Ethiopia 2001


Since Ethiopians follow the Julian calendar, I found that I had “stepped back in time” to the year 1994 upon my arrival in Addis Ababa. This is just one of the ways in which I found Ethiopia to be unlike the Africa with which I am most familiar. Its culture has been greatly influenced by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, transported from Alexandria, Egypt. There are numerous monasteries scattered throughout the country. One is even said to house the Ark of the Covenant! The Roman Catholic Church has also had great influence on the country, having brought many educational and social services to the people. During my visit, I met with the Archbishop of Addis Ababa and the Apostolic Nuncio, both of whom spoke of the need for Roman Catholic and Orthodox dialogue to strengthen Christianity in the country. They also spoke of the tremendous need for professional and religious education for sisters.

Cycles of famine and war have resulted in overwhelming poverty in Ethiopia. There is also a high rate of HIV/AIDS in Ethiopia, and the stigma of having it is still very strong. As a consequence, many people do not receive the basic assistance they need. In Addis Ababa, two Medical Missionaries of Mary are attempting to serve these needs. They manage a comprehensive program of education, counseling, testing and care for orphans. Many lay people work with the sisters; in fact, at every project I visited, sisters were actively training local people.

As in most countries, women have little status and yet are responsible for providing food, clothing and shelter for their families. It was common to see them working as “donkeys” hired to carry huge loads of firewood or building materials on their backs. Sisters’ commitment to the promotion of women is evidenced in the formation of women’s groups to teach skills that can generate income. I found women cutting and folding envelopes for medicines that are sold to hospitals and clinics. In other projects the women learn agriculture, weaving, tailoring, embroidery and greeting card production. International markets have been established for some of these projects. At times the women form cooperatives and use some of the income to build communal kitchens and latrines for their communities.

Sisters and other organizations are strongly committed to health care for women. Fistula Hospital, nominated twice for the Hilton Humanitarian Prize, is one of those organizations. Dr. Catherine Hamlin, an Australian and co-founder of the hospital, began our tour by interviewing a young woman who had walked several hundred miles from the north of Ethiopia. Following the local custom she had soaked her hair and clothing in butter for warmth. Dr. Hamlin used a torn paper to show the girl what the tears in her bladder and uterus were like and explained how they would be repaired.

It was shocking to see what prolonged labor does to women who have no help. Their bodies are destroyed as well as their spirits because they are abandoned by family and friends and left with no way to earn a living. A number of the women are trained as nurses and one has been trained to do the surgery at the hospital. Nurses and even doctors from other countries come here to learn the techniques of this unique surgery.

Building roads, bridges, houses, and communal latrines and kitchens are other important projects of the sisters in Ethiopia. Bridges are needed because during the rainy season deep gorges in the mountainous terrain are impossible to cross. This isolates the people, preventing them from getting to the market and their children from attending school. Communal latrines and kitchens are necessary because housing is very crowded, particularly in city areas. Crowded, inadequate housing necessitates the need to build and repair houses.

With a history of frequent wars, famine and HIV/AIDS there are many orphans in Ethiopia. Sisters often take responsibility for these children providing them with homes and education. One orphanage had an unusual story. It was founded by a group of indigenous sisters who were disbanded after some time. One of them decided to remain a sister and care for the children. She was 94 when she died six years ago. The archbishop asked the Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Conception of Malta to take the 100 children living in containers. They are now building a new orphanage with funds from Italy. The government currently has a program for adoption of the babies by families in other countries.

Kindergartens are another service the sisters offer to prepare children with a strong foundation for further education. They also give opportunity for the children to have at least one full meal a day and often a weekly bath.

A number of the sisters work in slum areas of Addis Ababa, collaborating with the local people to provide clinics, house repair, women’s income producing projects, small business education as well as food and basic education programs for children. They also organize savings and credit organizations where the women learn to manage their incomes.

The sisters have historically managed health clinics in urban and rural areas. Unfortunately, many of these clinics are being closed because the sisters do not have necessary funds to upgrade them to the standards now required by the government. Along with clinics some groups also have hospitals in remote areas of the countryside. Maternity care is one of the most important services that they provide.

One hospital in Wiliso is also a school of nursing. It is the only nurses training center for Roman Catholic sisters and laity in Ethiopia. This hospital is a good example of the collaborative effort of the bishops and many religious congregations.

Meeting with officers of National Conferences of Religious is an important part of my work. I met with the Executive Committee of the Ethiopian Conference to discuss a communications project, funding for an inter-congregational pastoral training program and possibilities of collaboration with other African countries that could open opportunities for higher education and professional training for the sisters.

In addition to my visits to sisters’ projects, four other events were especially exciting. I participated in a traditional coffee ceremony celebrated daily even in the poorest homes. The floor of the house is covered with flowers and a particular type of grass. The woman sits on a stool in the middle of this setting roasting the coffee beans over a charcoal fire. She then pounds the beans into grounds, cooks the coffee and serves it in tiny cups without handles. This ceremony takes about two hours.

Secondly, I saw a spectacular herd of camels on my travels into the interior. The herders were Afars, a nomadic tribe from northeast Ethiopia. They allowed me to photograph them (for a small fee).

Thirdly, I visited an Ethiopian Orthodox monastery of nuns who are only now beginning to engage in social services and education. The superior showed us their chapel, kindergarten, school, home craft project, milling project, and dairy farm. The 95 sisters live a silent, monastic life and also care for about 200 orphans. And, lastly, I visited the bones of the first woman, “Lucy,” which were discovered in Ethiopia.

I left Ethiopia with a great appreciation for the tremendous contributions the sisters make to the development of this unusual and beautiful country. And, yes, I gained back the seven years I had lost upon arrival!