Babile, Somaliland, 600 km east of Addis Ababa, 1956–7:
Yewoinshet’s mother Emayu, at age 13, helped prepare for a family feast. It was only the next morning that Emayu discovered that it was actually for her wedding. Emayu was forcibly married to a wealthy older man aged 26 named called Masresha: both partners were considered blessed.
Nobody can remember if Yewoinshet was born in August or September. Her passport says September, but like most Ethiopians, birth dates are not recorded, so it’s a guess.
Yewoinshet’s family owned a large farm, as far as the eye could see, 560 km east of Addis Ababa. Food was plentiful. Yewoinshet’s mother looked after the poor people in the village; her father was a local leader and her family was well respected. Yewoinshet was the eldest of 12 children, of which nine survived.
Being a very traditional, rural village, Babile girls did not attend school; only some privileged boys had such an opportunity. Yewoinshet knew that the boys who attended school received special school kits and were given extra food as a gift from the Emperor.
Yewoinshet was ambitious to learn and when she saw them reading she felt aggrieved that she could not go to school too. In protest, Yewoinshet went on a hunger strike until her parents agreed to allow her to be educated.At the age of 10, Yewoinshet went to a school in Harar (32 km away), as there was no school in Babile. She stayed at a Catholic monastery, named Abune Indrias. It was here that Yewoinshet was really inspired to help others, by a very kind nun, Sister Terese, who mothered orphaned children. Yewoinshet assisted Sister Terese in caring for the children’s emotional and physical needs. In 2011, at age 91, Sister Terese was still mothering many hundreds of children.Initially, Yewoinshet was a boarder in the school grounds. As one of the smallest girls at the school, Yewoinshet was encouraged by the older pupils to crawl through the drain system to deliver messages to their friends outside the walls. This drain was later blocked off as hyenas came through it into the school grounds.
Later, Yewoinshet resided and was educated in the grand old wooden European house, now a museum in Harar, called Rambo’s house.It was a one-hour walk to school. With no supervision, many girls were very vulnerable and became pregnant and had to stop school. Education of females was still not a community priority. Sex education and family planning were totally taboo subjects; sex could only be learned about by hiding under beds, schoolyard talk or peeking at couples in the dark.
At the time the Ethiopian–Somalian War broke out, Yewoinshet worked as a volunteer for displaced people from areas affected by the war. It was to be the beginning of her work helping traumatised people.
When the Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, was overthrown in 1974, Yewoinshet’s family were classified as ‘Feudals’ and were therefore an enemy of the new communist state. The government confiscated all of the family’s property and imprisoned or massacred ‘feudal supporters’ of the Emperor. Yewoinshet witnessed her friends and family being brutally killed, mutilated or imprisoned. Very few remain alive in Ethiopia today.
Yewoinshet herself was arrested and detained as a beautiful 18 year old for failing to ‘cooperate’ with the local police lieutenant, who wanted to marry her. Three years in solitary confinement with only five minutes of sunlight per day was her punishment. Starved, beaten, burnt and frequently assaulted, Yewoinshet survived on pure inner strength and faith. The prison she was moved to, located near Addis Ababa, was designed by Israeli architects to maximise prisoner discomfort, with water flowing around and underneath it.
Other young female prisoners like her decided to teach each other using discarded tobacco packets left by the guards. One sympathetic warder, whom they named ‘Postie’, allowed the girls to use his boots to convey the tobacco papers from one cell to another. Apart but together, they secretly studied seven subjects and retained their sanity.
I took advantage of my quiet days in prison to educate myself. I read a lot of philosophy. My prison time is not something I hate; it is rather some thing I miss.
I miss the quietness of the day and the night and the calmness of mind and heart. Just focused on one thing, learning.
Every day was full of adventure. Using guards as a resource to collect cigarette papers, newsletter edges, pens and pencils, was not an easy task. The prisoners had to tell stories to convince them that I was writing beautiful poems that made every guard laugh. This would motivate them to provide more stationery.
The prisoners’ ‘post office’ was one guard whom they named ‘Pochti’, who wore big air-borne boots, after a post office on the distant planet, Mars.
Morning toilet time was for ‘sending’ assignments to secret ‘teachers’ (other inmates). Night toilet time was for receiving teachers’ feedback. Each day of the week was assigned to different classes. Each one of us had access to our Pochti if we needed to. Students had different choices of ‘attending’ classes: Mathematics, English, French, Rusky, Italian, German and philosophy.
When Yewoinshet came out of prison, she attended school and scored better grades than she had in her earlier life.
Emerging from prison, emaciated and almost blind from the darkness, Yewoinshet tried to telephone her family. It took all her money to make the call; her family had to walk to the only town telephone in Babile and thought it was a cruel joke by someone. They had been informed that Yewoinshet was dead, so they hung up.
It took another two weeks for Yewoinshet to have enough money to make a second call. This time, when they answered, she just started reeling off the names of all of her family and neighbours in Babile. Finally they believed that she was alive. It took further weeks to gather the strength and money to make the 560 km trek from Addis Ababa to Babile. When Yewoinshet arrived home, her family did not recognise her.
