Ethiopia: Grace + Empowerment

We have all suffered to varying degrees. A lost relationship, death of a loved one, a missed chance. This summer has been especially difficult for several of my friends and also within our family due to various losses, to the point where I adopted a much practiced mantra: our happiness is in direct relation to how well we can grieve.

Grief comes in many forms, and I marvel at how often we try to push it aside and “get over it”, whatever the loss is. Lately, there has been so much of it in my life, I decided to try a different twist and embrace it. Learn from it. And I found that I am not very good at keeping that philosophy front and center.

I arrived at the Hamlin Fistula Hospital yesterday and within seconds was surrounded by women who suffer perhaps the most heinous condition a human being can endure. Fistula is not only physically debilitating, the effects are psychologically and socially devastating as well. And even if a woman finds her way to this miraculous hospital by the river, she still faces her return to her village where she often finds additional difficulties, and even a recurrence of fistula if she does not follow what she has learned while being cared for.

Yet all I see here on these grounds are beautiful women, with easy smiles, loving temperaments and deeply moving eye contact. They have felt the depths of pain that is unfathomable, only to reflect outward a generosity of spirit that is rarely encountered. It is as if their ability to suffer silently has instilled within them an ethereal aptitude to connect to humanity, instantly, at our most vulnerable level.

I am honored to be in their presence.

And as each women engages with profoundly perceptive eyes, I feel like a child, inexperienced, fumbling, uninitiated. They seem to know this, accepting this ferenji who lives such an easy life, and they take me into their graces with a tender hand, as if they know how easily I can break. These women are strong beyond imagination.

The Hamlin Fistula Hospital’s focus is not only to repair fistula, but they have built a comprehensive program that helps these women become empowered through prevention education and outreach, psychological counseling and community building. I spent the day with the patients, and followed one young woman as she showed me her daily activities.  I will share Asnaku’s experiences in the upcoming blog posts.

For now, here are some of the women who helped me deepen my understanding of grace.

Ethiopia: Extension of Ourselves

I have often tried to explain why the Ethiopian culture has such an effect on me. And words never seem to quite fit how I feel.

Something happens in this country that the structure of dialog cannot tame. A human connection at its most intimate and deepest form breaks down, bit by bit, my poised self and I find my heart beating a bit more excitedly at various turns. Grace, even under extreme pressure of the difficulties of life here, continues to be the base of existence. And I am seen. Not by what I have or how I look or how old I am or what kind of body I have, but I am viewed within a richer lens: my character is sought by those I meet.

As I struggled with laptop internet connection issues this afternoon, I experienced an example of what I am trying to articulate here. A soft spoken man at one of the many technical shanty shops was able to fix my problems after spending time with my laptop and CDMA communication device. When I asked what I needed to pay him for his services, he refused payment, citing that the problem was not difficult for him, he had the knowledge to be able to fix it, so therefore the right thing to do is share his knowledge with someone in need. He did not say this with a hint of manipulation. He eyes expressed truth and sincerity.

Life is hard in Addis Ababa. Shop keepers need every cent they can obtain, and there is extreme competition from other shops, all vying for the infrequent paying customer. I was astonished at this man’s generosity, and insisted that I pay him something for all of the time he spent on resolving my problem. I gave him 50 birr (approximately $3.00) and he seemed just as baffled toward me. He then relayed in Amharic to my friend Danny that he wished he could show me that the Ethiopian culture is not about repayment: it is more about extending to one another. His question: “Why does she think money has to be involved?”

I left with an uplifted spirit, once again being taught how to engage on a deeper human level.

Our lives in the US have been reduced to such transactional exchanges. I will do this for you, because you do this for me. I will pay you to help. I will trade something for what you have. And all too often, I will take what you have.

I pondered this all the way back to my hotel room and I had to think: What if we all started to live less via transactions and more by extending our hand, with no expectation from the receiver? What if our driving force was less about need and greed, and more about seeking ways to extend to others we engage with? I am not saying we should forgo getting a fair wage in exchange for our skills. But what if that was not what drove us in our interactions?

This extension of ourselves, a sincere and clear extension, appears to be the doorway to the ever elusive unrequited love for one another. And how might that feel, if we loved and never expected anything in return?

