IAN DUNN meets the ‘nuns of life’ in Ethiopia who, helped by SCIAF, bring children with severe malnutrition back from the brink
The Catholic Church in Ethiopia is not blessed with numbers. Most people here are either Ethiopian Orthodox or Muslim. Yet the work of the Catholic Church here still packs an incredible wallop. No one demonstrates that better than two nuns, who between them have saved thousands of lives: Sr Celine Louise and Sr Haimanot Amanuel.
Sr Celine Louise is originally from Mangalore in India, and this Maid of the Poor Sisters came to Ethiopia 26 years ago.
“When I was 22 I decided give my life in service to the poor and the needy,” she told me. “I left my parents my brothers and sisters to come do this service and I am very satisfied with my decision. Not a single day has gone by without helping a needy person.”
A middle-aged woman now, she is always busy dashing off to talk to someone, or arrange something else. This is not surprising as the Taza health clinic she runs in Southern Ethiopia helps hundreds every day, including children who come to the specialist feeding centre.
This work, supported by SCIAF, brings children with severe malnutrition back from the brink. In a single ward, there are a number of mothers, with toddlers some of whom are clearly suffering, bellies swollen, eyes vacant. There is also one father and his son. Asefa Hosiso brought his 3-year-old son to the clinic a week ago. Now the young boy is smiling but it wasn’t the case when his father brought him in.
“His belly was swollen, even his face,” Mr Hosiso said. “Life has been harder, and we didn’t have enough food. The sisters here have saved his life. They are very good, very, very good.”
But it is all part of a day’s work for Sr Celine.
“We do get very complicated cases, very difficult cases,” she said. “Many, many times children come here and it seems hopeless, Even their parents assume they will die. Yet they do not. We have saved thousands of children here.”
Through a carefully managed feeding programme, the team here can help children who have eaten little for days. Local partners, supported by SCIAF, also monitor the parents who come into the feeding clinic, and support them with livelihood programmes to help ensure they do not need to come back.
Although Ethiopia is facing a new feeding crisis this year, with the government suggesting 20 million people may need assistance, Sr Celine says there has been remarkable change in the 26 years she has been at this clinic.
“In beginning we had 35 blankets, and we had to swap blankets between the patients who needed them most,” she said. “Now the Government helps us with supplies and, with the aid of donors like SCIAF, we help 150 people every day. We are very, very grateful for that help and it does make a huge difference.”
Given the modern, impressive facility she runs, how far it has come from those early days 26 years ago is a testament to a remarkable woman but she is not the only one.
Where she is loud, cheery, and experienced, Sr Haimanot Amanuel is quiet and smiley, and a little younger. A Franciscan sister, she does a similar job heading a health clinic in Southern Ethiopia although the clinics are several hundred kilometres apart.
In Bucamma, Sr Haimanot’s clinic deals with general and preventive medicine but also specialises in surgery for woman who have suffered a prolapse of the uterus, a challenging and complicated condition that carries serious social stigma.
“I met recently one women who said that before she had the operation, she did not consider herself as human,” she said. “Her husband had left her and married again, her children had left her, she had suffered again. Now she can go to the market, go to Church, there are many like her.”
The clinic has helped dozens of women in the past three years.
“Yes, it is sad and difficult working with the very ill,” Sr Haimanot tells me. “You try not to be too effected, but also there is great joy in helping people.”
She said that she first felt this work was her calling as a 6-year-old in Eastern Ethiopia.
“I saw a nun, she was very happy, and I wanted to follow her, be like her,” she said.
Soon after she went off to a Catholic boarding school. It was the start of a journey that would take her to Nazareth for formation and on to nursing training, to Paris and beyond before, she returned to Ethiopia.
She came to Bucama eight years ago, and although there are hardships, she feels there have been improvements.
“Things are challenging,” she said. “This is still an agricultural country. If the rains don’t come there are big, big challenges. But I think people are more positive, you can see it on their faces. We need help to sustain that change. You help someone for a year but training and education take time. Change is possible.”
That change is sustained by people in Scotland. The Ethiopian Medical Project has been helping the work of the clinic for six years and has also been supported by SCIAF. Set up by Catholics Joe Middlemiss and Maureen Burnett, who were recently jointly nominated as Evening Times Scotswoman of the year, the charity has been a lifeline.
“I’m sustained by the Church and God, but also like generous people like Maureen and Jo,” Sr Haimanot said. “Without them I don’t know how we’d have managed. They are like family.
“The Church is for the needy. We are so thankful for all the help we have received, that you see us and help us save our people.”
“We are helping women, and they are very important,” she said. “You know I heard a saying if African women stopped working for one minute the whole continent would be paralysed!”
Women like Sr Celine and Sr Haimanot, show just how true that is. The dedication to the poor of those two women dwarfs entire organisations. As they have given their lives to those who need them so much, it is clear supporting them isn’t a duty, it is a privilege.
—Pic: Simon Murphy
—Find out more about SCIAF visit www.sciaf.org. SCIAF’s Wee Box: £1 = £2 For every £1 you give to SCIAF’s Wee Box Lent appeal between February 5 and May 4, the UK government will give £1 too. This money will help poor cattle herders in Ethiopia who are being hit by climate change, and people in need around the world, to have a brighter future. To find out more and get your own Wee Box, please visit www.the weebox.org
— Find out more about the Ethiopian Medical project visit https://emponline.wordpress. com/