Thanks to everyone for their support and kind words about my premature evacuation from India. It’s only Day Six of my self-imposed quarantine, but it feels more like Day Twenty-Six. Still, I am grateful to have a place as comfortable as 80 square feet can be. At least unlike many, I have a free and secure place to park it, food to eat, internet to entertain me, and a solid 98.6° temperature. So for that, I am extremely grateful!
A good friend of mine who is in the mental health profession suggested we shift the term “social distancing” to instead “engaging in physical distancing but staying socially engaged.” I like that idea. Thanks to all my friends, family, and followers who continue to help me stay socially engaged.
Okay, so now it’s back to a much happier time in Ethiopia when the only things I had to worry about were severe dehydrating diarrhea, pick-pockets, and looking down the barrel of a Kalashnikov held by the roadside militia. Looking back, things seemed so much less scary then.
Traveling along in our loop around Ethiopia, our next stop would be an overnight visit in the village of Arwa Amba. According to our Dragoman trip notes “Awra Amba is a small community made up of less than 500 people. It was founded with a vision of becoming a place where equality was the norm and social values are at the center of life. This vision has succeeded and it now successfully supports a number of families through weaving and farming industries.”
Described by Atlas Obsura as an “egalitarian commune…Arwa Amba’s four tenets underpin the community’s way of life: respecting women’s rights, respecting children’s rights, caring for the elderly and vulnerable, and avoiding antisocial behavior.”
During our usual pre-stop briefing whereby Louise would come back from the cab, sit cross-legged atop the refrigerator, and share “the plan,” we learned about the village, its founder, the visitation schedule, and our accommodation. When at the end, Louise added “I’m not going to say much more….I’ll let you form your own opinions,” I knew it was about to get interesting.
The Arwa Amba community was founded in 1978 by visionary and self-proclaimed child prodigy, Zumra Nuru, who is still alive today. He lives within the community, and sports a bizarre yarn-spiked green hat to remind him of trees. There are two ways to belong to the community. One can either reside there, joining in as a productive member of the community. Or one can be a benefactor and member by proxy.
The beliefs of the community are contrary to almost every aspect of Ethiopian society, from gender equality to a “no begging” policy enforced on the children. But none so contrary as their stance on religion. They believe religion is a personal decision left up to each individual, and there is only one creator for all humankind, a concept contradicted by individual religions. Consequently there are no churches in the community, with the leader maintaining “I couldn’t understand why I should build a house in one particular place where I could go inside to meet the creator if he was to be found everywhere.” Got a point there!
There are also no religious holidays, festivals, or services. They attribute their financial sustainability to the fact that people are working in the fields or their weaving cottage industry daily rather than dressing up in satin gowns and parading around the Ark of the Covenant every other week. On this point, I tend to agree, having witnessed the crowds participating in multi-day festivals since we first arrived in Ethiopia, and wondering “Does anyone ever do any work around here?”
Drugs and alcohol are banned in the community, but that has more to do with “avoiding antisocial behavior” than it does religion.
The societal differences have caused conflict with the neighboring farmers, as they are viewed as a threat to Ethiopian traditions. There have been periods of unrest to the point that they were forced to flee back in 1988 under the authoritarian Derg regimen, as they were turned in as part of the opposition. They returned in 1993 following the end of communist rule, only to find most of their farmland confiscated.
Our stay there involved a fairly decent dinner from one of the community members who is studying the culinary arts. Following dinner, we were treated to a traditional dance beside a bonfire, followed by a fitful night of sleep in small, musty concrete block room on the opposite side of the compound from the communal toilet. Not my best night in Ethiopia, but certainly not my worst either.
The next morning, we were given a tour by one of the female leaders of the community, starting with a question and answer session with the treetop hat-wearing leader himself. Each of us vied for a turn to ask questions which continued for at least an hour. “Are most incoming members born here, or do they join as adults?” (Most are born here.) “Are gay rights included in the tenets?” (No, homosexuality is illegal in Ethiopia.) “Are people free to leave?” (yes) “What happens if they break one of the tenets?” (There is an expulsion process by a Board of Directors, 13 designated leaders of the community, though it is rarely used.) “Are there women on this board of 13?” (long, pregnant pause…)
While I agree with the philosophy of this community on gender equality and individual and personal choice regarding religion, something just felt amiss here. For some reason, my “creepy meter” kept going off. After much reflection, I kept coming back to one word. “Joy.” There did not seem to be any joy here. No smiles from our tour leader. The atmosphere felt very heavy. And while children were in school rather than on the streets begging, they seemed reserved and withdrawn. While they are taught not to beg like the entire population of children in Ethiopia (You! You! You! Pen? Pen? Money? Candy?) they did not have that same exuberance as the other children. Something felt “robotic,” like Stepford Wives without the submissiveness.
I was getting some serious “cult vibes” from this community, and couldn’t wait until our scheduled departure time at 11:00am. I must have checked the clock on my phone ten times that morning. Then Louise, our group leader called us all together and said “We are going to stay a little longer. We’ll be having lunch here. There are protests on the road, the road is blocked, and we can’t get through right now.” This scared the crap out of me, because it sounded like Jonestown all over again. That’s how it begins. People are not allowed to leave when the rescue party lands. Next thing you know, Congresswoman Jackie Speier is lying on the tarmac, shot five times and left for dead as the Koolaid is being passed around! DON’T DRINK THE TEA!!!
Turns out the protests were closer to Bahir Dar, and were students, nothing to do with the community whatsoever. And they peacefully waved us through. But I was still never so glad to be out of there. I am sure it was perfectly fine place, as others on the tour seemed to enjoy it, buying weavings from the shop, and talking to the locals. I guess I just watched one too many Jonestown documentaries.
We continued on to Bahir Dar, our last stop before the capital city of Addis Ababa, final stop on our tour. In Bahia Dar, we would visit Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile River, and home to the famous Blue Nile Falls. At 54 miles long and 41 miles wide, Lake Tana is Ethiopia’s largest lake, and holds 50% of the country’s fresh water. From Lake Tana, the Nile River flows almost 3,000 miles through Sudan where it joins the White Nile, and they flow as one through Egypt, into the Mediterranean sea. If you are going to cruise the Nile, 80% of your river comes from here.
The lake is also known for several 16th -18th century monasteries located on islands and peninsulas along the lake. We would visit two of these monasteries, separated by a one mile hike through a coffee plantation. Captions below detail our visit:
Next Up: I say “goodbye” to my Dragoman travel-mates and face the scariest stop yet, Addis Ababa.