WOMEN OF EXCELLENCE 2023
AWiB proudly presents the 2023 Women of Excellence (WOE) nominees. Every year, since 2012, we celebrate outstanding Ethiopian women who serve their communities and country relentlessly and tirelessly. This year, we bring you 3 phenomenal women who achieved greatness and exhibited excellence in their works. On this year’s celebration, an organization committed to the betterment of society will also be celebrated for its impact and excellence in the “Organizational Excellence” category. Please save the date to celebrate these exceptional women and the organization on Sunday 29 October 2023 at a Gala Dinner at Sheraton Addis.
Read the stories of these three phenomenal women, 2023 Women of Excellences; Rahel Abayneh, Dr. Mulu Muleta, a nd Rekik Bekele
Rahel Abayneh: The Indefatigable Defender
I was born in Jimma in 1970 and relocated to Addis Ababa where I grew up. I have one brother & three sisters. My educational journey began at Mekaneyesus for preschool. I transferred to Geja Kalehiwot and stayed until the 8th grade then switched to Bole Highschool. I completed high school at Mesrak Secondary School. I got married right after and have been blessed with 3 boys – Naod, Nathan, and Nahom.
Growing up, I was very sociable and adored by many. I was also a bit disruptive in school and would occasionally skip classes (especially math and physics). I found school a bit boring but realized my passion through the process. Helping others and giving my time to those whom I felt needed have been my calling from early on. I used my time away from school volunteering for different charity groups. I remember an encounter with a woman on the street begging. I asked her why and she told me she had been raped and needed money. I was so shocked at her situation that I gathered my friends and raised 100 Birr for her– she only asked for 64 Birr. The word got out and reached some of my teachers who had been pleased with my initiative and encouraged me to continue. I went on to organize school events, fashion shows, and school magazines.
During my senior year, I was part of a club dedicated to addressing water contamination issues. We focused on raising awareness about the significant impact of clean water on people’s lives, particularly in rural areas where the same contaminated water was used for both laundry and drinking. Our primary goal was to inform and educate the community on the importance of clean water, especially for drinking. Additionally, our club actively participated in environmental initiatives, collecting discarded trash from school premises, planting new trees, and creating comfortable benches to provide students with a conducive space for studying and engaging in school activities, with the intention of enhancing the beauty of our school environment. Being part of this experience proved beneficial as it significantly improved my public speaking and presentation abilities. Moreover, it played a crucial role in challenging and opposing the traditional notion that women should confine themselves to the kitchen.
Coming from a supportive family allowed me the freedom to explore my passions, such as performing dramas and singing in church choirs which also helped build my confidence and assertiveness. I have always loved to help people. I used to get in trouble when I was younger because I would give away my transportation allowance to someone who had more needs and walk home. I find it laughable now that my parents used to get so upset at what I considered good deeds. To this day, I don’t hesitate to lend a helping hand. I’ve always had this compassionate trait that I believe is a gift from God. People often dream of being famous but I’ve always been passionate about helping those in need.
My life took an unexpected turn when I found out that my 2nd child Nathan had autism. I didn’t figure this out immediately. It was a long and grueling process. Before discovering his condition, I struggled to comprehend why his behavior was different from that of my two other sons. I sought answers from doctors and medical experts but they couldn’t figure out the cause. I felt frustrated and helpless but I kept going to different doctors. Then one day while watching a TV commercial about autism awareness, I noticed the symptoms listed were similar to that of my son’s and I felt a glimmer of hope. Encouraged by this new finding, I decided to approach a different doctor and shared with him what I had learned. However, this doctor dismissed my concerns insisting that my son didn’t have autism. Realizing my persistence and that I wouldn’t let go before I got an answer, the doctor referred Nathan to a neurologist. Finally, my persistence paid off when the tests confirmed my suspicion. Nathan did indeed have autism. He was only two.
The news was overwhelming but the doctor’s lack of empathy made the situation even worse. He informed me that autism was a lifelong condition with no cure and told me to just give up. He offered no guidance or support. I’ll never forget that uncaring doctor. I felt utterly lost and resorted to extreme measures. I shaved my head and avoided eating for three days as a form of self-punishment. At my lowest point, I even prayed for death seeking an escape from the pain. But nothing happened! I realized then that if God wanted me to live, then my journey wasn’t over. So I resolved to move forward and find a way to help my son.
Nathan struggled with several issues. There were instances where I had to rush him to the hospital repeatedly to get his stomach pumped. It was then that I learned that autistic children often have gastric issues; In Nathan’s case, it was triggered by milk. It was a critical piece of information I had been oblivious to. I refused to be clueless anymore so I delved deep into autism research and all its associated challenges. Alongside my efforts, I prayed for God’s guidance.
Through my research, I discovered that autism spectrum disorder is a neurological and developmental condition that profoundly affects a person’s sociability, behavior, and understanding. This was a profound realization that answered my confusion about Nathan’s behaviors. I had often found myself puzzled by Nathan’s tendency to be alone most of the time. It was enlightening to learn that the word “autism” originates from the Greek word “Autos” meaning “self”. From my observations and further reading, I learned that autistic children have unique preferences and characteristics. Unlike typical children, they often prefer the company of adults over those of their age. Their play patterns are different as well. While a typical child may engage with a toy truck by moving it with wheels, an autistic child might exhibit unusual play manners such as flipping the car upside down or focusing on different aspects of the toy. Autistic children also struggle with eye contact and response due to the impairment of their brains’ response control centers.
