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 driving through an area recently hit by drought and associated famine. Corpses lay along the street – many dead, some died, some could still sit up and ask for food.
“There were so many of these hungry people sprawled 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 watched the baby try to suckle her breast. Then she realized that the mother was dead.
A man nearby was collecting bodies. He told her he was waiting for the child, a girl, to die.
Without thinking further, Ms. Gobena picked up the baby, wrapped it in a cloth, and took it to Addis Ababa. She returned the next day with more food and water.
“One of the men who died on the side of the road said to me, ‘This is my child. She is dying. I’m dying. Please save my child, ‘”she recalled. “It was a terrible famine. There were no authorities. The government at the time did not want the famine to become public. So I had to pretend the kids were mine and smuggle them out. “
At the end of the year, 21 children were living with her and her husband Kebede Yikoster. Initially supportive, he finally gave her an ultimatum: him or the children.
Mrs. Gobena left him and most of her property and took the children with her to live with her in a hut in the woods. She sold her jewelry to raise money and then made an income selling injera bread and mead. Since she could not pay the children’s school fees, she found a tutor who visited the hut.
She took in more children and after years of struggling against government bureaucracy in Ethiopia, she managed to register her organization – Abebech Gobena Children’s Care and Development Association – as a non-profit in 1986, which enabled her to raise funds and accept grants.
She bought farmland outside Addis Ababa, where she and the orphans worked, and sold the produce to help fund the orphanage. They also built dozens of latrines, public kitchens, and water points across the city.
Today the organization, called Agohelma in Amharic, is one of the largest non-profit organizations in Ethiopia. In addition to its orphanage, it offers free schools for hundreds of children, HIV / AIDS prevention and maternal health care – according to its own estimates, around 1.5 million Ethiopians have benefited from its offers since 1980. She and many others call her the “mother”. Teresa of Africa. “
In June, Ms. Gobena fell ill with Covid-19. She was admitted to the intensive care unit at St. Paul’s Hospital in Addis Ababa, where she died on July 4th. She was 85 years old. Yitbarek Tekalign, a spokesman for Agohelma, confirmed her death.
“Abebech Gobena was one of the most selfless and purest people I have ever met,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organization and former Ethiopian health minister, in a statement. “She helped many children not only to survive, but also to be successful in life.”
Abebech Gobena Heye was born on October 20, 1935 in Shebel Abo, a village north of Addis Ababa in the then Shewa Province. In the same month Italian troops invaded Eritrea, Ethiopia and sparked the Second Italo-Ethiopian War. Her father, Gofe Heye, was a farmer who died in the fighting.
Mrs. Gobena and her mother Wosene Biru moved in with their grandparents. When she was 10, her family arranged for her to marry a much older man, but she ran home shortly after the ceremony. Her family brought her back to her husband, who locked her in a room at night.
Ms. Gobena was able to escape through a hole in the roof and made her way to Addis Ababa, where she found a family who took her in. She attended school and later found a job as a quality controller for a company that exported coffee and grains.
The job allowed her a stable middle class life, but after founding Agohelma she lived in near poverty. She never took a salary, and her bedroom was connected to one of the orphanage’s dormitories.
Ms. Gobena – known to many as emaye, an Amharic word loosely translated as “wonderful mother” – did not simply raise the children under her supervision. Together with her training in the classroom, she ensured that they learned marketable skills such as metalworking, embroidery and, more recently, photography. She gave the older children start-up capital to start their own business.
“I have no words to describe Emaye; she was my one and only, ”said Rahel Berhanu, a former Agohelma orphan, in an interview with Addis Standard magazine. “After graduating, I started working with her. She was a mother above mothers. ”
Ms. Gobena left no immediate survivors, although she may disagree.
“I have no children of my own,” she told the London Times in 2004, “but I have a family of hundreds of thousands and I have absolutely no regrets.”