“For all of us, it’s about making women free from suffering.”
Healing Lives is Sue Williams’ powerful and moving recount of the friendship and work of Australian Dr Catherine Hamlin and Ethiopian Mamitu Gashe as they save women’s lives in Mamitu’s African homeland.
Catherine, and her husband Reg, operated many times on Mamitu, who came to them as a fistula patient. She became like their daughter and, even though she had never attended school, learned to become an expert fistula surgeon herself.
Healing Lives is published by Pan Macmillan Australia.
Thank you for speaking to PaperbarkWords, Sue.
Pleasure. Thanks for talking to me!
What is your background in writing?
I have been a journalist for more years than I care to remember! I’ve worked in newspapers in the UK, New Zealand and Australia, as well as writing for TV. I wrote my first book 25 years ago, and have been working as a journalist, and writing books in parallel ever since. I feel blessed to enjoy writing so much, since I’ve ended up doing so much of it.
Australians generally know little about Ethiopia. What three things do you think Australians should know about Ethiopia?
It’s said to be the source of humankind, after the discovery of a mummified body, nicknamed Lucy.
It had the world’s longest-running dynasty, starting from King Solomon from the Bible and the Queen of Sheba, going all the way to Hailie Selassie, who was deposed, and then murdered.
It is the only country in Africa never to have been colonised by outside powers. It was occupied by Italy for a short while, but never colonised. It’s therefore a very proud and independent country – as well as stunningly beautiful with great mountains and national parks.
Could you describe the culture and living conditions that lead to fistula in young Ethiopian women?
The geology of Ethiopia, with the Great Rift Valley, dizzying mountains, remote villages and lack of good roads both preserve traditional cultures, and make life difficult for young Ethiopian women. Many live a long way from clinics and hospitals and so tend to have their babies at home, without expert help. So when they have a difficult, or obstructed, birth, they often labour for hours without clinical intervention like caesareans.
What is fistula?
During a long labour, the baby’s head rubs against the tissues of the pelvis and can cause terrible damage. It can tear the walls of the bladder and/or the rectum and cause a hole in them – the fistula – causing urine and/or faeces to leak constantly, with the woman unable to control her bodily functions.
What has been so ground-breaking about Dr Catherine and Dr Reg’s work and hospital?
They were horrified by the number of women with fistulas coming to them for help, so they read books and articles about how these were historically operated on. These types of injuries were unknown in the developed world. Then they started operating on them and ended up setting up their own specialist hospital to provide this treatment.
How did their Christian faith influence how they treat people?
They had a strong faith that they were doing God’s work, and dedicated themselves to their mission. They then fell in love with the young women of Ethiopia and would do anything to help them.
How did Catherine and Mamitu’s different personalities and backgrounds help them become so close, such good friends and the perfect team?
They were so different, but those differences ended up complementing each other perfectly. Catherine, well educated and from a comparatively wealthy Australian family, was always grateful for such a good start in life, while Mamitu – the daughter of a poor peasant farmer, with no access to running water or any schooling – still felt she was blessed to have such a loving family. That humility from each woman drew them together, and helped. While Catherine was always so outspoken in what she wanted to achieve, Mamitu was just as determined, but went about it in a very quiet way. A great combination!
Many people around the world have supported the work.
How, for example, did Oprah Winfrey’s TV show help?
And what role has The Honourable Dame Quentin Bryce played?
Oprah helped publicise Catherine and Mamitu’s work to many millions more people, who’d never heard of fistula before. Her audience was so touched, they immediately donated funds, while Oprah too made a generous donation and publicised the Hamlin’s work again when she actually made a personal visit to the hospital afterwards.
The Governor General visited Catherine on her first official trip overseas after her appointment, and invited her to meet the Queen at an official lunch for great Australian women. Ever since, the two remained close friends, and Quentin has always been eager to lend her support to all official, and fundraising, functions.
Mamitu has always been too modest and unassuming to agree to a biographical work about herself. What has changed to cause her to agree to this book?
I think she was always content to dwell in Catherine’s shadow but, as Catherine became older and more frail, Mamitu has forced herself to step up and continue to try to keep the public spotlight on the fistula cause. I don’t think she particularly relishes the attention, but it’s for a greater good!
How did you research the book? Through meetings and interviews with Catherine Hamlin, Mamitu Gashe and others …?
I first met Catherine and Mamitu when I visited Ethiopia in 2017/18, and did some interviews with Catherine then for a magazine story. Mamitu was so shy, she wouldn’t speak to me much! But I stayed in touched with the Hamlin organisation afterwards, and then the idea of the book came up. When we agreed to do the book, I filled in the gaps with interviews over Zoom.
How have you recreated dialogue, particularly Mamitu’s words?
I got to know Mamitu well after so many Zoom meetings which we conducted with a translator who works for Hamlin. He was also wonderful, even if sometimes we didn’t quite understand what we were each getting at. From her wonderful memories, and from those of Catherine and all the surgeons, doctors, nurses, colleagues, helpers, family, friends and supporters I interviewed as well, it all managed to piece itself together well.
Catherine Hamlin died in March 2020. Why do you think the photo in the book of the mourning procession for her during COVID19 is so poignant and inspiring?
It shows just how much she was loved and revered in Ethiopia, as she was in Australia, in the UK, in New Zealand, and all around the world. The fact that so many people turned out to pay tribute to her, even during COVID-19 – is testament to the regard she was held in.
How has the work of Dr Catherine Hamlin and Mamitu Gashe served as a model of hope?
They treated some of the poorest, most desperate women in the world with such care, love and respect, they allowed them to keep their dignity in the most trying of conditions. It’s a lesson for all of us, all around the world.
Thank you for your responses, Sue, and particularly for bringing us this story of two such inspiring women.
It’s been an absolute privilege. Thank you so much for your interest.
I found Healing Lives utterly compelling. I hope that this book has a very wide readership and helps further the work established by the Hamlins and continued by Mamitu.