What started out as a simple act of compassion has become a life’s work for Abebech Gobena, a woman from Ethiopia who is often referred to as “Africa’s Mother Theresa”. Let’s take a brief look at what this woman has accomplished.
Abebech Gobena is a devout Christian. She was on a pilgrimage to a Marian shrine in 1980. She had already lived a life full of challenges, but her faith had sustained her. As she walked in the region of Wollo, where the shrine is located, she began to see many people who were dying of starvation and drought.
The area was being affected by a major famine, but the government had not told the rest of the country or the rest of the world about it, in order to avoid bad publicity.
Abebech began seeing many dead people lying by the road. At one point she found a little baby, still alive, lying in the arms of her mother who was dead.
Abebech decided to try to save the child, even though doing so meant considerable risk for herself. Because the government did not want bad publicity, it was illegal to talk about the famine or bring children from that region to where Abebech lived.
Nevertheless, Abebech managed to smuggle the child into the capital city where she lived, pretending that the child was hers.
Soon, Abebech felt called to return to the famine-struck region to look for other children. By the end of the year (1980) she had brought 21 orphaned children to her home.
This caused considerable tension in her family.
“My family, my husband gave me an ultimatum, choose the children or your life,” Abebech told CNN in an interview last year.
“My relatives, even my mother said, ‘She has gone mad, she should be in a mental institution.’”
Gobena continued: “I was not welcome at home. So I decided to move to some land I had bought with the intention of raising some chicken. I moved into the forest area with the children.”
Abandoned by her husband and her family, Abebech relied on her faith and on her personal effort to take care of the children.
“I had no idea how to proceed,” Abebech explained in another interview. “I started each day with prayer… I was sure that the only way forward was to work hard with the children in order to be self-supportive. During those six years, I sold all my gold ornaments. I tore up all my dressed and resewed them into children’s sizes. I didn’t have any sewing machine in those days. I stayed twenty-four hours a day and seven days a week with them.”
Abebech had already learned how to overcome hardship in her life. Since childhood she had to struggle to get an education, a job, and a secure family life.
Abebech was born in 1938. When she was only one month old her father was killed during the Ethio-Italian war. As tradition at that time dictated, she was brought up by her father’s parents until she was 11 years old. At age 11, also according to the tradition of the time, she was married off without her consent.
Revolting against her marriage, Gobena ran away from home. She traveled to the capital, Addis Ababa, where she was able to get a basic education. She eventually got a job as a quality control agent and remarried. It was during this time that Abebech’s faith grew greatly.
Even though her second husband abandoned her because of her work for the orphans Abebech says she has been very happy in her life. Especially because she has been able to help so many children.
“I have no regrets,” she says. “God has helped me get to this point. I am so happy because none of the children died, and all of them grew up.”
Abebech’s orphanage has grown into an organization that helps over 12,000 children. Many people have come to help her over the years. Her original “chicken farm” property now educates more that 700 children.
“I suffered because of the traditions of the country I was born in. But things have improved. My goal is not to marry them off, but to raise them as adults who can take care of themselves.”
Abebech is an inspiration to us all. Her faith, her compassion, and her hard work have been a lifeline to thousands of children. She teaches us that love and sacrifice are a way to true fulfillment.
Maybe not all of us are called to help thousands of orphans, but all of us can make a difference in the world around us by trying to be persons of love. As we try to love others, God will show us the way we can help, and he will fill our hearts with his own love as well.
“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love.” (John 15:9)
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12)
“The Lord is my strength and my song.” (Psalm 118: 14)
“In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” (John 16: 33)
“As you did it to the least of my neighbors, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25: 40)
1808 Fortitude is the moral virtue that ensures firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of the good. It strengthens the resolve …. to overcome obstacles in the moral life. The virtue of fortitude enables one to conquer fear, even fear of death, and to face trials and persecutions. It disposes one even to renounce and sacrifice his life in defense of a just cause.
1823 Jesus makes charity the new commandment. (John 13:34). By loving his own “to the end,” (John 13:1) he makes manifest the Father’s love which he receives. By loving one another, the disciples imitate the love of Jesus which they themselves receive.
1827 The practice of all the virtues is animated and inspired by charity, which “binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Colossians 3:14) … it is the source and the goal of their Christian practice.
1828 The practice of the moral life animated by charity gives to the Christian the spiritual freedom of the children of God. He no longer stands before God as a slave, in servile fear, or as a mercenary looking for wages, but as a son responding to the love of him who “first loved us” (John 4:19)
1829 The fruits of charity are joy, peace, and mercy; … charity fosters reciprocity and remains disinterested and generous; it is friendship and communion.
“This limit is now abolished. Anyone how needs me, and whom I can help, is my neighbor.” (Pope Benedict XVI, God is Love, no. 15)
“Then I learn to look on this other person not simply with my eyes and my feelings, but from the perspective of Jesus Christ. His friend is my friend.” (Benedict XVI, God is Love, no. 18)
“Seeing with the eyes of Christ, I can give to others much more than their outward necessities; I can give them the look of love which they crave.” (Benedict XVI, God is Love, no. 18)
1. How do you think Abebech managed to take care of so many children? Are there any secrets to getting so much done?
2. Abebech says her faith and her own difficult background made her desire to help these children. Do you think the sacrifices she has made are worth it? Do you think she has any regrets?
3. It is hard to know when to help and when not to help. Does Abebech’s story give us any clues to solve this problem?
4. Abebech could have become bitter because of the difficulties she faced. What do you think has helped her?
5. Many humanitarian crises are not only the result of natural disasters. They are also the result of corruption and selfishness by leaders. Are there any ways around this? What can we learn from Abebech’s work in this way?