That time I saw for the first time in my life a community where men and women had equal rights.
Ethiopia is a hugely Christian country surrounded by equally devout Muslim countries. As a result there is a lot of bloodshed at the borders. Plan your route carefully taking heed of any advice from the foreign office. It’s an incredibly poor country with a corrupt government that sells water and electricity to neighbouring countries, however, there has recently been a lot of money thrown at the tourist industry so more and more luxury travelers are ticking Ethiopia off their list.
When? August 2014
With whom? Alone
I went out to Ethiopia to complete a school project (charity work) in one of the poorest regions of Addis. I stayed with a local family and lived like a local. This involved eating local food, going to a church service in Amharic (Ethiopia’s language), and not having access to running water. On my way back to the UK I hadn’t washed for over a week, I hadn’t washed my hair in six weeks, and I was wearing pyjamas yet Emirates bumped me up to business class. No complaints here.
Once the school holidays started, the project had to be put on hold and I was free to explore the country a little more. I met a Canadian and an American who both had Ethiopian heritage and travelled with them. First, we headed North to Bahir Dar to see the Blue Nile Falls, which were very very brown. Then we went to Gondar, the former capital where we explored a castle that was occupied by the Italians after WWII and visited some relatives of my travels buddies for dinner. We visited a small community in the middle of nowhere called Awra Amba, which will be the main focus of the post, before our last stop in Lalibela. Lalibela is one of Ethiopia’s biggest tourist attractions where countless churches were carved out of a rock in 12th-13th century (similar idea to Petra, read about that here).
Awra Amba is a unique village in Ethiopia in that it lives on the principle that men and women are equal.
The rest of Ethiopia is very much a man’s world. Women are expected to cater to her husband’s every need and are not given the opportunities that women in Western cultures are given. For example, I was told a few times that my job is too important for a woman to do, and I was often approached by men in the street who thought they could have me just because they wanted it.
Another horrific experience I can remember vividly: I was keeping a woman company who was dying of AIDS. I made small talk and chatted about her life. When she mentioned a husband, I asked her where he was that day. She told me that he often leaves during the day to find a younger lover, and he will find different women each day. It transpired that as a result of this man sleeping around, he had contracted HIV, and passed it on to his wife, yet he continued to have unprotected sex with many more women whilst she lay there waiting to die.
The rife and patent sexism behind every act was enough to anger me, yet as a woman in their culture, I had to keep in line. So I was thrilled to find this community that thrived off of equality. It was founded by Zumra, who had a vision of equality between the sexes from a young age. Rather than delegating jobs to people because they are men, he judged people on their abilities and gave them an appropriate job to best utilise these. This means that men and women work together in the field, in the cotton workshop, and in schools. Men can be found cooking and sewing, which elsewhere are perceived to be women’s jobs.
More astonishingly, the Awra Amba community do not have a specific religion; they do not call themselves Christians or Muslims or any other label. They believe that labelling people with this religion or that religion creates divisions and drives people apart. Instead, to maintain unity, they all believe in a higher power and serve that power by serving each other and the community. They don’t work for payment or for ambition, but only to serve and sustain the community.
The rest of Ethiopia did not like this at all…!!! They banished the community to the most malaria-infested and most infertile part of the country. These people made the best of what they had and found that the area was rich in cotton seed, hence the cotton production for which it is known.
If you ever visit Ethiopia, (which I appreciate that most of you probably won’t) I urge you to include this place in your trip. It’s an example of how the rest of the world should be living; without hatred between religions and without sexism.
Info: I flew from Heathrow to Addis Ababa, which is one of the main flight hubs in Africa; I have changed here to fly to South Africa and to Tanzania. Ethiopian airlines were the cheapest I could find but also allowed two checked bags, both with a limit of 23kg. Returned with Emirates to Heathrow. Once in country, the route I followed was quite successful and since getting back I have discovered that it shares many stops with most tour operators and then some. It creates a loop from Addis > Bahir Dar > Gondar > Awra Amba > Lalibela > Addis. There are plenty of things to do in each place – Tripadvisor is a good starting point.
Recommended product: Lifeventure All Purpose Soap is perfect for trips during which you don’t know when your next access to running water will be. I used this as hand sanitiser and to wash underwear, and it can even be used on food! Lifesaver.
Tip of the week: When visiting poorer countries it can be tempting to give money to people who comparatively have so little. Rather than handing out money, buy some things to take before you arrive and hand these out instead. It might be pens, bouncy balls, bubbles, or some sort of edible treat.