Abebech Gobena defines selfless giving, even losing her marriage to help someone in dire need of help. Life-long friends and colleagues witness her altruistic acts. Indeed, she is a living testament that someone’s inner candle will not go off as long as it lights up another candle. Her endeavors range from caring for children in need as well as economically developing other members of her community. Her work is perhaps the first of its kind in Ethiopia—an inspiration to many—and her name and goodwill will live long. EBR’s Kiya Ali looks into this exceptional woman’s life and work.
Loving mothers who always somehow managed to feed their children in the face of scarcity and devout fathers who stood against all adversaries to protect their children raised their hands to the sky and kneeled in the face of nature’s rage during the 1980 famine in Ethiopia. The situation got severe in the following four to five years to become the infamous 1984/85 famine—one of the most severe humanitarian crises of the twentieth century. The United Nations reported that an estimated one million people died during those days of gloom. Other sources indicate that 400 thousand fled the country while another 2.5 million were internally displaced.
On her way from a religious pilgrimage to her home, Abebech Gobena passed through the drought-stricken areas of the country. The sight of a sea of corpses sprawled all over the ground was a soul shaking moment for Abebech. When she passed through the area full of dead bodies, she came across a two-year-old girl sucking on her dead mother’s breast with the same fate lurking to hunt her down shortly ahead.
At first, Abebech was not aware of the mother’s death and tried to feed the mother. “She realized that the mother was dead only after a driver charged with the task of retrieving the corpses informed her,” Communications Head at Abebech Gobena Children’s Care and Development Association, Yitbarek Tekalign told EBR. The driver was waiting for the girl to die as he could not muster the strength to take her along with the rest of the corpses while she was still alive. But he was sure that the girl would die soon and so, was waiting for that dreaded moment with patience. Little did he know that the girl who was on the brink of death would change life’s path, not only for Abebech, but also for numerous other people she would serve. When confronted with the critical reality, Abebech decided to take the girl and raise her as her own child.
When Abebech arrived at her home, she was accompanied by two children she rescued from the famine. In addition to the girl, she saved the life of another boy whose father was dying by the side of the road. The man, lying amongst dead people, begged Abebech to save his son’s life. Abebech agreed to save the boy’s life and care for him without any hesitation, lighting up a smile on the dying father’s barren face. Abebech did this at the risk of her own safety. Since government officials did not want to bring the famine to public knowledge, they did not hesitate to take punitive action against anyone who they thought was acting to change that status quo. Therefore, Abebech had to pretend that the children were her own.
Tricking the local militia on the road was easier than what awaited her at home. Instead of appreciating her selfless deeds and supporting her efforts to save lives, friends and family sensed the potential danger she brought upon them. They felt that no one in their rational mind would do such a thing. “Her family and relatives thought that she had gone mad. So, they advised her to get baptized for a few days or to visit a mental institution,” recollects Alemayehu Dana, a caretaker who has a close relationship with Abebech and has served the Association for 28 years. As a result, she moved out of her marital home to provide care and support for the children.
However, Abebech’s decision to abandon the stable and relatively comfortable life of marriage for a commitment of care for the orphans was not appreciated by the people around her. While some laughed at her decision, others severely criticized her for choosing the orphans over her marriage. Her husband, Kebede Kostre, sued her claiming total entitlement to the property they raised during their marriage, citing the fact that Abebech was the one who asked for divorce. The judge sympathized with Kebede.
When Abebech married Kebede, he had five children with another woman. Therefore, Abebech had to raise them all and support them throughout their 20 years of marriage. Her well-paying job as a quality controller meant that she was the breadwinner and directly contributed in producing the shared wealth of the marriage. Apparently, these facts hardly mattered as the court ruled to deny her of any property from her ended marriage. Abebech did not appeal the case. “Instead she declared to the court that she did not want anything from her husband and thus concluded the case,” Yitbarek explains. He noted that this was not her first marriage-related battle as she already experienced a rough marriage ordeal when she was just 11. “She won them both in her own unique way that most people cannot comprehend easily,” remarked Yitbarek, oozing pride while narrating the deeds of his long-time colleague.
Abebech, born in the rural village of Shebel in 1938, was a victim of an arranged marriage. Despite her intent to pursue formal education, her family forced her to marry when she was just 11. After a while, she fled her marital home and returned to her parents, only to find them unwelcoming. They quickly forced her to get back to her husband. “The worst thing was that when her husband became aware of what she had done, he locked her in a room and assigned a gate keeper to monitor her activities.
It was like a prison,” wrote Tiruwork Kassa, author of Abebech Gobena’s Amharic biography Tesfa Yeseneke Guzo—a book published in 2003 that roughly translates to hopeful journey. Under those conditions, Abebech could not bear her marriage. Thus, she tore down the roof of her room and ran away. She ran through the jungle without food and drink and slept on trees for three days. Finally, on the third day, she got a ride to Addis Ababa. Although that was the first time she saw a car, she hopped in without hesitation. “She has been brave enough to make tough decisions since childhood,” Yitbarek says.
