Meeting Sister Belaynesh, a Hamlin Midwife

“I am in Awe. Sister Belaynesh holds in her hands the power of life and death… she is able to use simple and cost-effective tools to work miracles.” – Fiona

Our four wheel drive turns off the main sealed road and onto compacted earth; baked dry under bright sunshine. I squint through the dust on the windshield and peer at the cluster of mud brick buildings ahead. A group of boys appear seemingly from nowhere, faces grinning as they chase after us, following our little convoy through the maze of narrow village streets.

By the time we arrive at our destination we have attracted a throng of curious youngsters. I step out of the dusty vehicle and into their gaggle of nervous laughter. The shy ones hang back while the braver ones come closer to get a better look us, the strangers. Our guide goes to talk with an official while we wait. Soon we are playing clapping games with the children.

Our group has arrived at a clinic in Yifag, a rural township in the north of Ethiopia, not far from the shores of Lake Tana. A few simple concrete buildings are before us. A cluster of patients and their families sit in the shade of a verandah. Among them is a heavily pregnant woman, bent over and looking decidedly uncomfortable.

Ethiopia has undertaken ambitious projects to improve medical services in rural areas. The Government has built simple concrete clinics and invested in education and hospital infrastructure in a bid to reach the UN Millennium Development Goals. Ethiopia accounts for 50% of the global maternal mortality rate, and there are still many barriers to women seeking and receiving trained maternal care.

The Hamlin College of Midwives was established in response to this situation. And while Hamlin Fistula Ethiopia alone cannot fill the demand (Ethiopia has a population of over 102 million people), the organisation has made a significant contribution to the Government’s efforts. Hamlin Fistula has established an independent reputation for high-quality and trustworthy services, holistic care, and continuous improvement through monitoring and evaluation.

As primary health providers, the midwives do much more than delivering babies – they are an essential part of a referral chain, ensuring hospital resources are more efficiently allocated to those most in need and providing effective care for women and their families. Every year in Ethiopia, more than 11,000 women and girls die during childbirth or as result of childbirth-related complications, and many more survive but with a life-altering condition such as obstetric fistula. In comparison, the maternal death rate, where a Hamlin midwife has been in attendance, is less than 0.1%.

Our group is about to meet one such midwife.

When we do meet, Sister Belaynesh gives me the sensation of visiting a small pink fairy. She is wearing a pretty dress and a fluffy pink scarf, and she smiles constantly. Having graduated the year before, she is full of energy and enthusiasm for her role. She politely answers all our questions about her work and the clinic while showing us the two-room set up of an exam room with a bed and a tiled delivery suite.

She pauses our tour to check on a patient: the woman from the verandah we saw earlier. The woman is clearly in labour, but judging by the unhurried calm of Sister Belaynesh, everything is in order. Some words pass between them before Sister touches the patient’s arm reassuringly. This woman will have a very different outcome to the others that we later meet at the Hamlin Fistula Hospital in Addis Ababa.

I am in awe.  Sister Belaynesh holds in her hands the power of life and death: dispensing medicines, referring patients, providing breastfeeding support and vaccinations. She tirelessly delivered babies by torch light before the clinic was upgraded with an electric light powered by a single solar panel housed in a ‘solar suitcase’. Armed with years of rigorous training at the Hamlin College of Midwives, she is able to use simple and cost effective tools to work miracles.

This is what brought me here; to Ethiopia. Of course there is much else to be awestruck by in this ancient cradle of humanity: incredible churches and medieval castles, impressive rolling landscapes and endless skies, beautiful crafts and textiles, the best coffee, and the friendliest of people.

One year before, back home in Australia, I was inspired by many friends and family members who were becoming new parents. I decided to raise much needed funds for Hamlin Fistula Ethiopia in their honour. I saw this as a gift I could give to families in another part of the world, and to mothers in particular, who otherwise could not give birth in the safety that my loved ones could take for granted.

I settled on a target of AU$18,000: the equivalent of what it costs to train a woman to become a Midwife, with a Bachelor of Science degree, at the Hamlin College of Midwives. This money could make a difference for a small number of people in Australia, but in Ethiopia it had the power to be life-changing. One woman is professionally educated for life; she will go on to save the lives of thousands of others and contribute to the health and wellbeing of entire families and communities. I didn’t do it alone: my bestie Sarah and I joined forces to fundraise together and gradually each small contribution brought us closer to our goal.

We called our little project ‘Midwife for Mother’s Day’. Our mission was born. And less than one year later, I was part of the Great Ethiopian Adventure, meeting a Hamlin Midwife.

It wasn’t easy, but that single moment made it all worthwhile.

Author: Fiona McKeague – Hamlin supporter 

To help Hamlin Fistula Ethiopia continue to recruit and train more midwives and eradicate fistula forever, please consider donating today.

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