Awra Amba community is an Ethiopian model of utopia

Weaving is a vital part of Awra Amba's economy. —Courtesy Salem Mekuria

Awra Amba loosely translates to “community on a hill,” and this little Ethiopian village is a model not only for its surrounding villages, but for the world. It seems perfect that the name of this utopian community echos a speech given by John Winthrop, the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, when the Puritans set out from England in the 1600s with dreams of creating a community that epitomized right living — “a city upon a hill.”

Awra Amba is located in the rural region of Amhara in northwestern Ethiopia, and is founded on a code of egalitarian principles. Since its founding, about 40 years ago, the community has experienced hostility from surrounding villages because of its radical way of life. The community of 500 has universal education, complete gender equality, and elder care — a trifecta that even the most wealthy Western countries are struggling to achieve. What has made them unpopular with their neighbors, however, is that there is no organized religion.

Mother and child enjoy equal rights and treatment along with their male counterparts in Awra Amba. —Courtesy Salem Mekuria

“It is a very conservative part of the country, very traditional, both religiously and in terms of traditional customs,” said Salem Mekuria, director of Mekuria Productions, who is working on a documentary film about Awra Amba. “There are both Muslims and Christians, and they’re very much rooted in those religions. When these people established this community, they were not using religion. It was more, if you want to practice it, do it at home.

“In that area, where women’s rights don’t exist, they would give them equal rights, and men would be doing tasks that were considered female tasks. They’ve done nothing to the surrounding villages, but they couldn’t allow this kind of society to flourish in their midst because it was challenging the norms,” Ms. Mekuria said.

In recent years, physical violence has decreased, and families are increasingly sending their children to the school in Awra Amba and trading with the village. “They’re still quite hostile, but now, because Awra Amba is giving them services and looking more prosperous, they’re envying them,” said Ms. Mekuria.

“I’ve seen a lot of changes in my lifetime, and I find [Awra Amba] is the simplest way to achieve true equality and happiness,” said Ms. Mekuria. “I would leave my bed any day to stay there. They’re so comfortable, they’re so welcoming. They don’t fight, they discuss, they talk.”

Villagers’ homes in Awra Amba. —Courtesy Salem Mekuria

A new problem, however, is facing this young community: lack of water. Ethiopia has experienced drought for the past two years, which puts 5.7 million of its citizens at risk. Awra Amba’s economy doesn’t rely heavily on agriculture, but because of the drought and patterns of the rains, their wells run dry in late spring and they have to walk to a stream a few kilometers away for their water. Ethiopia depends on hydropower, but with the drought, the entire country has been experiencing power outages. As a result, the limited power that gets to Awra Amba is unreliable.

“About 13 years ago, the government came and dug a well for them, about 120 meters deep. They found a good amount of water that’s available, then they capped it and left because they said that they have no more money to pump it out. There’s no way to get the water,” said Ms. Mekuria., “Awra Amba’s been looking for 13 years at that well that’s capped up, and there’s water there, and they can’t use it. There’s water there, and by April and May, they don’t have any. They just can’t get it out.” The village has installed an electric pump, but because of the intermittent power service, especially during the months that the smaller wells run dry, it’s often unusable.

A man making injera, a traditional Ethiopian bread, in Awra Amba. Cooking is traditionally a woman’s job in Ethiopia. —Courtesy Salem Mekuria

Ms. Mekuria is holding a fundraiser at the Hebrew Center on June 25 to raise money to install a solar-powered water pump in Awra Amba. The project is ambitious, coming in at around $60,000. This would include a solar pump, water reservoir, and power bank. Solar power is important because it would lessen Awra Amba’s dependence on intermittent hydropower. “They’re very enterprising; they want to do a lot of different kinds of things,” said Ms. Mekuria. “Hopefully, this project will be a step forward in redesigning the village into a town. Power is so critical for development, and they don’t have it. These are people who are eager to develop.”

At the event, Ms. Mekuria will be screening excerpts from her current project, “Awra Amba’s (E)Utopia.” A Q and A with Ms. Mekuria and Geraldine Brooks, Pulitzer-prizewinning author and journalist who covered crises in Africa, the Middle East, and the Balkans, will follow the film. Jazz singer Munit Mesfin will wrap up the evening with a concert.


Water for Awra Amba is on Sunday, June 25, at the Hebrew Center from 5:30 to 10 pm. Tickets are $100 per person and can be purchased at Proceeds will benefit the solar-powered water project at Awra Amba. Donations are accepted at