During her journey to Addis Ababa, Abebech noticed that the driver had developed feelings for her. Once she reached Addis, therefore, she escaped him and sat near the fence of the Fire and Emergency Prevention and Rescue Agency. Her biography states that she was confused when night fell but the street lights kept the area lit and there were still people going about their business. She felt that it must still be daytime. Since she knew no one and had nowhere to go to, Abebech had to stay by the fence and wait for whatever would unfold next. Fortunately, a person called Asrate noticed that Abebech was from the countryside and took her to his home. He raised her and let her access basic education.
Abebech studied hard and won herself a U.K. scholarship when she was a sixth grader. However, she missed the opportunity because she got sick at the time. Upon winning the scholarship, she received training along with other students who won the scholarship. Once recovered, her trainer recommended her to Ehil Sebel, where she worked until she got divorced from her second husband, Kebede.
After her separation from Kebede, Abebech stayed with her children at a place she bought to start a poultry farm. By the end of 1980, the number of children she raised had reached 21. Therefore, she sold all her possessions like her gold jewelry and kept pushing forward. Through time, her efforts bore fruit and, until now, she has been able to help more than 3,000 children.
Currently, Abebech Gobena Children’s Care and Development Association undertakes numerous income generating activities to sustain its service to children and provide employment opportunities to members of the community. A number of these activities are based on petty trade, which kept the association running in the early days of its establishment. The head office of the association is located near Gojam Berenda, Arada District. Behind the head office, there is a hospital and in front of it, there is a primary school both in the name of Abebech Gobena and owned by the organization.
Straight into the main gate of the association headquarters, there is a hall adorned with various recognizing certificates and trophies given to Abebech. These awards completely cover one side of the wall. Adjacently, there are photos posted providing a glimpse of the activities carried out by the association over the years. Abebech has received a doctorate of honor from Jimma University in 2010. On the left side of the compound is the place where Abebech lives. The rooms in the compound are built alongside different kinds of trees (coffee, lemon, avocado, and many more). “Abebech loves planting trees,” Alemayehu says. Abebech used to live together with the children in this compound but since acquiring amnesia, however, she has been living alone next to the children’s room.
Abebech’s room only has a bed, sofa and cabinet surrounded by toys. “In this compound, two suns shine on the children—Abebech is one of them,” Buzuayehu Demise, a nanny at the association noted. Natnael Gobena agrees. “Abebech raises me like a mother. She is practically my mother,” he said. Natnael is a 17-year-old polite boy who lives with 31 other children in the Association’s premises. “She dedicated her life to be a mother to many,” Yitbarek confirms while pointing his finger to Abebech. Although amnesia has diminished her consciousness of what is going on around her, she still looks graceful and elegant while sitting on the porch in a white Habesha dress.
Her Association sells different kinds of flours produced in its own flourmill to the community and hotels. The same mill is also used to grind more than 60 different spices used to make traditional spice mixes. There is also a facility that produces sweaters and other school and security uniforms. The Association also has a farm in Birbirsa, located 150 kms away from Addis Ababa. Originally established as a training and community development center, the farm is currently engaged in crop production, dairy farming, egg production, edible oil extraction, small eucalyptus plantation and cattle fattening.
In addition to raising and supporting children, the Association provides education both formally and informally. The informal schools that the Association helped establish have later become formal educational institutions, and have now been handed over to the government. It has also established its own primary schools—one in Addis Ababa and another in Burayu—providing free education to children. “However, we have plans to handover the school in Addis to the government as it has launched a uniform provision and school feeding program,” Yitbarek elaborates.
Over the years, the Association has installed many water points for the community so they may have access to clean water. This also includes hand-dug wells in rural locations. Closed pit latrines and other types of latrines have also been built for the communities who have had no access to showering facilities. In rural areas, the Association has built micro dams to promote the use of irrigation by farmers.
Since 2002, the Association has trained 9,650 destitute women. The trainings include life skills education and the preparation of cultural and foreign foods. The trainings have enabled the women to find employment or start their own small businesses, paving the way for self-sufficiency. The Association also encourages saving and provides credit schemes. Groups of women in rural areas have been provided with livestock so they may breed them and produce milk and its derivatives for their households and the market. Feeding malnourished children and their mothers is another service provided by the Association. 2,550 children have benefited from the service up to now.
In general, since its inception, the Association has supported over 12,000 children and over 1.5 million people benefiting directly or indirectly from its services in different regions of the country.
The Association’s financial problems, however, have exacerbated following Abebech’s health problems. “Mainly Plan International and Menschen für Menschen consistently fund the Association. Before Abebech got sick, it was easier to get funds. Since they know her, she just had to make a call or go in person to get support. Now it takes too long to get funds and our proposals even get rejected sometimes,” remarked Executive Director of the Association, Eshetu Arega.
Despite the challenges, the organization is still serving the community. Abebech has also transferred the ownership of the organization to its members. “Abebech has done a lot throughout her life and she is a living testament that someone’s inner candle will not go off as long as it lights up another candle. We will follow in her suit and continue serving the community even in the face of challenges,” Eshetu concludes.
9th Year • Jan.16 – Feb.15 2020 • No. 82