Abebech Gobena, the ‘Mother Teresa’ of Africa, Dies at 85
Abebech Gobena was returning from a pilgrimage to the holy site of Gishen Mariam, about 300 miles north of the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, when she saw the woman and her baby.
It was 1980, and Ms. Gobena was passing through an area recently hit by drought and accompanying famine. All along the road there were bodies – many dead, some dying, some still able to sit down and ask for food.
“There were so many of these hungry people spread out all over the place that you couldn’t even walk,” she said in a 2010 interview with CNN. She distributed what little she had: a loaf of bread, a few liters of water.
At first Mrs. Gobena thought the woman was sleeping and she watched the baby try to suckle her breast. Then she realized that the mother was dead.
A man nearby was picking up bodies. He told her that he was waiting for the death of the child, a girl.
Without thinking further, Ms Gobena picked up the baby, wrapped her in a cloth and took her to her home in Addis Ababa. She returned the next day with more food and water.
“One of the men dying by the side of the road said to me, ‘This is my child. She is dying. I die. Please save my child, ”she recalls. “It was a terrible famine. There were no authorities. The government of the day did not want the famine to be common knowledge. So I had to pretend the children were mine and smuggle them out.
At the end of the year, she had 21 children living with her and her husband, Kebede Yikoster. At first showing solidarity, he ended up giving him an ultimatum: him or the children.
Ms. Gobena left him and most of her belongings, taking the children to live with her in a cabin in the woods. She sold her jewelry to raise funds, then earned an income by selling injera bread and honey wine. Unable to pay the children’s school fees, she found a tutor to visit the hut.
She took in more children and, after years of struggling against government bureaucracy in Ethiopia, in 1986 she managed to register her organization – Abebech Gobena Children’s Care and Development Association – as a non-profit association, which enabled him to raise funds and accept grants.
She bought farmland outside Addis Ababa, where she and the orphans worked, and sold the produce to fund the orphanage. They also built dozens of latrines, public kitchens and water points throughout the city.
Today, the organization, known by its Amharic acronym, Agohelma, is one of the largest non-profit organizations in Ethiopia. Along with its orphanage, it provides free schooling for hundreds of children, HIV / AIDS prevention and maternal health care – by its own estimate, some 1.5 million Ethiopians have benefited from its services since 1980. They and many others call her “Mother Thérèse of Africa.
In June, Ms. Gobena contracted Covid-19. She entered the intensive care unit at St. Paul’s Hospital in Addis Ababa, where she died on July 4. She was 85 years old. Yitbarek Tekalign, a spokesperson for Agohelma, confirmed his death.
“Abebech Gobena was one of the most selfless and purest people I have ever met,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the World Health Organization and former Ethiopian Minister of Health, said in a statement. communicated. “She has helped many children not only to survive, but to be successful in life.”
Abebech Gobena Heye was born on October 20, 1935 in Shebel Abo, a village north of Addis Ababa in what was then Shewa Province. That same month, Italian forces in Eritrea invaded Ethiopia, triggering the Second Italo-Ethiopian War. His father, Gofe Heye, was a farmer who died in the fighting.
Ms. Gobena and her mother, Wosene Biru, went to live with her grandparents. When she was 10, her family arranged for her to marry a much older man, but she ran home soon after the ceremony. Her family returned her to her husband, who kept her locked in a room at night.
Ms Gobena managed to escape through a hole in the roof and traveled to Addis Ababa, where she found a family to welcome her. She attended school and then found work as a quality control inspector at a company that exported coffee and grains. .
The work allowed her to have a stable life in the middle class, but after founding Agohelma, she lived in near poverty. She never received a salary and her room was attached to one of the dormitories in the orphanage.
Mrs. Gobena – known to many as Emaye, an Amharic word that loosely translates to “Wonderful Mother” – did not simply raise the children in her care. Along with their classroom education, she made sure they learned marketable skills like metalworking, embroidery and, most recently, photography. She gave the older children seed money to start their own businesses.
“I have no words to describe Emaye; she was everything to me, ”said Rahel Berhanu, a former orphan from Agohelma, in an interview with Addis Standard magazine. “After I graduated, I started working with her. She was a mother above mothers. ”
Ms Gobena left no immediate survivors, although she might not agree.
“I don’t have any children of my own,” she told The Times of London in 2004, “but I have a family of hundreds of thousands and I have absolutely no regrets.”
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