A horse, Armenian elders, a letter to the Emperor and a serendipitous donation – this is what it took for Drs Reg and Catherine Hamlin to purchase the land needed to build the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital. The Hamlins’ dedication motivated them to go above and beyond for vulnerable women who had been traumatised and ostracised from their communities.
In her autobiography, The Hospital by the River, Catherine recalls the first time she lay her eyes on the site that would eventually become the world’s first modern-day fistula hospital. The steep and rocky land that led to the river would ultimately be the site of Reg and Catherine’s cottage.
“I was out riding again and came across a piece of bare hillside running down to a disused canal with an old mill on the river below,” says Catherine.
The Price is Right
Reg investigated with a nearby factory manager who revealed that the land was owned by members of the Armenian community who had sought asylum in Ethiopia. In order to purchase the land, the sale needed to be approved by a council of elders from the Armenian community.
In the back of an Armenian church perched on a hill in the middle of Addis Ababa, ten septuagenarians – fathers of their community – deliberated whether or not to sell the land by the river to Catherine and Reg. A price was negotiated and a deal was struck.
Remarkably, on the very same day that Catherine discovered the land while out riding, the Hamlins received a large donation worth the exact price negotiated with the Armenian owners.
An Imperial Letter
With a price and the requisite funds sourced, the final step for Reg and Catherine was to write to the palace to attain permission from the Emperor of Ethiopia. According to Ethiopian law, foreigners were unable to own land without the express permission of the Emperor. Below is an excerpt from the Hamlins’ letter:
7th November, 1970
His Imperial Majesty
The Emperor Haile Selassie I
The writers, having long had close to their hearts a project to build (and to equip and to provide all the annual expenses of) a small free hospital of 40 beds for poor women suffering from the injury of childbearing known as the vaginal fistula, and having recently received from the people of the Dominion of New Zealand a gift if sufficient money for the building costs of such a hospital, now beg Your Majesty to grant us permission to purchase from the Armenian community for the Hospital site a block of land measuring 6,000 square metres in the name of Hamlin Fistula Welfare and Research Trust…
With humble duty we sign ourselves Your Majesty’s most obedient and loyal servants,
Reginald H.J. Hamlin
E. Catherine Hamlin
Persistence Pays Off
Even though some people were against the sale of the land to foreigners, the Emperor still sent a letter from the palace informing the Hamlins that they were allowed to purchase the land but would require further permission from the Ministry of Health in order to run the hospital.
The efforts to acquire the land were a monumental first step in providing a safe, world-class fistula hospital. The Hospital by the River provides free fistula repair surgeries for its patients. Since the inauguration of the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital in 1974, Hamlin Fistula Ethiopia have established five regional hospitals across Ethiopia.
Dr Catherine Hamlin has dedicated 60 of her 95 years to helping impoverished Ethiopian women suffering from obstetric fistula.
Help us continue treating and curing women whose lives have been defined by the debilitation of a childbirth injury for far too long. You can donate here today.