Catherine Hamlin: Ethiopia’s miracle worker

Dr Catherine Hamlin has been nominated for the 2014 Nobel peace prize. In 2008, Fairfax Media journalist Nikki Barrowclough and photographer Kate Geraghy travelled to Ethiopia to witness her work. This piece was originally published in The Good Weekend on November 8, 2008.

For almost 50 years, through drought, famine and a murderous regime, an Australian obstetrician has dedicated herself to giving women in Ethiopia a second chance at life. Nikki Barrowclough meets the indomitable Catherine Hamlin.

Addis Ababa, the restless, ramshackle, geopolitically edgy city where obstetrician-gynaecologist Catherine Hamlin has lived for almost 50 years, has the most anarchic traffic in the Horn of Africa. Battered Lada taxis and minibuses spewing diesel fumes dodge donkeys, goats and people – hundreds of people – who constantly stream in and out of the shanty towns that push right into the heart of the sprawling Ethiopian capital.

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Dr Catherine Halmin and Sister Alem Tsehai treat a patient at the hospital in Ethiopia. Photo: Kate Geraghty

Dr Catherine Halmin and Sister Alem Tsehai treat a patient at the hospital in Ethiopia.

There’s nothing like trouble to bring journalists to the Horn, where droughts, famine and brutal regional conflicts are commonplace. Ethiopia shares borders with Somalia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Kenya and Sudan. When it comes to the news from around here, there’s usually limited choice: it’s either the politics or the poverty.

But as photographer Kate Geraghty and I drive into Addis, it crosses my mind that you could draw a map of Ethiopia with nothing on it but the shadows of women walking towards the capital.

We’re en route to the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital, founded 33 years ago by Australian-born Hamlin and her late husband, Reg, a New Zealander and fellow obstetrician-gynaecologist, on the city’s outskirts. The hospital treats women with obstetric fistulas – devastating, childbirth-related injuries rarely seen in Western nations since the end of the 19th century. More than 30,000 women of all religions and backgrounds have been admitted to the hospital, free of charge, since it opened. It’s sad, and incredible, that more than three decades later women are still coming, exhausted and in despair, with the same appalling injuries, from countries across the Horn, as well as Ethiopia. Some walk hundreds of kilometres before finishing the journey by public bus, praying that the other passengers won’t order them off because of how they smell.

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