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 of Moral Compass, a now dormant site that poked fun at the delusional claim by people of faith that a belief in God equips them with superior moral standards. He joined Friendly Atheist in 2013.

  • $925105

    Just goes to show, if people are happy without religion then the fundies feel persecuted.

  • King Dave

    There are no Christian Nations like Somalia, or Sudan, or Yemen, or Saudi Arabia on Earth. These are places were execution of atheists is merely obeying their laws.
    In Israel a Muslim woman can hold the highest position in government. In Saudi Arabia omen cannot vote or drive.

    When African Christians burn witches alive, those Christian are breaking the law. When Iran hangs homosexuals, they are simply enforcing their laws.

    That’s what special about Islam. It’s obvious.

  • Richard Wade

    It has been said that you can’t argue with success. You can, actually, for a while, but as time goes by and the success becomes more enviable, onlookers will lose interest in your arguments and will begin to imitate and adopt what brings the success.

    I wish the people of Awra Amba continued peace and prosperity. I hope their detractors see through their superstition and free themselves of the jealousy that lies behind it.

  • Harrison Gross

    Uganda. The Christians there all want the same thing for homosexuals, for them to be killed, and they are working to get it into law.

    Surprise, Islam isn’t the only one!

  • midnight rambler

    When I heard today’s story about the extraordinary lengths the Muslim cab drivers of NYC go to in order to pray five times a day, at exactly the right time windows, I couldn’t help but think back to this story and how freeing it is just to not have even the relatively meaningless rituals of religion.

  • midnight rambler

    Ethiopia is not a Muslim nation like Sudan or Saudi Arabia. Did you not bother to listen to the story? Many of the people antagonistic to the villagers are Christians.

  • Sandrilene

    Exactly. There have been Christians in Ethiopia for centuries longer than there have been Christians in America. I remember reading a hilarious article about an American missionary on her way to Ethiopia without actually knowing anything about the country.

  • Drakk

    int main ()
    for (i == 0, i < 1 000 000, i++)
    cout<<"Fuck religion";
    return 0

  • King Dave

    This is true, the world has condemned these Christians and as far as I know Uganda has not legally executed a suspected homosexual.

    Steve Wells from the atheist blog Dwindling in disbelief said in effect, Islamic apologists would like us to replace sweeping generalizations like Islam is violent with another generalization that Islam is not.

  • Stev84

    This won’t compile because you used commas instead of semi-colons.

    “i” doesn’t have a type

    And == isn’t the same as =

  • TravellingBeard

    You know exactly how this will progress: the priests and mullahs will at first subtly, then not so subtly, show their displeasure that these holidays are starting to be ignored in the neighboring towns, and while not explicitly endorsing violence, some fervent follower(s) will reactl appropriately.

  • ecolt

    You’ve got to love the irony that it’s the supposedly “good” religious people who are talking about hatred and resorting to violence, while the town without a religion just gets on with its work and tries to foster a dialogue. How is religion the better choice again?

  • tresameht

    There was a place like this in pre-civil war Texas,Comfort,had no churches and no jails. The town was settled by German freethinkers.

  • midnight rambler

    “The world” condemned them? Not the 38 other countries in Africa that still criminalize homosexuality, or the American evangelical groups that inspired the law and only squirmed at the death penalty part. Or the groups pushing to make “Africa a graveyard for homosexuals” with Ethiopia as their next target.

  • Drakk

    Further evidence for my suspicions that programming requires a particular spark that one either has or has not.

  • CottonBlimp

    It’s not a spark so much as a tedious pedantry.

  • CottonBlimp

    See every debate on raising the minimum wage.

    “Why should fast food workers make $15 when I only make $10!?”

  • CottonBlimp

    as far as I know Uganda has not legally executed a suspected homosexual.

    No, they allow the masses to do that.

    David Kato was a gay activist in Uganda. A local tabloid posted his picture and his home address and wrote “THIS MAN IS GAY AND HE SHOULD BE KILLED”. Kato was bludgeoned to death with a hammer in his own home.

    In Eastern Orthodox Russia, neonazis put fake profiles on gay dating sites to lure gay kids into their homes. They then tie them up, beat the shit out of them, torture them, rape them, and video tape the whole affair for others to watch.

    Or how about Greece, where the clergy lead riots to attack gay clubs and pride parades?