Ethiopia: Daughter Brynn Finds Her Place

White skin and blond hair is rarely seen in Ethiopia, so Brynn has learned to navigate the stares and pleading requests for her attention. When our vehicle stops for gas, crowds of young men press their faces up against the glass and call out for her to look at them.  Most often, she does not exit from the car, as it creates quite a frenzy.

I am proud of Brynn’s involvement here.  She is thoughtful, kind and does not shy away from the difficulties.  I see her tending to patients, cutting suture during surgeries, extracting teeth, even performing pelvic exams to check reinforcement levels after surgery.  As well, she delights in playing with the many orphans that constantly surround her and we all can see that this experience has had a marked effect on her.  She is unwavering in her confidence, even in the most dire situations.

I am not sure I could have handled this so beautifully when I was her age.

Ethiopia: A Rural Woman’s Life

A woman who lives in rural Ethiopia has a physically taxing life.  Wood is gathered and carried home, water must be fetched, and just gathering enough food for one meal a day is a labor intensive effort.  When she becomes ill, her world stops and her children try to fill in as best they can.  If her illness is lengthy, her family suffers greatly, sometimes abandoning her in search of comfort elsewhere.

Most of the women we interviewed have been living with their prolapse or fistula condition for many years.

Ethiopia: Early Ideas, Organization, and Donated Funds

The coordination of our time in Gimbie is a huge undertaking.  Moving a large group from A to B, with varying goals, backgrounds, skills, and convictions takes an enormous amount of energy.  All of the coordination falls upon the shoulders of two people, and their stamina is nothing short of admirable.

Janice, a fitness director from the University of Oregon, is the person who initiated the idea of coming to Gimbie to provide surgeries for women in the first place.  She tirelessly gave her time and talents working with the doctors from Lincoln City who have been trekking to Ethiopia for years to make sure we arrived safely.

In addition to being a master organizer, she also jumped on the fundraising wagon and sold calendars, held bake sales, collected dresses, managed a vegetable seed delivery, and put her heart and soul into making sure everything was working like a well oiled wheel.  She raised $4500 that was earmarked for prolapse surgeries, nutritional supplements for children, and a satellite project.

This year, Janice was awarded The University of Oregon’s Martin Luther King Award.

An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.” Martin Luther King

Seyoum, a native Ethiopian and recent Oregonian, spends many sleepless days and nights coordinating travel arrangements, vetting complaints, managing the herd of cats we are, and answering cultural questions to ensure that our experience here is the most positive it can be.  He sees the payoff of his efforts: we all have fallen hard for this beautiful country, and our time here is but a small part of our broader intentions. His energy has enabled us to take that first step.

We cannot do great things – only small things with great love.”  Mother Teresa

Ethiopia: Coffee! Popcorn! Injera! Spaghetti! Exotic birds! Handwashing! Dancing! Donkeys!

How can a culture have so many things I absolutely love?  Strong coffee (and the ceremony surrounding it) is something I am sure to crave when I get back to the states.  And they serve popcorn with it!  POPCORN!

The Ethiopian fasting injera with various vegetable stews is so good that we eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner.  And since Ethiopia is one of the only African countries not to be fully colonized except for a very brief invasion from Italy, the Italian food is to be had everywhere with an Ethiopian twist of including chili peppers in the sauce. Delizioso!

The Ethiopian practice of eating with hands only (no utensils) necessitates frequent hand washing.  When it is done at the table before eating, it is a most sensuous experience when warm, gently flowing water is poured over each person’s hands while everyone watches.

The click clack sound of a herd of donkeys rushing purposely by, with their cute little over-sized heads swaying to the beat of their hooves makes me want to get up and dance!  And speaking of dance, the Ethiopians’ tribal dances with quivering shoulders and neck nibbling is over the top alluring.

Just as you start to believe that you have arrived in paradise, that thought is validated when some colorful exotic bird with a three foot tail flies by or a bush tailed money jumps in the trees over your head.

There are so many things to love about this country.

Ethiopia: Funds For Surgeries

Anna and Lori did not know each other very well a few short months ago.  Yet when they both heard about the medical plight of rural Ethiopian women, they were moved in a way that they could not help but get involved.

They decided to focusing on raising funds for the surgeries so that the women did not have to pay for these services.  At $150 per surgery, they were confident they could gather enough money to pay for 10-15 surgeries.  Little did they know that once they put their energy together, they would become a combustible force!

The idea of planning an event to raise funds was quickly considered.  Neither of them had fund-raising or event planning experience, but they both were driven to create something that touched the hearts of stateside women enough to make a true difference to these Ethiopian women.  The event would entail a “Women Helping Women” focus, and they billed the event as a Ladies’ Night Out.  No children invited, plenty of good food and wine, music, a silent auction and a heartfelt presentation.

In one night, they raised over $10,000.

Anna and Lori decided to travel to Ethiopia to determine the most effective place where they would direct the extra money.  Their first priority was to pay for surgeries, even if our doctors could not perform them all.  They would set up a fund for Dr. Tekle, the Gimbie Hospital OB/GYN, to draw from to pay for the additional surgeries.

Once in Ethiopia, they are now faced with sifting through the numerous requests for help.  This is not a comfortable task, and Lori finds herself in tears most of each day.  How can you say yes to one request and no to another, when each carries the same weight of authentic and desperate need?

