Anarchy Africansis

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This is the epilogue of the Ethiopian Earth trilogy. After traveling around the country and documenting the indigenous architecture, I have learned a great deal. But I have also observed a depressing trend. Namely, that although I have seen many examples of energy-efficient and sustainable structures, I must note that most of the housing that I have seen has been very wasteful.

The most common type of housing in Ethiopia -- from isolated outposts to rural villages to urban slums -- is a sort of wasteful wattle-and-daub. Wattle and daub is a building method by which a lattice is weaved with wooden members, and then the grid is filled in with mud. In Ghana, the wattle and daub that I observed was done with very thin branches spaced several inches apart.

In theory this is a relatively decent method of construction. However, the modern Ethiopian version of it is more like a paddle-and-daub, because the wooden poles that they use are very thick, around four to five inches in diameter. And they are spaced extremely close together, usually with only a gap of between zero and two inches. Then a very small amount of mud is squeezed in between the small gaps.

Sometimes the layer of mud is built up to create a meaningful layer of mass. Often the house is left in such a state that the mud serves only to keep out bugs, not to provide any meaningful structural support or insulation value. Since Ethiopia is extremely hot, it would only help matters to thicken the walls up. But this is a minor issue, not the most serious problem.

The catastrophe is that Ethiopia suffers from a serious shortage of available wood sources. Even as far back as a century ago, the needs of the capital of Addis Ababa had already depleted the immediately surrounding countryside of its tree cover. It's heartbreaking to see so many trees be cut down needlessly -- and it's backbreaking for the women who have to haul the remaining wood from far away.

That is why it greatly warmed by heart to visit the community of Awra Amba, or Awramba, which means Top Village in Amharic. It is an intentional community, or commune, of Ethiopians a few kilometres east of Lake Tana in the Gojam region of the country. In the last few years, I have spent time at over a dozen intentional communities, and I can say with confidence that this is the real deal.

The community was the idea of an Amhara man named Zumra Nuru. As a youth, he observed his father and mother working together in the fields during the daytime -- but in the evening, he watched his father sit back and relax while his mother cooked, cleaned, and took care of the kids. This was wrong, and he knew it. He decided that he would live differently.

He became a wandering preacher, working his way across the areas of the country that were Amharic-speaking. When he came to a village, he would ask if they needed any help in the fields in exchange for dinner and a place to sleep. As he worked alongside them, he would discuss these egalitarian ideas, waiting for the day that his words would be well-received.

Eventually, he found 18 other people who shared his vision. Together they petitioned the Ethiopian government for land, and founded the village of Awra Amba. Over the years to come, word spread of their experiment in community, and many others joined them. Today the village thrives -- it has grown to over 400 inhabitants!

They farm their own food, their spin their own clothes, and they build their own houses. They do all of this with very simple appropriate technologies. Some of the clothes that they wear actually say "Awra Amba" -- they represent for their community! And while the youth are aware of what goes on in the outside world -- they go to public schools -- they choose to stay, they're happy here.

They have no holidays, they don't even celebrate weddings, but they are a satisfied, content people. They struggle to eke out their living, they don't even have a guest house to host visitors; but they took us into their homes, offered us food and board. They welcomed us in, and were eager to discuss community living. They receive many curious tourists, but I was the first fellow socialist to visit, they said.

They practice monogamy, and they restrict marriage to men 20 years and over and women 19 years and over. I asked them how they would deal with homosexuality in their community. My translators were obviously uncomfortably with this line of questioning, but I feel it is important that we challenge each other. They said that although they have not had to deal with this issue yet, they were open to learn.

The story of Awra Amba has been told by television crews, and Ethiopians that have heard of them regard them positively. But Zumra's only regret is that only 400 Ethiopians had embraced the vision so far. If only they could establish a school to spread the good word, teach other Ethiopians and Africans how to create true abundance, health, equality, and freedom... but how?

This is why I am nominating Awra Amba as a candidate for partnership with Kleiwerks, the amazing international instructors of natural building. This is clearly an example of a project that would both meet local needs and serve as a regional model. I broached the concept with them, and they were very interested in dialoguing around these ideas.

The existing buildings at Awra Amba are a good deal like the paddle-and-daub structures that I described earlier. However, they use very thin branches to build the walls. They build very efficient elbow stoves to cook injera and stews. And they mud over as much of their walls as their busy schedules will allow. What most stands out is that they obvious care about both function and form.

Whether or not Awra Amba becomes Kleiwerks' first African partner or not, this village will go on to do great things. They have created a truly remarkable loving and sustaining community, against all odds. I only hope that with the help of their brothers and sisters in the larger natural building movement, they will become a light unto the villages -- if not unto the nations.

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