A Special Friendship: Catherine and Sylvia

When Drs Reg and Catherine Hamlin first arrived in Addis Ababa in 1959, they found themselves placed in the midst of the hustle and bustle of hospital life with little preamble. Managing new jobs, a new health system, a new language and a new continent was tricky – yet the Hamlins’ ability to make friends, including famed anti-fascist activist Sylvia Pankhurst, fast-tracked their acclimatisation.

A strange introduction

Upon their arrival at the Princess Tsehai Memorial Hospital, Reg and Catherine realised that no one had been expecting them – the cable informing the hospital staff of their imminent arrival was not receive for another fortnight. Due to complications arising from their predecessors’ abrupt departure from Ethiopia, the Hamlins’ accommodation had no electricity. Nevertheless, they were determined to move into the house and make do with candles.

After a candle-lit dinner of bread and sardines, the Hamlins went to bed – only to be woken up by the sound of a crash nearby and loud pounding on the front door. Bewildered by who could be at their door at such a late hour, a dressing-gown clad Reg opened the door to reveal an elderly British woman.

In a culture English accent, she introduced herself: “good evening, I’m Sylvia Pankhurst. I’ve come to see how you’re settling in.”

Dear friends

The daughter of Emmeline Pankhurst, the iconic leader of the women’s suffrage movement in the UK, Sylvia Pankhurst was also a tireless activist and campaigner. Her anti-fascism work had led her to campaign for Ethiopia after it had been invaded by Mussolini in 1935. After Ethiopia’s liberation in 1941, Sylvia raised funds for the Princess Tsehai Memorial Hospital and was named its Honorary Secretary.

In her autobiography, ‘The Hospital By the River’, written with John Little, Catherine recalls her time with Sylvia fondly: “Sylvia Pankhurst was not the sort of woman to be put out by a mere power cut.”

Only able to offer her guest mineral water, Catherine invited Sylvia in for ‘tea’. Sylvia introduced Catherine and Reg to all the intricacies of the hospital and the Emperor Haile Selassie. Catherine was a great admirer of the Pankhurst family’s efforts to fight for suffrage and women’s rights in Britain, reflecting that she “felt privileged to have Sylvia as a friend.”

A friend ’til the end

In 1960, Catherine’s friendship with Sylvia was cut all too short. Two days after they had returned from a holiday in Kenya, Reg and Catherine receive urgent news of Sylvia falling ill. After realising that Sylvia was suffering a heart attack, Catherine and Reg fought to save her but she fell unconscious. Sylvia died in Addis Ababa with Catherine by her side, holding her hand until the very end.

Both Catherine and Sylvia were united in their passion to support the most vulnerable Ethiopians. Catherine’s mission to eradicate fistula could be realised as soon as 2030. You can join the fight to make that dream a reality by donating today.

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