Abebech Gobena, who escaped a forced marriage as a child bride and became one of the most prominent humanitarians in her native Ethiopia, building an orphanage, schools, a hospital for women and children, vocational training centers and wells, among other works that earned her a reputation as the “Mother Teresa of Africa,” died July 4 at a hospital in the capital city of Addis Ababa. She was 85.
Her death, from covid-19, was confirmed by Yitbarek Tekalign, a spokesperson for Agohelma, the nonprofit organization she founded in 1980.
Located in the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia is the second-most-populous nation on the continent, after Nigeria, and one of the poorest countries in the world. It has suffered over the decades from drought, famine and war, including, in recent months, a civil conflict now spreading beyond the northern region of Tigray.
An observant Christian, Ms. Gobena undertook her humanitarian efforts more than 40 years ago after a pilgrimage to Gishen Mariam, a site in northern Ethiopia that contains what believers regard as a piece of the cross on which Jesus was crucified. At the time of her visit, the region was in the throes of famine, and Ms. Gobena, traveling from the capital, was profoundly affected by the suffering she witnessed.
“There were so many of these hungry people sprawled all over, you could not even walk,” she told CNN in 2010. One woman appeared to be sleeping but, as Ms. Gobena learned when she tried to wake her, was already dead. Her infant daughter was still nursing at her breast.
Ms. Gobena distributed the bread and holy water she had brought with her and took the motherless child back to Addis Ababa. She soon returned to the region, where she encountered a desperate father.
“As we were going home we came upon five people, three of them dead, two alive,” she recalled. “One of the men dying by the side of the road said to me, ‘This is my child. She is dying. I am dying. Please save my child.’ ” Ms. Gobena took that child, too, back to her home. By the end of the year, according to an account of her life published by Jimma University in Ethiopia, she had taken in 21 orphans.
Her husband at the time issued what Ms. Gobena described as an “ultimatum” — she was to choose either their marriage or the children. Ms. Gobena chose the children. She sold her jewelry for money to support them and repurposed fabric from her dresses into clothes. For a period, she lived with the children in what was described as a chicken shed.
With innovative fundraising, and with aid from foreign organizations including the Swiss group Menschen für Menschen, she built a nonprofit organization that served thousands of children, providing shelter, sustenance and schooling. Her organization also offered vocational training in skills such as sewing and plumbing, dispensed grants, repaired homes and built latrines. It provided HIV/AIDS prevention and medical care when medicines and trained physicians were scarce.
“There was no self to her,” Tony P. Hall, a former Democratic congressman from Ohio and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations food agencies, said in an interview. Hall, who has worked extensively to alleviate famine in Ethiopia, described Ms. Gobena as having “the reputation of a saint.”
“That reputation,” he added, “you don’t need television or newspapers or radios [to make it known]. It’s like a telegraph. It just goes out.”
Abebech Gobena Heye was born on Oct. 20, 1935, north of Addis Ababa in the village of Shebel Abo, according to information provided by Agohelma. Her father was killed shortly after her birth when Italy, under the fascist dictatorship of Benito Mussolini, invaded Ethiopia.
When she was 10 or 11, Ms. Gobena was entered into a forced marriage. The Ethiopian Herald reported in an obituary that Ms. Gobena escaped through the roof of her hut, ultimately making her way to the capital. She eventually found work as a quality controller at a coffee and grain company and attained a degree of affluence, which she abandoned in her efforts to care for orphans and the poor.
“Abebech Gobena was one of the most selfless and pure-hearted people I ever met,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director general of the World Health Organization and a former Ethiopian minister of health, said in a statement. “She helped many children not only to survive, but succeed in life. Starting with two orphans she brought home during the famine in the 1980s, she grew a large family, even at times to the detriment of her own.”
A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.
Ms. Gobena had no children of her own, but after her death, Rahel Berhanu, one of the orphans she cared for, described her in an interview with the Addis Standard as “a mother above mothers.”
Read more Washington Post obituaries