Ethiopia Trip 2018

Ethiopia Trip: The Power of Soccer

So while it may seem like “just” soccer, it’s also about a lot more.

by Megan Stacey

For a Canadian kid, playing soccer seems pretty simple. In the community we just visited in eastern Ethiopia, it’s something much bigger.

We’re in Harar, in the eastern part of the country, and home to our two sponsored soccer teams. It’s a newer project for us, and it was our first time meeting these powerhouse girls and their coaches.

Yesterday we watched as teen girls – and some of their family members – cried after losing a Saturday morning soccer game. And it was our best day on the trip so far.

There are fifty incredible young women on two all-female soccer teams, and not only are they amazing soccer players, they’re kind and ambitious and resilient people, too.

These girls are facing incredible odds.

Many of them come from families and communities where there isn’t enough to eat.

Some are trying to bring in income to help sustain their parents and siblings without foregoing their own education and soccer dreams.

A few of the kids on these teams don’t even have homes. Today we visited with a family that lives under an abandoned truck on the side of the road. There are two soccer-playing daughters in that family, and another two girls that spent their days there because they have nowhere else to go.

So while it may seem like “just” soccer, it’s also about a lot more.

“Soccer gives a break for all of us,” said Melat Melion, a 13-year-old player from Harar. When we spoke with Melat and asked why she likes soccer, she talked about the feeling of love and unity and cooperation that she feels as part of a team.

Melat wants to be a doctor when she grows up. But she also has dreams of playing soccer at a higher level.

Female sports teams, especially for young people, aren’t a given in Ethiopia. When we watched the teams face off in a Saturday morning tournament, I wondered if I was making too much out of the female empowerment angle.

But the girls felt it too.

“We showed everyone that what the boys can do, the girls can do too,” said 13-year-old Bemnit Adisu.

We saw such determination and commitment and feistiness from our teams (I guess this may explain all the tears from the losing team). They were absolutely devastated. Even the brother of one player sat in the stands bawling. (By the way, we resisted the Canadian tendency to just bring two trophies and declare them both winners, but we did tell the girls on the yellow team how well they played!!)

Watching the girls celebrate their victory was something else. After an appropriate amount of shrieking and cheering and kissing the trophy, the entire team ran running off the field and out the stadium gates, singing and pumping the trophy overhead.

We were later told they ran their celebration onto the main street to show off the win and the hardware.

There was a quieter success that struck me just as hard. As the girls battled it out all morning, there were boys of all ages sitting on the sidelines and in the stands watching the game and screaming their heads off.

I asked Tsehinashe Mitku, another 13-year-old player, whether she noticed or cared about all those male spectators – the ones who are usually on the field.

“When we saw the boys watching, we felt there is no difference between boys and girls,” she said.

In a world where little girls grow up watching men who are given the chance to wear the national flag on their chest or the opportunity to turn a love of sports into a career, seeing our girls spill out onto the field as their community cheered them on seemed like a pretty big win.


Ethiopia Trip: Fistula Hospital

They bring back their dignity.

It only took us 15 months and two trips across the world, but we finally made it to the remarkable Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital.

You wouldn’t believe how disappointed we were in 2017 when we pulled up to the hospital gate to find out we had missed the tour day.

We finally got a peek inside this week, and what we found was both incredibly sobering and inspiring. Hundreds of women are treated at the hospital every year for fistula, a condition that develops after a long and obstructed labour – we’re talking three or more days spent straining to deliver a child, usually without medical care – and causes severe urinary or rectal incontinence.

Ethiopian government health officials estimate that close to 40,000 women across the country are suffering from fistulas today. Another 3,000 develop the condition every year.

As if the pain, discomfort and fear isn’t enough, women who have fistulas are often desperately ashamed and isolated. Without access to medical care, women who suffer from the condition in rural areas are often ignored and ostracized – even by their own families – because of the smell.

Val, Shelley and Megan with Zenebe Mesfin, Fistula Hospital Chaplin and our tour guide.

Val, Shelley and Megan with Zenebe Mesfin, Fistula Hospital Chaplin and our tour guide.

“Women would be abandoned at the hospital doors because people thought it was a curse,” Zenebe Mesfin, the hospital’s chaplain, told us on our tour.

It was the same reality that greeted Dr. Catherine Hamlin and her husband, Dr. Reg Hamlin, both gynecologists from Australia, when they arrived in Addis in the 1950s to start three-year contracts in the capital city, Addis Ababa.

That dream led to the Fistula Hospital – known by those who have read Catherine’s books as “Hospital by the River” – now a global foundation that raises funds to support the surgeries and medical care, not only in Addis but at five regional hospitals around Ethiopia, plus a midwifery clinic that trains medical students from rural areas.

(Our amazing volunteer Tracy even reviewed the book on our blog! Check out that post here.)

The Hamlins opened the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital in 1974. It was the first modern-day hospital focused on treating obstetric fistulas.

Zenebe told us it was one of the only charity projects run by foreigners that remained under the Derg, after a high-ranking official toured the facility and saw the overwhelming need.

Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital

Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital

And it remains an active hospital today. We saw so many parallels between the work done at Fistula Hospital and the life-saving surgeries to treat prolapsed uteruses that we fund in Soddo.

Mothers has donated thousands to that project – enough to provide medical care and transportation for more than 150 women. In a series of emotional interviews on the last trip, patients at a rural health clinic told us about the impact of the prolapse uterus surgeries.

Most of those women were hidden away in shame and fear. They lived with unbearable pain and an awful smell that was humiliating. Some of the women’s partners abandoned them or forced them to have sex despite their condition.

The prolapse surgery recipients told us they felt like completely new people after they were treated.   

In the same way, the Fistula Hospital seems like something of an oasis for women who have been through unbearable pain. And we’re not just talking about labouring for five, six or seven days in a remote village or suffering through embarrassing incontinence.

Zenebe told us that their youngest patient was four years old. She had been raped.

The hospital regularly treats girls that are 12, 13 and 14.

Val takes in the beautiful gardens on the grounds.

Val takes in the beautiful gardens on the grounds.

But the property is peaceful and beautiful, lush with green grass, flowers and shady trees (it probably helps that we’re here during the rainy season!). Catherine brought flowers from countries around the world, and the beauty of the hospital grounds were an important part of her vision.

“She believed this beauty was part of the treatment,” Zenebe said as we walked through the hospital property on meticulously cleaned paths and took in the trees, flowers, and landscaping.

The goal at the Fistula Hospital is holistic care, treating not just physical issues, but also addressing psychological health with a focus on reintegration for women who have been hidden away and borne the burden of stigma that comes with female healthcare issues.

“The women feel life is meaningless. ‘I am useless, no one needs me,’” Zenebe told us. Women who can’t go back home can also spend time in what’s called the “Joy Village” where they learn income-generating skills and receive seed money to launch their own small businesses.

Patients that leave the hospital are presented with new clothes and new shoes, which Zenebe said is a symbol of new life.

“That woman (who is discharged) is a completely different one,” he said.

Like the prolapse surgeries, treatment at the Fistula Hospital gives women a new lease on life. Zenebe and the rest of the staff – many of them former patients – see that on a daily basis.

“They bring back their dignity," he said.