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Ethiopia: Missionaries of Charity Foster Dignity Amid Destitution

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ETHIOPIA HUNGER DROUGHT
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By Michael Hill

By all rights, the Missionaries of Charity Home for the Destitute and Dying in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia should be a depressing place. After all, the 1,000 people in here are almost all sick. And they are poor. Their sleeping quarters are crowded, beds nearly wall-to-wall. Some have physical ailments that might make you want to avert your gaze. Others are mentally challenged and behave erratically.

It is certainly not a place that makes you happy. These people have been dealt a tough hand by life. Few have smiles on their faces. On this cool afternoon, they are mostly sitting outside. Not listless, exactly, but hardly active. Some are in wheelchairs. Others remain in their beds in the wards.

The home is really two compounds, one for children, the other for teens to the aged. The occupants go from newborn infants to those near the end of long lives. Some are simply too poor to afford any sort of lodging during medical treatment in Ethiopia's capital city. But many were abandoned by their families, too poor to care for, say, a handicapped child with mental issues; or for an elderly relative near death; or for an unwanted newborn.

There is an entire facility in the children's compound for young mothers and their babies. Some of the mothers were rape victims. All had nowhere else to go in a society where an extended family essentially defines who you are, your status in the world. The three-month stay in this ward could make the difference between a young mother abandoning her baby or learning how to care and nurture her child.

This is not a luxurious place. All eating and much of the cooking is done outside on long benches. Not only are there no private rooms, your private space hardly extends beyond the edge of your bed. Outside the gates, people line up looking to get in, some for a visit to the health clinic for outpatients, but many seeking accommodation.

So why wasn't it depressing? Hard to say. Certainly the facility was well-cared for. The paint seemed fresh, the floors swept, the beds made. And the patients, though often in terrible medical shape, also seemed well cared for, their needs attended to as best as possible.

But there was something else, something elusive. It probably has to do with the attitude of the founder of the Missionaries of Charity, Mother Teresa, whose familiar face beams down from many of the home's walls. She came to Ethiopia in 1974 and met with the then-Emperor Haile Selassie. With his permission, she sent two nuns from her home base in India to begin work in Ethiopia. There are now 120 Missionaries of Charity in the country, running 18 homes like this one all over the country.

About 40 of the sisters work at this house in Addis Ababa, along with 60 staff. Much of the support for their work, including the food they serve, comes through Catholic Relief Services. Though the sisters were not that visible during my visit -- first they were in their daily mass then involved in tasks in their part of the compound -- their spirit was evident.

And the foundation of that spirit is to treat all with dignity, even the poor and the sick who have been cast off from society. That was what pervaded the place, a feeling of the dignity of each of these patients, from the tiniest baby crying his eyes out to the oldest woman nearing her last breath. (One way of insuring dignity is to forbid photographs, by the way).

The presence of dignity affirmed the beauty in each of these people, giving the place a calmness that belied the turmoil of so many of these lives. It was a privilege to be amongst them.

Michael Hill is a senior writer with Catholic Relief Services. He's based in Baltimore.