It feels like a very long time ago, sitting in an office in wintery England and dreaming about the sunshine in Africa. There was a small dot on a big map – near Gorgeous Lake Tana and the source of the Blue Nile, a small icon with an academic cap represents the University of Bahir Dar, Ethiopia. Months later, our bicycle wheels role on smooth tar under the warm sun towards that piece of earth. A pleasant phone call confirmed a meeting with the head of the development programme and 3 of his students at the university to chat about their thoughts on development. The day of the visit starts like any pole pole cycle tour rest day in Ethiopia: We gather around a restaurant table for ceremoniously prepared coffee, njera and Loz Chai (an absolute treat you should try making by boiling hot water with peanut butter).
Two young women enjoying each other’s company at the lake
A pretty young girl who lives on an island on the lake
We are gazing over the silver-blue lake where young people are bathing beneath the fig trees. We phone Suz, who is struggling through her Masters thesis to find out how soon she can join. Robbie, Jess, Cam, Angus, and new friend Ohad from Israel have their swimming outfits and adventure hats ready for a trip to splash beneath the shower of water that marks the source of the Nile.
I’m wearing, I realise as the others leave, odd socks and a dress too short to meet the head of the development department of a prestigious university. So I stop by one of the many shops selling beautiful cotton traditional Ethiopian dresses. The shop owner makes all of these exquisitely stitched garments herself and sells her brother’s leather shoes as well. An appropriate outfit? I hope this won’t be cultural appropriation. Some of these white dresses with colourful trimming will be sold to locals, and worn on holy days of the Ethiopian Coptic Church. Others will be taken back to tourists’ homes all over the world.
The lovely tailor in her dress shop
Looking a bit neater, I hurry on to ask one of the many tuktuk drivers to go to the university campus. The main road that leads out of town is lined with stores selling smart-looking, but uniform and poor quality (in comparison to what I was wearing) outfits from China. The contrast nags a little on my thoughts. These clothes are affordable for low income Ethiopians. Judging by the number of stores, there is clearly demand. And according to standard capitalist trade theory, everyone is better off for the imports: Ethiopia will win by exporting what they have a comparative advantage in (primary agricultural products) and importing what China has a comparative advantage in (manufactured clothing). According to this theory, Ethiopian people are wasting their time making garments by hand that could be made in China with much less time. Yet it feels uncomfortable to believe this having seen the pride with which the local garments are manufactured and worn. I think it was probably lucky that Ethiopia didn’t listen to the Bretton Woods institutions when they advised free trade in 80s and 90s. I can’t say this for sure – but perhaps Ethiopia’s reluctance to obey the standard economic ‘rules’ preserved the beautiful culture for a little longer: Ethiopians today wear beautiful, spiritually significant clothes. They continue to celebrate their culture in evenings spent in restaurants where they watch and participate in traditional dance and drink traditional Tej.
What will the academics at the University of Bahir Dar have to say about the potential conflicts (harmonies?) between capitalism and cultural preservation, I wonder as we drive along the highway in the little blue tuktuk.
Arriving at the right building with a few beads of sweat from a last minute rush, Dr Getechew welcomes me to his office with a warm hand shake. After some small talk about how wonderfully welcome his fellow Ethiopians have made us feel along our route and how exquisite the natural beauty of his country are, I ask a big question – “So, what do you think development really means, Dr Getechew?”. He begins to impart his knowledge, which I try and lap up.
Dr Getachew and his 3 students
“Development is serving societies or people… it is equal treatment.” He begins, not with economic growth or infrastructural advancement, as many of my lecturers with capitalist ideals would have started. He goes on to explain how, statistically, Ethiopia is classified as a developing country- it’s economy is growing – and fast. He has even experienced this personally – growing up without shoes and now able to afford shoes for his child. Most city children we’ve seen have shoes now. That’s the benefit of free trade with China. But that’s not what matters most to him – not the only thing development is about. How can there be development when “someone can’t eat and someone is driving a Chevrolet… and these differences are growing?”, he asks. He recognises that there are many dimensions of development, of course, but for him reduction in income inequality is key. Ethiopia is one of the world’s most equal countries. Perhaps this can be attributed to the people, like Dr Getachew, who firmly believe in the importance of equality and have sway in the Ethiopian development conversation. With all his academic knowledge and practical exposure, he is able to imagine his country where people and government serve each other, where everyone desires equality – those gifted with wealth and those who weren’t.