Many people in Ethiopia have very little in terms of possessions and housing and food choices. But they are stunningly rich in character.


Galebo Gambro helps women learn to read and write as part of Mercy Corps’ PROSPER program.

Gallery Show: Natural Playground

My image of Kristen Ulmer, extreme skier and co-founder of the Ski To Live program, was juried into the “Natural Playground” show, juried by Corey Rich and Justin Gural at the Darkroom Gallery in Vermont.  Details can be found here.

This image was first published in Sports Illustrated For Women.


Ethiopia: Maternal Mortality

I took my first trip to Africa and Madagascar when my three children were in preschool. I set off to bring back images so they could see how children live in developing countries.

Fast forward fifteen years, and this time next week I will be working with the Hamlin Fistula Hospital in Ethiopia to document the work they do to heal and also prevent a devastating maternal condition that occurs due to prolonged labor.

Had I been born an Ethiopian woman living in a rural area, chances are strong that I would have died during the birth of my first child. Ben was too large to fit through my pelvis, and I had an emergency C-section to halt his distress and enable me to give birth to him.

When I look at my three grown children, Ben, Aaron and Brynn, the love I feel overflows into an insatiable desire to help these suffering mothers in Ethiopia.

Ethiopia: Hamlin College of Midwives

Join me as I travel to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to meet some of the world’s bravest women as they support each other by reducing infant and maternal mortality and the occurrence of the physically and emotionally devastating condition of fistula.

It is a great honor to be asked to visit the Hamlin College of Midwives to capture the essence of their 2011 graduation ceremony. On October 15, 2011, the Hamlin Fistula College of Midwives will graduate a second class of trained midwives. After the ceremony, these newly trained women will return to their rural villages to care for new mothers and assist extremely difficult deliveries.

Every day, 1,000 women and 8,000 babies die due to complications from pregnancy or childbirth. And for each maternal death, at least 20 additional women suffer devastating injuries related to their simple desire to produce a family to help work the fields to sustain their food source.  These World Health Organization statistics are sobering, especially when contrasted with the kind of care that is received elsewhere in the world.

The Hamlin College of Midwives is responding to this crisis by training local rural women much needed midwifery skills and supporting them as they set up services in their rural home villages.

Come along as we celebrate these midwives and the mothers of Ethiopia!  I will be documenting this momentous occasion, as well as other aspects of the beautiful and innovative Ethiopian culture. I will also be writing guest blog entries on Phil Borges’ Stirring the Fire website.

We are hoping that a collective cheer from around the world will be heard as these Ethiopian women extend one of the most loving gestures to one another: helping a mother deliver the life that grew inside of her.

Each midwife has been able to be trained without having to pay fees, which they could never afford. Your help is critical in making this possible. Donations for the midwife college are being accepted now at the Hamlin Fistula USA website.

For Dr. Catherine Hamlin’s story, read about her book here.

Halloween + One Old Soul Boy

I watch preparations for Halloween on the streets. My nine-year-old friend who passed away this year seemed to be able to parse out his mind from logic and the overlay of structure…and help us all believe, really believe, in dragons and spirits and totems and the mish-mash of spirits that help us along. Perhaps he did know something we can’t understand.  Perhaps he did tap into something “out there” beyond our mind’s capabilities or willingness to grasp.

I think he knew that he would live far beyond what anyone could imagine. Gage is right here: magical, deliberate, thoughtful, balanced and oh-so wry.

Street Portraits: Josiah

I have been getting back out on the streets to find random subjects that I want to photograph.

It’s all in the eyes.

I spotted Josiah as he skated by on his skateboard, going everywhere and nowhere at the same time.  He now floats in my mind like Walter Chappell and others; they are whispers..not quite in focus, but in my memory, and so alive.

Reminds me of the beauty of ancestors.

ASMP Best Of 2011

My work documenting emergency obstetrics in rural Ethiopia was chosen to be in the American Society of Media Photographers “Best of 2011” project list.  I am hoping that this will bring about increased understanding of the difficulties surrounding maternal health that are present in rural settings.  The Ethiopian government is actively developing solutions to address these problems as quickly as they can, with minimal resources.

Here is an interview that details this project and others that I am working on, plus some of my philosophies and business practices.

Copyright 2017 Joni Kabana. All rights reserved. Site by TD