Abebech Gobena – Mother Teresa of Ethiopia
(Amharic: አበበች ጎበና; Afan Oromo: Abbabachi Goobanaa; born 1938) is an Ethiopian humanitarian, and the founder and manager of AGOHELMA, one of the oldest orphanages in Ethiopia. She was often called the Mother Teresa of Africa.
Abebech was born in a small rural village called Shebel in 1938. Her father was killed during the second Ethio-Italian war, so she was raised by her grandparents until the age of nine. At the age of 10, she was married without her consent, but she ran away to the capital, Addis Ababa. There, she managed to get basic education and later worked as a quality controller at a coffee and grain company.
She went to Gishen Mariam, Wollo Province, for pilgrimage in 1973. At the time, the area was severely stricken by famine. In a feeding center, Gobena saw a child next to her dead mother. She distributed the only thing she had to other victims, a loaf of bread and five liters of holy water, and brought the child along with another orphan to her home in Addis Ababa. In one year, she brought 21 children to her home.
Today, AGOHELMA, the association she founded, provides various services in addition to the orphanage itself, including formal and non-formal education, HIV/AIDS prevention activities, habitat improvement and infrastructure development, empowerment of women, among others. Additionally, it provides institutional care for 150 orphans. Since its establishment, over 12,000 needy children have been supported by the association with over 1.5 million people having benefited either directly or indirectly from the association in different regions of the country.
Abebech Gobena has no children of her own but she has a family of about 450,000 people. She has been called the Mother Teresa of Africa. Like Mother Teresa, she is imaginative at raising money. She sells cultural food items to big HOTELS like the Sheraton.
A month after Mrs. Gobena was born in the village of Shebel , her father was killed by Italians invading Ethiopia . She was brought up by grandparents and married at ten but ran away to Addis Ababa where she eventually remarried and became a quality controller at a coffee and grain company.
Then in 1973 she went on a pilgrimage to the church of Gishen Mariam in Wollo province, north of the capital. It was a time of drought, civil war and famine. She had a loaf of bread and five litres of holy water, which she distributed to victims. Then she saw a woman with a child at her breast. She thought the woman was asleep and tried to wake her, but the woman was dead. She took the child and another orphan home to Addis Ababa . By the end of the year, she was caring for 21 orphans.
Her husband and relatives thought her mad. The family, they said, had too little income to look after so many. She moved out with the children into a poultry house where she built a bed out of mud. To keep the children alive, she sold her JEWELLERY and made and sold injera bread and other food.
Gradually she got help and, in 1986, her orphanage was registered by the government. The Abebech Gobena Orphanage and School now has 200 resident and 482 non-resident pupils, the government providing some teachers. AGOS pays school fees for over 1,000 children from poor families at other schools. Over 1,800 benefit from a child-sponsorship scheme. Over 2,000 malnourished children and mothers receive food.
Mrs. Gobena’s aim as general manager is to make needy children into productive and responsible citizens so they can support themselves and contribute to society. They learn sewing, knitting and weaving, metalwork, plumbing, electricity, photography and silkscreen printing. She reunites orphans with relatives when possible. The number of orphans is growing with the spread of HIV.
Not only children concern her. “I am not at ease,” she says, “with backwardness, poverty, hunger and HIV/AIDS.”
For families crowded into SINGLE ROOMS in congested Addis slums, AGOS has built three schools, a health centre, 268 houses, 40 latrines and 25 water points. It has built 200 kitchens for those forced to cook in their living rooms. It offers training to girls who come from the countryside looking for work and end up abused or in the sex industry, contracting HIV. Over 200 girls have learned food preparation and catering, for jobs in households and hotels. City life leaves little time for traditional Ethiopian food preparation. For AGOS trainees, this is a job opportunity.
In 1990 AGOS launched its first project outside Addis Ababa , at Guder 90 miles away. Initially, this was a farm to provide food and raise income for the Addis Ababa orphanage. AGOS has since established a primary school and a kindergarten for poor children at Burayu, on the outskirts of Addis, and a training centre in Fitche, 70 miles away, where trainees learn weaving, sweater-making, carpentry and masonry.
Eighty miles from Addis Ababa , AGOS runs a reproductive health programme benefiting 457,000 people in Ambo and Dendi districts where fertility is high and early marriage, forced marriage, abduction and illegal abortion are common. AGOS is seeking to reduce the death rate of children and mothers. It has trained local health educators. It has trained providers of family planning services at market places and work places. It has also set up 11 centres for non-formal education in the area, benefiting over 1,500 children.
The 210 staff at AGOS projects engage in, teach and promote a large range of urban and rural development work: well-digging, latrine building, farm training, tree planting, immunisation, anti AIDS clubs, savings and credit schemes to help poor women set up small businesses. Foreign supporters include Menschen fur Menschen Foundation , Plan-Ethiopia, Pathfinder International, Save the Children Sweden, MINF also of Sweden and Don Bosco.
One supporter writes: “It is a joy to visit the orphanage. Mrs. Gobena and her staff listen carefully to the views of those they help and they finely hone courses to SUIT them.”
The judges say
A tale of how a brave and determined woman began with an act of pure charity and learnt how to build up a range of business enterprises in order not only to secure the future of the orphanage, but self-reliance for the children in later life and opportunities for the desperately poor communities from which they come.
“Abebech was both inspiring and awe-inspiring”
So much more than just an orphanage. They look to prepare the children under their care for the future and provide jobs Abebech was the inspiration of a remarkable woman.
Abebech Gobena, an Ethiopian prominent philanthropist who devoted her life to help destitute orphans in Ethiopia, died on Sunday July 4, 2021 at the age of 85, after receiving medical treatment due to Covid-19.
- Jimma University Official Website