A small community, North of Bahir Dar, had shown us this exact beauty a week or so earlier. Founded by an Ethiopian, Dr Zuma, who saw that there is a better way of living than to accumulate wealth at the expense of one’s neighbours. This community is thriving decades later. It is called Aera Amba and founded on the principle of equality.
Us with Dr Zuma, the founder of Awra Amba
Dr Getachew sat quietly as I chatted with 3 students at the university for the next hour. Initially, they didn’t prioritise equality as much as their professor. They spoke with youthful fire about the need for political freedom, ending corruption and job creation. They spoke of the strides Ethiopia has made in health care and education, food and shelter. They laughed when I pressed them to share the characteristics that would make Ethiopia even better than America or Europe one day. Unfortunately, it seems a question not often discussed by African students. After some thought, they agreed it is the beautiful Ethiopian culture that will ensure this. That people here will always eat together, live together, share together. People will continue to help each other. And hopefully, the relatively pollutant free environment will remain so. In these remarks, they expressed what their professor was saying earlier: equal treatment of others is essential for their vision. People will continue to eat at the same restaurants, no matter their level of income. People will share what they have. There won’t be degradation of the environment to benefit one person if it harms another.
The youngest student speaks with confidence about the role of young people in ensuring this. Young people are receiving good education. They have knowledge and positive attitudes to share. They have the ability to create jobs. Those who have not received an education are vital in running the farms that feed the nation and the educated agricultural extension officers have a role to support them.
Our visit to Awra Amba had showed us the possibility of development in terms of what the students mentioned – job creation, political freedom, schooling, good health, and good food while maintaining principles of equality. People live simply, but well. There is health care readily available, the village is kept very clean. The children’s clothes here aren’t ragged like many of the children in other villages we have passed through. A staunch capitalist may be confused to hear that the community all share in the profits of the farming and weaving cooperative they work in. But communism fails – we’ve tried it, they would say. The difference here is that people have the choice to live in this community. If people want to live by the principles of equality, of hard work to support those who are less able and of freedom from a religious doctrine, they can choose to live here. If they do, they spend 8 hours a day weaving beautiful, individually special cloths or connecting to the earth as the farm nuts or honey. I think as international consciousness progresses, more people will want to make the same choice.
A woman outside the honey and nut store house in Awra Amba
Another reason Awra Amba thrives is because it is small enough for everyone to know each other. For the leaders to understand the needs of their people and to feel the social pressure from the norms established to make every effort to fulfil these needs. Here, everyone can freely exercise their innate goodwill because they know that everyone else will reciprocate. There is no fear that their kindness will be taken advantage of.
A high school student, Justice, shared why she wanted to return to live in Awra Amba when she’d finished studying architecture at university. She was wearing shorts (a rarity for women in Ethiopia) and we were sitting in the shade of the gum trees looking out over the fields. She likes that men and women perform equal roles in society, that there is never crime, that children’s rights are respected and that she can sit out here and sketch the natural beauty around her. Children walk around freely, knowing everyone in the village will keep a caring eye on them. But they aren’t expected to complete tasks beyond their abilities and don’t receive beatings as traditionally might happen.
A nurse who works in the community clinic gave a slightly different perspective. She felt a little aggrieved to be contributing more than others in the community but still receiving the same small income. Yet, she said, she is happy because she knows she is making other people happy with her work. And this is where her family is. Someone else we met thought highly of all of these aspects but preferred the buzz of city life where there are many people, restaurants and activity. And she is free to choose that life. Isn’t that beautiful? Freedom to choose equality. And by the sounds of it the students I met in Bahir Dar are eager to contribute to a society where people are free to make this choice.