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Ethiopia’s Mother Teresa

Dr Catherine Hamlin at the Hamlin Fistula Hospital, Ethiopia 2009. Photo: Lucy Horodny, AusAID

“Sharing the same family blood is merely a marker” 

“I love you, mother”. It was a phrase she heard often, and in countless tongues.“Emaye ewedishalew” in Amharic, “hadha” in Afaan Oromo, “adey” in Tigrigna and “Nae’ye” in Wolaytigna, that term of affection for the giver of life.

To thousands of Ethiopian women, Dr. Catherine Hamlin was the life-giver. Her death last month in Ethiopia at the age of 96 is not the end of her remarkable story. Her life’s work goes on in the hearts and hands of innumerable Ethiopian women who were reborn in Dr. Hamlin’s care at the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital.

The Ethiopian proverb above says it well. Ethiopians may be related by blood, but the real test of family is in who cares for others regardless of blood relationship. The admirable lives of the legendary Australian-born humanitarian Dr. Hamlin and her New Zealander husband, Dr. Reginald Hamlin epitomize the vernacular heritage of their adopted country.

What joy there is at seeing someone who has been fully relieved of the pain and suffering of the demon of fistula! Imagine how beautiful it is to see them laughing again after years of wailing, and imagine how wonderful to witness someone whose dignity and confidence have been restored after years of abandonment and loneliness. To feel acceptance after being ostracized from society. I was privileged to witness the harsh reality of this life-killing condition a few years ago while visiting the renowned Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital established by Catherine and Reginald Hamlin in 1959.

It goes without saying that Ethiopians are famous for hospitality and friendship toward tourists, yet they have always been suspicious of foreigners who come to live in the country. Ethiopians fear the kind of cultural hegemony and assimilation that occurred in other African countries where colonization effectively destroyed the national identity. Nevertheless, the arrival of this compassionate couple from “down under” was another story, one that later turned into a story of absolute affection, fraternity, and humanity for the ages. Only a few other stories of missionary and volunteerism can match it, if at all. Dr. Hamlin is, without doubt, Ethiopia’s Mother Teresa.

So, what did this couple do to earn the undying love of the people in their adopted country? My immediate response to that question is: much more than their healing medical operations, they touched lives with their lasting love, goodness, and kindness.

Having heard of the passing of Dr. Hamlin on 18 March, Ethiopians across the globe took to Facebook and other social media to mourn their loss. Remarkably, a 96-year old Australian-born woman was a local Ethiopian hero. The tributes and farewell messages poured out over the Internet in several of the country’s vernacular languages. As I posted my sympathy to her family and former patients, who I believe have been greatly affected by the news, I pondered how heartbroken women would have responded to the sad news they had come across that morning.

Yet not all Ethiopians who benefit from the work of this great lady of vision will mourn her passing. Many living in rural areas will never have heard of her and the world-class healthcare facilities she built, which have contributed to a reduction in the number of debilitating fistula cases in Ethiopia. Nevertheless, they will be the beneficiaries of her legacy, as they happily count on the midwives and accomplished surgeons she trained for years.

And they may never know another important part of the Hamlins’ legacy: many of those performing the subtle medical procedure to repair fistulas are themselves former fistula sufferers who were given on-the-job training by Dr. Hamlin after they recovered from their surgeries. The likes of Mamitu Gashe, and Letay are the real success stories of this great missionary and volunteer who devoted more than six decades of her life to serve tens of thousands of destitute women, saving them from a curse that was inflicted upon them at a young age because of harmful traditional practices.

But for those women whose lives were touched by Dr. Hamlin, they will hear the news of her passing, and they will grieve. For them she was a heaven-sent angel who rescued them from humiliation and misery. In their hearts, they will affectionately hug her, kiss on her cheek and whisper “I love you” in whatever languages they speak. She was their Mother Teresa.

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Editors: Peter Heinlein, William Davison

Main photo: Dr Catherine Hamlin at the Hamlin Fistula Hospital, Ethiopia; 16 January 2009; Lucy Horodny, AusAID

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About the author

Henok Reta

Henok was a senior correspondent for Ethiopian weekly newspaper The Reporter for four years until 2016. He now lives in Auckland, New Zealand. To contact him, email: henokrg20@gmail.com

3 Comments

  • Excellent tribute but bad comparison. I think Mother Teresa did whatever she did in the hope of going to heaven (she’s already a Saint or something) and collected millions of dollars in the process. The Hamlins were motivated by pure humanity – no consideration for worldly or heavenly reward for changing the lives of millions of Ethiopians.

  • Beautifully written tribute. The legacy will live on because of the lives she and her husband changed.

  • Simply practicing medicine does not make you a saint. In either case, Mother. Hamlin and her mostly Ethiopian physicians have helped thousands of Ethiopian women thanks to this well funded hospital supported by Western donor. She should be highly commended, yes, but not canonized (made a saint).

    You know who should be admired-the many Ethiopian doctors with their low salaries and limited to no private funding who work hard for the poor.

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