), that’s a problem. A big one.

By ignoring the region’s customs, Awra Amba has found itself under attack. Neighboring communities view the residents as heretics.

They threw a grenade right into the center of the village once, but luckily, no one was hurt,” says village founder Zumra Nuru. “They’ve tried shooting members of our village. They’ve sabotaged our harvest on occasion.”

But why?

“The Awra Amba community doesn’t have any spiritual beliefs — not a mosque or a church,” says Abraw Argew, a farmer from a neighboring Christian village. “This makes them selfish. I hate the people of Awra Amba.”

The good news is that communication still occurs. The people in the area organize meetings and talk about their similarities and differences.

If you embrace religion, this place would be very colorful,” said a man from a nearby Christian village at a recent meeting.

A woman from Awra Amba responded, insisting that her community is spiritual and moral, even if it is not part of an organized religion. I don’t get it. You see the work we do. We care for each other and help each other. Awra Amba helps to build our country. Our neighbors are unreasonable to hate us.”

PRI’s radio broadcast closes on a positive note, nothing that some children from nearby villages are now attending school in Awra Amba, and that increased regional trade makes conciliation and understanding a possibility. Here’s hoping that that violent fundies will spare the town, and that peace will flourish.

Listen to PRI’s fascinating program:



About Terry Firma

Terry Firma, though born and Journalism-school-educated in Europe, has lived in the U.S. for the past 20-odd years. Stateside, his feature articles have been published in the New York Times, Reason, Rolling Stone, Playboy, and Wired. Terry is the founder and Main Mischief Maker of Moral Compass, a site that pokes fun at the delusional claim by people of faith that a belief in God equips them with superior moral standards.


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