I first met Australian icon Dr Catherine Hamlin when I went travelling in Ethiopia at the end of 2017. I spent a few days at the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital talking to her for a magazine article, and learning about her tremendous work caring for girls and women who were suffering debilitating childbirth injuries, and effectively giving them back their lives.
No one could fail to be touched by the sight of so many young women at the hospital, arriving with downcast eyes, suffering the grief of losing a baby and the terrible horror and shame afterwards of not being able to control their bodily functions. And then be uplifted by their sheer joy as they later left the hospital, cured, and ready to reclaim their interrupted lives.
While there, I met Catherine’s great friend, Ethiopian surgeon Mamitu Gashe. Mamitu was quite shy, and didn’t talk much, disappearing whenever I approached. I was intrigued, and asked about her story.
What I learned amazed me. Mamitu had been a poor, uneducated village girl from high in the mountains of Ethiopia who herself had been devastated by a long, long labour that had caused fistula, and who’d been carried down the high escarpment on a stretcher made from eucalyptus branches to Catherine’s hospital.
There, she was treated with such love and care, she was completely overwhelmed and, in gratitude, started working around the hospital.
Mamitu’s story had never been told before as she was too humble to want any public recognition. But eventually she agreed to share the tale of her life, her child marriage and the tragic pregnancy that, at one stage, threatened to rob her completely of a future.
I booked to return to Ethiopia to spend a few weeks with her talking about her story, and visiting her old village and meeting her family. But then came COVID-19, the world closed down, and my flights were cancelled. So we were forced to do all our interviews over Zoom.
We talked long into many nights – with the help of an interpreter – and the more I learned, the more fascinated I became. Mamitu began at the hospital mopping floors and making beds, and progressed to helping out in the operating theatre. Gradually, she became absolutely indispensable to Catherine and her husband Reg, during Hailie Selassie’s rule, the Communist coup that felled him, the ‘Red Terror’ massacres that followed, and the years of terrible famine.
Finally, she showed such skill and flair, she progressed to assisting the surgeons with their operations. And eventually, she began operating herself, winning awards from around the world for her work.
Today, it’s said there’s no one performing fistula surgery anywhere on earth that hasn’t been either taught by Mamitu or taught by someone who was taught by Mamitu.
She’s been hailed as the barefoot surgeon leading the way for the future of medicine in the developing world, an expert in her field even though she still cannot read or write, and the closest friend of Catherine Hamlin.
Writing this book, and being allowed into the lives of Catherine and Mamitu, and their great friendship that has saved so many young girls and women, felt like a real privilege, and one I will treasure for the rest of my life.
Two incredible women, an unlikely friendship, and a united mission to save the lives of some of the world’s poorest and most desperate women.
Healing Lives reveals the untold tale of Mamitu Gashe, Dr Catherine Hamlin’s protégée, and the inspiring almost 60-year friendship between the two women.
In 1962, three years after Drs Catherine and Reg Hamlin arrived in Ethiopia, an illiterate peasant girl sought their aid. Mamitu Gashe was close to death and horrifically injured during childbirth after an arranged marriage – at the age of just fourteen to a man she’d never met – in a remote mountain village.
The Hamlins’ Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital saved her and, in return, Mamitu dedicated her life to Catherine’s mission. Under the iconic doctor’s guidance, Mamitu went from mopping floors and comforting her fellow patients, to becoming one of the most acclaimed fistula surgeons in the world, despite never having had a day’s schooling.
This is the moving story of the friendship that saved the lives of over 60,000 of the poorest women on earth.
Published by Pan Macmillan Australia
Released 13th October 2020
About Sue Williams
Sue Williams is an award-winning journalist, travel writer and best-selling author of 23 books. Previous biographies by Sue include Mean Streets, Kind Heart: The Father Chris Riley Story; Father Bob, the larrikin priest; The Last Showman Fred Brophy; No Time for Fear, Paul de Gelder; The Girl Who Climbed Everest, and a number of books about Australian outback characters. Sue, originally from the UK but living in Australia for 30 years, has also spent much of her life travelling in Africa, and wrote one book based mostly there, Getting There: Journeys of an Accidental Adventurer. She returns regularly.