This week’s entry was written by Negash Abebe, a Future Generations student based in Ethiopia. Negash and the other students met Zumra, an influential community leader, during the East African regional residential this term.
The day that Zumra arrived at the Red Cross Training Center in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the waitress who came to our table stopped all of a sudden and stared at one of our companions. “Are you not going to introduce me to him,” she asked, after a brief pause. “I am pretty sure I’ve seen the man somewhere, possibly on national television. Just can’t recall where.”
We told her that she was right, and the man with a stoic face she was staring at was Zumra, the founder of the famous Awura Amba community. Across the country, almost everywhere everyone has some knowledge of the relentless Zumra and the community he formed. To many, he is a symbol of defiance, perseverance, love for humanity, justice, and equality for men and women.
|Zumra (center) with the East African cohort of the Class of 2017
At a very young age, Zumra began questioning the legitimacy and fairness of the community’s existing social structure where women were looked down on simply because they were not males and obliged to marry at a very young age. After decades of soul-searching, determination in the face of critical challenges, and hard work, he founded a community known today not only in the country, but also around the globe for its unique lifestyle and social ideals that center on principles of social and economic justice and peace.
Awura Amba community is as much well-known as the man who brought it into existence. Nearly ten years ago, when the news of the ways of the community came in to public attention, journalists came to speak with Zumra and other community members. It took a relatively short period of time before the name of the community, Awura Amba, became a highly celebrated brand nationwide. Some people named their businesses after the community. A popular local newspaper adopted the name.
From the very outset, Zumra has had little interest in attracting aid or any other kind of external assistance. He truly believes that in order to bring about change in a community, the most useful asset is the unwavering human spirit. He argues that many, if not all problems of the world, are solved if and only if humans place trust in their own power to make change. Zumra understands well that despite aid to a community’s cause, change happens for real when the desired change is in fact in line with the desire of the people, and as a result everyone has set its mind and heart on it. In the passionate lecture he gave in the residential program for the Africa cohort of the class of 2017, Zumra again and again asserted that people have to believe in themselves more than anything else.
In a country where the overwhelming majority of the population strongly believes in the value of religion, Awura Amba’s disregard for religious institutions is unusual. Zumra said that this progressive position has brought discrimination from other communities. During the previous regime, they were even untruly accused of conspiring against the then government and were forced to flee their land and seek refuge in the southern part of the country. At the time, people made every possible effort to wipe them out from the face of the land simply because they refused to believe in what others did. Every member of the community including the founder firmly stresses that God is in people’s mind and heart, and making institutions and going to one in search of God is a total waste of time. Zumra argues that the divine resides inside of people and looking outward for it is a waste of energy and time.
To Zumra and his community, the definition of divinity extends to the level that people are divine as long as they do the right and righteous. The idea of showing respect to churches and religious institutions that people built with their own hands, while simultaneously disrespecting the people, is ludicrous. The Awura Amba community believes that both earthly and heavenly rewards, if any, are the result of one’s actions. Zumra strongly believes and passionately speaks that people are capable of creating heaven on earth. To him and his like-minded followers, action and only action speaks louder than words.
The following day, as we left the Red Cross Training Center together, the group of students debated Zumra’s position on religion. As a young community change agent who would like to believe that reason paves the road to a better future, I listened attentively to the man’s critical thinking and liberal attitude. I was in awe.
Zumra’s inquisitive mind, outspokenness, and tenacity in the face of injustice has put him in a difficult position since an early age. He fled from his parents’ home at age thirteen. People did everything in their power to convince him that he wasn’t “normal.” After leaving home, he spent five years traveling throughout the Amhara region. He sat alone in the middle of the night amidst wild animals and thought about social justice questions until sleep took him.
Zumra has lived his entire life in defiance. He bravely challenges people, holds his ground, and yet keeps an open mind. He believes that the energy that keeps him going comes from his love for humanity. Standing for the disadvantaged lightens his heart. Making peace thrills him. Taking care of senior members of the community gives him immense satisfaction. To Zumra, all these aren’t only the moral thing to do, but the most rational path to pursue for a man and a community. Zumra is a living testimony of human energy. He walked his talk, and with little to no aid, he proved the fact that it is human energy that essentially brings and eventually sustains effective community change of all kind.
Today, the Awura Amba community, some five hundred kilometers from Addis Ababa, has five hundred members. There are also thousands of members of the community who live in other parts of Ethiopia and across the globe. Members share in and advocate the ideals of the community that center on equality of gender, social and economic justice, and peaceful coexistence. Today, in the Awura Amba community a man does what women do and vice versa. Children’s rights are respected and protected and from an early age, kids are taught the values of equality, the necessity of caring for the disadvantages, hard work, and the importance of living a free life that does not detach itself from responsibility.
Awura Amba is a utopian community. Even still, it has a long way to go in terms of achieving equality of gender, social and economic fairness, and peaceful coexistence of communities. A man, who has zero formal education, and little outside aid has managed to effectively make community change possible that many nations and people still dream of. If this isn’t the power of human energy in action, I have to say, I don’t know what is.
The Class of 2017 just wrapped up regional residential experiences in Nepal, West Virginia, and Ethiopia. Regional residentials are an important component of the Future Generations degree program because they give students the opportunity to meet face to face and explore things that are happening in their regions. Here are some summaries from each of the residentials by people who were on them.
“We visited 7 organizations related to the program outcomes and course objectives for this term. Above all, we learned that success comes through proper planning, community participation, and stakeholder partnerships. Students gained knowledge related to program outcomes, community mobilization, and sustainable development.” Nawang Gurung, Himalaya Regional Academic Director
“The term II residential for the Appalachian cohort was filled with innovative organizations, creative community involvement, and grand examples of partnerships, evidence gathering, and community organization. These shining examples, amid West Virginia’s economic collapse in the coal industry, are proving communities are willing to bind together and work for a common good even if that means finding healthier, more sustainable ways of living and working. These examples stretched across a wide spectrum of organizations and places from community gardens and farmers’ markets in Lewisburg to health groups and church assemblies in Williamson and Charleston. Though they varied in application and focus they were all working towards the same goal – harnessing and expanding human energy in a way that would spark and continue community change beneficial to people, the environment, and the economy. I am glad to see such innovation and drive alive and well in my home state, but I am happier to know that I am able to apply the same skillset I observed in these communities to my own.” Ashley Akers, Class of 2017
“After the great residential program in Ethiopia am just back to the office. This program was very special to me for it exposed us to unique experiences with a selection of relevant institutions and communities. All of us were so active to attend, tirelessly asking questions, and compiling our new learning around the clock. We covered a huge distance during the field visits but it was a learning process all along. With this, I like to express my appreciation to fellow students and I like to say thank you very much for the Graduate School management and faculty for giving us this opportunity. A thank you should also go to all institutions who hosted us and gave us their time generously. But most importantly, I love to recognize Firew Kefyalew [East Africa Regional Academic Director] for his special effort and attention for the great success of the program.” Zerihun Damenu, Class of 2017