Abebech Gobena invited us to have lunch with her after we assessed her orphanage. We were served spaghetti with red pepper flakes in it, and coleslaw that burst like cold, wet fireworks inside my mouth. Then her tale began. I was a child, a limp and starving pile of bones, hanging on every drop of life that slipped through her yellow teeth.
When the story began, Gobena was younger than myself—18 perhaps—and already married. She spoke that God was calling her to go on a pilgrimage. She walked forty days in fasting and prayer, until she reached a northern Orthodox temple in Ethiopia. When she arrived, in the temple’s shadow she saw black masses covering the ground. Bodies like decks of cards were being folded and stacked up; it was 1990, a time of famine, and these were the starving to death. She went inside the temple and prayed: “God, use me to bring your kingdom here onto the earth, where your will shall be done.” Some of the last words of Jesus came to her: Do you love me? Then feed my sheep.
The demand wasn’t money in a moment; it was a lifetime.
She wept, rose from her knees, left the clean wooden floors, and she went to where soldiers were standing lazily in rows, guarding themselves against the dying with stabbing jokes as they passed—those plump, fed soldiers mocking death as it sat on the chests of frail bone sacks with bulging eye sockets and bloated stomachs, gasping through thirsty lungs for one more breath. Gobena walked toward them; they fired warning shots, shot at her feet, over her shoulders, and she kept walking. She walked right past them without stopping.
There were so many bodies, everywhere she stepped to find someone living among the dead was on someone’s mushy flesh. One woman cried out, unable to move from the ground, and Abebech Gobena went to her. “Take my baby,” she pleaded softly of the bloated lump on her chest. After giving the woman some water, she took the baby. She heard the sound of another crying and found it where it lay screaming on the sunken chest of a dead woman, brittle and broken. She picked it up, soothing it, keeping it at her other hip.
I sit at the table and sip my tea, watching her tell her story, twisting my ankles together under my seat. Hyenas are now coming out of her mouth, something about hyena angels and a miracle. Eden is coming out of her mouth as she speaks the story of staying the night with those babies in a nearby graveyard with the guards in the distance. They were drunken and loud and threatening. They were also afraid of the hyenas that would come out at night to feed on some of the dead bodies. That night, the hyenas surrounded the graveyard, she said, protecting her and the babies from the soldier men; they were laying down outside the fence, Ethiopian Sphinxes staring down the darkness.
In a depraved land, where women have no mouthpiece, she took both the babies home. “God told me to take care of his children.” Her Adam gave her an ultimatum—him or the babies. She chose them. Two babies turned into twelve. Her home became an orphanage, and over time she became Mother Africa—Eve bearing all children. Today, thousands call her momma, and she runs the largest and most influential orphanage/non-profit in Ethiopia.
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