A journey of joy, raw grief… and hope
Grandmothers JO MIDDLEMISS and MAUREEN BURNETT are just back from their seventh trip to Ethopia—where their charity supports a Franciscan health centre. Here, Jo reveals what their Scottish fundraising efforts in Buccama have achieved
OUR journey was uneventful, and we were happy to land again in Ethiopia, and even happier to get through customs without hassle. Addis Ababa was hectic and busier than ever. It was a joy to be met by four of the Sisters, and two vehicles for our 92kgs of clothes and medical kit for the clinic. As ever, there was laughter and tears.
After a day of rest, we set off for the long dusty journey to Buccama. Every year we are told that the road is better, and the journey shorter. It doesn’t ever feel that way!
Gradually, it began to emerge that the opening of the clinic extension, which had been our main fundraising effort for 2016, was going to be a really big deal, far in excess of our expectations.
On arrival there were literally hundreds of Mothers to greet us. Not to mention the outriders on motorbikes, and traditional dancers, chanting and singing. Their task was to escort us to view for the first time the result of all their hard work and our fundraising.
They really have done a splendid job on the new extension—everything beautifully finished, painted and already in use by patients. The dancing went on for quite a while, until we could escape to the calm refuge of the convent, but we soon realised that nothing would be normal until the ‘inauguration,’ to be held in three days time, was over.
Sisters from all over the country started arriving. The little convent usually has four, but now there were 20 or more. Sr Haimanot somehow managed to house and feed all of them.
The organisation in the convent was nothing compared to the goings on at the clinic. An enormous construction was being created from eucalyptus trees to house the many who were expected. There was a tremendous team effort, creating a kind of marquee.
What did complicate things, however, was a couple of massive thunderstorms, causing everything to be soaked and muddy.
Of course, in our Scottish way, we thought this was disastrous to the planning of a huge outdoor event. How wrong could we be?
The rain was greeted with joy, the lack of electricity shrugged off like a fly, and the work and the clinic just got on with no complaints. There is a system that, for the life of us, is impossible to spot, and yet everything gets done.
I would love you to see 30 women chopping hundreds of onions for an entire day, singing all the while, in the manner of sailors singing sea shanties, in days of yore, or a bull being slaughtered and butchered, or the enormous pots being cooked over sticks, or the mountains of ‘ingerra’ (a sort of pancake) being prepared with skill and uncomplaining dedication. The term ‘getting caterers in’ took on a whole new meaning. The creative Sisters decorated the whole place from top to bottom with bunting, streamers and flowers.
The stage was set. Maureen and I were the very reluctant centre of attention. It was overwhelming, but we could not deny that the conversion of clinic to health centre was a significant event.
A programme had been written, and it mattered not that everything started two hours late. It was as though everyone, bar us, had planned for that.
Eventually the Bishop of Woylayta arrived, and the formalities began. We started off in church, and then processed to the new building. The crowds were increasing by the minute.
Then there were speeches, tape cutting, and every inch of the extension was examined, blessed and admired. Then came the food, dancing and more speeches. They fed more than 1,000 people: guests and dignitaries first, followed by the big guns from the government, and district. It was a celebration to rival anything we have ever attended.
When it was all over, Sr H had arranged another more intimate party for the staff to thank them. Another poor goat sacrificed and devoured. The rain stayed away. The word miracle was used time and time again. Maureen and I were given traditional dresses to wear. Much admiration came our way.
Peace then returned to Buccama. The visiting Sisters went back to their various convents at 5am the next day. The clinic resumed its normal activities. Patients arrived and were treated. Maureen and I gratefully slotted into our old routine of seeing the prolapse mothers in the clinic, and handing out the clothes we had brought with us.
Although we are thrilled with the clinic, nothing is easy here. The rains are desperately needed. Food that was plentiful last year simply hasn’t grown this year. The people have nothing to sell at market, and many of them are very, very thin (hence the many who came for food at the party).
It was a time of highs and lows. Only days after our celebration, we learned that four Sisters, from another order, were killed in a horrific car accident. They were all known to our Sisters and it made national news here. Sr H had to leave immediately for the funeral in Addis, and would be gone for a week. Then one of the quietest Sisters heard that her beloved sister-in-law had died of a heart attack, aged only 34, whilst lugging water from a well.
We saw raw grief at very close quarters, and learned once again the lesson of living in the moment as you never know what is going to turn up. It is never truer than here.
Sadly there is a very uneasy peace in Ethiopia at the moment—the state of emergency has only just been rescinded. The government officials have much to do with the clinic, but do not support it financially, except for one or two extra members of staff.
However, health workers who work in government clinics have suddenly had their salaries dramatically increased. This means an absolute headache for Sr Haimanot, as her staff, although dedicated, now find themselves much worse off than their equivalents who work for the government. This is a new quandary for us, and we are scratching our heads to find a solution that works for all of us.
Babies called Jo and Maureen turn up at regular intervals to be seen and get a ‘wee something’ for carrying our names. The UVP Mothers come in regularly, not in the huge numbers of old, but a steady stream.
Every morning, we conduct an education class, explaining the causes of prolapse and the procedure for helping. We reiterate that there is no need for shame and secrecy, but there is a need to have midwife-managed births, and to share their knowledge with other women.
Only yesterday, a woman walked the equivalent distance of between Glasgow to Edinburgh in search for relief for this long-term problem. She will need the surgical procedure, but not before she is restored to health, with some good food and tender loving care.
Sometimes we were almost reduced to tears of frustration at the intractability of the situation that some of the local people are in. Women, worn down with multiple issues concerning their children, lack of food and their own poor health, all closing in on them.
We tried to walk for an hour in the cooler part of the day, and were met by sights that belong in the 19th century: children of three or four carrying weighty containers of water, a woman hacking at the dry unforgiving soil with a museum piece ploughshare, and a father with an old Manchester United top hanging off him in shreds. The many needs certainly haven’t gone away, although there is progress in many areas.
Our evenings were spent with the Sisters, stumbling around in Amharric, Waylatina, French and English.
Laughter is on the menu every night, and they never failed to cook up simple and tasty fare. As ever, it’s a month out of our normal life and re-entry into the western world is a challenge.
We cannot exaggerate the privilege of our involvement there, the love and gratitude that we receive or our determination to do our very best for the Buccama Health Centre with the help of all our EMP (Ethiopia Medical Project) supporters. Love and thanks to you all.