Yewoinshet went back to school and graduated at age 24. She joined a Home Economics School and obtained an Advanced Diploma in Home Economics. After graduation, Yewoinshet went to a resettlement program to help women and children at a rehabilitation village.
Until she was 29 years old, Yewoinshet worked as volunteer for Ethiopian family-guidance association, helping teenagers.Yewoinshet was then involved in a campaign financed by the Ministry of Agriculture to assist displaced people from the great drought. The government sought to relocate displaced people and help them to build their own houses in a cleared jungle area. The children had to walk long distances for water. The people were rationed one bale of water and three kilograms of seeds each, while Yewoinshet lived on dry biscuits and tinned food.
Malaria, animals, and disease killed many. Yewoinshet spent time playing with widows and children. Snakes, lions, hyenas and wild wolves were a constant problem. She was lucky that when she was confronted by a pack of wolves, a man unexpectedly came from behind her with a gun to scare the wolves away.She had to walk a 32 km round trip to get her salary. All of the money that Yewoinshet earned went to supporting her extended family.
Remarkably, Yewoinshet survived the four big ordeals of Ethiopia: the fall of Emperor, the Somalian War, drought and now HIV/AIDS. Yewoinshet married Eshete in her late twenties and they now have three children. When the eldest daughter Mahder was nine, she had a leg injury that Ethiopian doctors recommended amputating.
Fate dictated that Western Australian Jacqui Gilmour was to meet Yewoinshet at this time. Jacqui organised for Mahder to be brought to Australia to be operated on by Jacqui’s partner Graham Forward, an orthopaedic surgeon. Mahder returned to Ethiopia cured, and a strong bond was established between Ethiopia and Australia.
‘During the time Mahder was suffering from the disease on her leg, I told her a story of a little girl who was directly and practically taught by God how to feel other peoples’ wounds so that she could help others perfectly. The girl became an extraordinary healer. From that time on, Mahder started to tell people that she was feeling pain so that she could be a wonderful doctor.’‘On Mahder’s ninth birthday, our friend interviewed her and asked, “How do you see your future?” Mahder said, with a wide smile, “I am going to be a doctor.” The planted seed worked.’Mahder then studied medicine to help others as she was helped. In 2011 Mahder graduated and is now a practicing doctor and medical lecturer in Addis Ababa.
In September 1992, Yewoinshet joined the Catholic Medical Missionaries of Mary (MMM) Orphanage. She worked there for nine years before setting up, on a part time basis, HFCE in 1998. Motivated to provide orphaned children with more than just a bed and food, HFCE became a full-time entity in 2000. It focused on keeping children in a more loving environment, by supporting families who were prepared to take on their orphaned relatives.
HIV/Aids became noticeable in 1998; it then exploded into a pandemic in the following decade. Initially HFCE used Yewoinshet’s house as an office. Then the Women’s Association gave her some space. Tea and flowers adorned her little office with one desk and a chair. The HFCE offices, still in the lower socio-economic areas of Arat Kilo and Shiromeda, now occupy several stories of office space.
HFCE has grown to be an internationally recognised aid organisation. Yewoinshet has been invited to three HIV/AIDS conferences as a guest speaker in South Africa, Uganda and the Ivory Coast. Different groups have taken her to the US, Australia, Canada, UK and Europe to share her experiences.
CNN’s Andrea Koppel interviewed Yewoinshet on film when Koppel visited Ethiopia in 2003 to investigate the HIV/AIDS crisis. After a sabbatical at Duke University in 2005, Yewoinshet then went on to do presentations on HIV at both Duke and the White House.Brad Pitt visited the HFCE offices in 2005. Yewoinshet and the staff were refreshingly unaware of his movie-star status and merely assisted him with the visit, arranged by UNICEF for him to understand the situation of HIV in Ethiopia.
HFCE has worked on many different projects with partners such as UNAIDS, PATH, Partners in the Horn of Africa, Save the Children, CARE, The Global Fund for Children, HAPCO, the Right to Play, Sudden Flowers, HFCA and HFCUSA, USAID and a number of private individuals. While one private German donor built a kindergarten, an American charity named the Goodwill Foundation funded the purchase and construction of two youth centres.
In 2012, Hope For Children Australia moved its focus to a new competing Ethiopian organisation, confusingly named Hope for Children International. While both organisations operate in the same area under similar names, the separation has not been easy.Fortunately, many of Yewoinshet’s long-term, Australia-wide supporters have grouped together to continue funding her extraordinary work; hence the establishment of Direct Reach Ethiopia.
Yewoinshet continues her tireless mission. Her six published works include the stories ‘Strong Shoulders’ and ‘Titi’s Day Out’, exemplifying her life’s work. The generation of HFCE graduates includes in its ranks engineers, doctors, health officers, nurses, pharmacists, midwives, teachers, lawyers, hairdressers, chefs, drivers, sociologists, anthropologists, sports masters, carpenters, singers, dancers, decorators and aid workers.
The personal sacrifices Yewoinshet has chosen to make and her dedication to improving the lives of the underpriviledged people of Ethiopia have required an enormous amount of personal strength to ‘carry the load. Thousands of lives are better for Yewoinshet’s work.