The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Film - Monday 13th December 2010

Awra Amba

Given by - Paulina Tervo

Reviewed by - Dorothea McEwan

London, the Rev. Melanie Toogood, kindly hosted an Anglo-Ethiopian Society event in her church - the showing of a film by a young documentary film maker, Paulina Tervo.

The film, Awra Amba, introduces the viewers to an experiment in communal work and living in a village in the Amhara Region, roughly half way between Bahir Dar and Gondar. Shots of beautiful scenery were interspersed with statements by people living in the village and with dialogues by visitors. The talking head format presented three people: Zumra Nuru, the Founder, who was seen in dialogue with a group of sceptical visitors; a woman and member of the community called Zeinab (the 'mother'); and her daughter called Zibad, who wants to become a member. Both women make statements explaining why they are in the community or want to join.

The film is very short, not quite half an hour, so one cannot expect too many details. The Founder, Zumra Nuru, talking to visitors, explained his philosophy of life, which led him to found the village some 40 years ago. He lives his conviction of gender equality, democracy, work sharing and no expression of religious practice - neither Christian nor Muslim. The villagers can expect a good income from their labours; income is far higher than in surrounding villages and has grown exponentially. There is a school, a clinic, an oil mill, to which farmers from the surrounding villages come, and plenty of new projects. It is only to be expected that outsiders do not necessarily have the same views as the community and because of threats from outsiders, Zumra Nuru lives under the protection of an armed guard. The 'mother' Zeinab expressed her thoughts on a better life in the village forcefully. Her daughter, Zibad, on the run from an abusive husband, wanted to become a member, but at the end of the film we learn that her application had been turned down.

So, what is going on? The discussion after the showing of the film clarified a few points, but on the whole the experiment remains a bit opaque. What are the structures governing such a radical egalitarian group? Why was the daughter's application turned down? Could she appeal? Can she apply again? We were not told. What are the structures in place once Zumra Nuru has passed away and the experiment enters a new phase? Experiments in communal living have a long tradition; some succeed in radiating out into the wider community, others don't. For a country like Ethiopia, a village without a religious centre and the daily routine punctuated by religious observations is indeed not an everyday occurrence but is something remarkable. But we were not told how people cope with the highs and lows in their lives. Are there substitute rituals or are people, having bought into the village community - for there needs to be a financial contribution by every applicant - genuinely not interested in performing their traditional rituals any more? Is the injunction on religious practice a marker that Zumra Nuru thinks religion to be a block to the development of everybody's potential? What were the experiences of Zumra Nuru to let him embark on such a radical break with tradition and how does he or the governing village committee safeguard its continuation?

A lively discussion ensued. Whether the experiment will grow and become mainstream, whether the basic philosophy of equality will carry the day, only future development will show. It was an enjoyable evening, enriched by having the filmmaker Paulina Tervo with us who generously shared her time and explained underlying problems as well as highlights and success stories.

First Published in News File Spring 2011

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