After a few days of unrest, Lori and Anna realize that this is only the start of their commitment to these women. They will make a selection for this visit, and will go back home with the knowledge of various areas of need and will continue their fund-raising, involving more people on a grander scale.

Joy returns to them, and their enthusiasm grows each day as they listen to stories and gather information. At the end of each day, I find myself seeking them out, as they exude a galaxy of energy and insight.

Ethiopia: A Midwife’s Role

I ask Paul Howe, the administrator of Gimbie Hospital, what he thinks the hospital needs most.  More midwives is their #1 priority.  If a woman has pre-natal care, signs of difficult pregnancies can be detected early and prolapse or fistulas can be prevented.

Paul would like to see more skilled midwives coming to Gimbie to train local midwives how to make these detections.  Marie, seen here with a patient in labor, is exhausted by the intensity of her work days, yet she consistently soothes each patient with an energetic and loving hand.

Anna, a fundraiser who traveled with us, fills in where needed, quickly learning techniques to comfort a woman in labor.

Ethiopia: Doctors Without Words

When our bodies are ill, we are in a most tender state of being.  This is a time when support is needed in many forms.  When a woman walks miles to a hospital and becomes one of the lucky few who will get to see a doctor, she is at a most vulnerable state.

Here in the US, we ask questions, we are told how our procedures will unfold, we read about conditions, we know the risks.  In Ethiopia, a woman sets aside her fears and bravely surrenders herself to the hands of the doctors who have arrived to help.  She is scared.  She has heard of tales from other women’s experiences at other hospitals where they have experienced excruciating pain due to the lack of anesthesia.  They have seen the infections, disease and early deaths resulting from poor care.

Each woman enters the operating room with hesitant steps, eyes wide open, and silence.  We have interpreters on hand to try to communicate with them, but words rarely are spoken.  The trust level is enormous.

Even when David, the anesthesiologist, has difficulty finding the right spot in Tarike’s back to insert his needle due to her tiny frame, Tarike does not question what is happening.  David’s kind demeanor knows that she is frightened, and he stops often to look into her eyes to try to communicate that all is well.  He frequently asks the interpreter to let her know what is happening, and he softens his voice to try to temper her feelings.

It takes a special doctor to know how to administer care without words.  It takes a special doctor to give up the comforts of a well stocked operating room, with an educated staff, to come to a place and perform surgeries where 50% of the patients have AIDS.

I start to see this operating room as a ballet.  Each movement coordinated and deliberate, graceful hands, tender expressions, bodies flowing together.  At the center is the prima bella, and all eyes are on her.

Ethiopia: New Life

Difficult labor is the cause of prolapse and fistula conditions, yet a rural woman’s purpose in Ethiopia is to get pregnant and raise her children.  Over the years, her body will bear the brunt of extreme pressures, and she rarely is offered the choice to not have more children.  We find that many women who come in for prolapse surgery also want to have their uterus taken out as a contraceptive option.  Abortion does exist in shady corners utilizing sticks and other sharp objects, and some young girls will abandon an unwanted baby. But for the most part, it is a great honor to bear a child and nurture it with vigorous focus and determination.

To witness a woman struggling so very hard to stay well enough to feed her children here is very disheartening.  A human life is precious, and when I look into each child’s face I encounter – whether found wandering on the streets, or in the arms of a loving mother, or working hard to shepherd a herd of cows – I feel a sense of awe in that they are able to survive at all despite so many obstacles.  And yet, they continuously find reasons to express an easy smile.

As I contemplate what might be needed to help this country, I think of several things right away: establishing reproductive and health education, getting more doctors and midwives to be willing to work in rural areas, building more rural hospitals, obtaining sources for clean water, and developing better transportation options for those who are ill.

Yes, it can be overwhelming to see so many problems intertwined and having a domino effect upon each other. But for some reason the thought of new Spring growth comes to mind: is the crocus intimidated by the cold, hard, winter packed Earth?  No, the fragile flower transforms into new life by slowly pushing a tiny bit of dirt away at a time in order to make its way to its fullest expression.  If we really think about it, how does that flower break through the heavy Earth?

Perhaps this is how we can all work together to help a woman in Ethiopia: one small gesture at a time.

Ethiopia: Going Home

As the women heal in the recovery room, I start to see more and more smiles – elation even – and the energy swirls up like a sweet summer ocean wave and starts to take over the room.  The recovery rooms are overflowing, and we have to move patients into the auditorium.  Here, the women chatter happily and start to move around as their bodies heal.

I think back on the Fistula Hospital in Barhirdar, and wish that Gimbie had the same program where women who were recovering received books and other education.  But nothing really matters more on this day other than watching the transformation of spirit.

As I make my way downstairs, I see Jisse, the Oregon doctors’ first patient, as she is walking toward the front door.  Her son is there to help her during her long walk home.  Both of them can hardly contain their joy, and she throws her hands into the air, yelling words that do not need to be translated: she is very much thankful for her improved condition!

Janice, one of the coordinators of our team, is there to hand out dresses that she collected before she left the US.  The women are ecstatic when they see that they each will get a new dress to take home with them.

I think about how little it takes to make someone happy here in Ethiopia.  A pencil.  The sharing of a bit of food.  A wave of a hand.  A used t-shirt.  Clean water.

And health.

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