Communication is another aspect affected by autism. Most autistic children struggle with speech and they need to be taught how. Early intervention brings about significant changes and improvements in children with autism. It’s important to teach social interaction skills at ages 2 or 3. If they have reached age 9 and older, the likelihood of developing verbal communication skills decreases, that is because they first need to unlearn the habits and behaviors they’ve developed over a long period. Unlearning can be a difficult process even for people without disorders. Now imagine how much harder it’ll be for those with a developmental disorder. Therefore, it becomes crucial to provide interventions and alternative communication methods to facilitate their ability to express themselves. The medical professionals helped me understand that because of the developmental issues Nathan had, he would never be like other children; he may even not recognize me at times. Autism is an extremely difficult condition and the child needs constant care and attention.
Autism carries a significant stigma worldwide and is even worse in Ethiopia. Mental health issues are commonly perceived as a curse by many Ethiopians. For this reason, parents don’t usually disclose that they have an autistic child. These beliefs lead to the kids’ mistreatment, including abuse, confinement, and isolation from society. In some communities, the mother is blamed because it is believed that her sin has been passed down to the child. I have encountered cases of husbands divorcing their wives or even bringing home another woman and denying her the respect & worthiness she rightfully deserves.
Autism prevalence in Ethiopia has increased. I believe this is due to our improved ability to diagnose and increased awareness about the disorder. With awareness comes acceptance to readily identify and confront it. It is crucial for us to respond swiftly to this devastating disorder taking proactive measures to address the needs of individuals with autism and ensure they receive the support and resources they need.
Despite the challenges I face, I remain dedicated to my son’s well-being. When he was of age, I began exploring options for schools but none would accept him. The only option available at the time was the Joy Autism Center. When I attempted to register him, I was informed that all spots were filled and I was placed on a waiting list – I was number 465. I saw that there were other parents who were faced with the same dilemma. Many were crying and worried about the uncertain future of their children. I was alarmed by the number of cases that I witnessed at Joy Autism Center. I thought I was the only one. I encountered a man who shared a story of how his sister’s husband abandoned her after learning that their 9-year-old boy had autism. Because she was unable to support her child on her own, she relied on her brother for help. He felt lost & overwhelmed. I wanted to help my son and all of the parents in that waiting room. They left a profound impact on me. It was at that moment I realized no help was coming. I left Joy Center that day determined to make some sort of impact in our community.
Despite the on-and-off political difficulties for the Eritrean origins (that both my husband and I share) that prompted many to leave, I chose to stay behind. We were strongly advised to leave particularly for the better opportunities it could afford our son. While my husband was leaning to leaving, I simply couldn’t abandon the other parents I had connected with at the Joy Autism Center. They had too many problems. Who would help them? I told my family about my plans to stay and open an autism school and they were all against it, even my husband. Despite their disapproval, I remained dedicated to my goal. Everyone kept telling me I should leave Ethiopia but I held on to my belief that I could do anything with God’s help. If God says you can, then you can. I took the leap of faith and opened Nehemiah Autism Center in 2011 with six children.
Realizing that I was truly committed to the cause, my family & friends had no choice but to support me. My husband offered invaluable support with writing proposals to secure funds. We started to look for experts in autism, a task that proved very difficult. We decided to look for professionals who have some knowledge of autism and trained them to become speech therapists, counselors, and other experts needed to treat the condition. As the number of students grew so did the challenges. Sadly, we lost 7 kids because of seizures, gastric issues, lack of qualified experts & medicine, improper dosages, and more. While autism has no cure, there are medications to treat the symptoms. Unfortunately, we face a massive shortage in Ethiopia preventing us from providing the best treatment and care.
To reduce medical & behavioral complications, we offer comprehensive training programs for both the children and their parents/guardians. We focus on equipping the children with skills to communicate and enhance their social development. Simultaneously, we provide counseling and guidance to parents to increase their understanding of autism and help them take care of their children. Through our experience-sharing sessions, parents interact with each other to exchange techniques. It also reminds them that they aren’t alone in this journey. These sessions have a tremendous impact on parents, many of whom contemplated self-harm. They have now come to terms with the condition and recognize that it isn’t the end. They haven’t failed as parents. They can keep going.
During these discussions, many parents voiced their concerns. One issue raised was transportation. Some parents couldn’t commute to our school daily. To help them, we began a transportation service with no additional charge except for willing parents who‘d offer to share the cost. We understood that several of the parents faced financial constraints therefore we sought to alleviate their burdens as much as we could. We ask very little of them. One request is that they use the Nehemiah communication books to inform us about their kid’s state at home. We inquire about details such as their sleeping patterns, bathroom usage, or any other issues we need to assist with. In addition, we also offer a tour of our center to show them the classes & how the kids spend their days. We do this even for the parents on the waiting list. This helps reassure them that their children are treated well.
For the mothers who are struggling, whether they’re single or in an abusive household, we take it one step further. These women are often lonely and financially incapable of taking care of their children. This leads them to depression, suicidal thoughts, and guilt brought on by society. At Nehemiah, we show them that it’s not their fault or a punishment by God. We help them understand that autism isn’t a standalone condition – it brings depression, poverty, conflict, and more to the family. By addressing the mothers’ difficulties, we support them, we empower them & we teach them to be grateful for life and their children. When we equip women, we equip society. We instill in them in spite of their overwhelming situations they are fully capable of working and becoming self-sufficient. They don’t need to be financially dependent on husbands who treat them like they are less than enough. Nehemiah has helped several mothers defeat poverty and make a living. It makes me so happy to see the women we helped succeed and achieve their dreams.
Nehemiah now accommodates 60 students, 600 more remotely, and has over 1400 on the waiting list. We were able to transition 27 of our students to regular schools, a tremendous accomplishment & testament to their progress and our hard work.
As a tool to spread autism awareness and the work of Nehemiah, we utilize every available media platform to spread our message, driven by our primary objective of transforming people’s perspectives and imparting education. Engaging the younger generation, TikTok and YouTube serve as powerful tools for us to inform and enlighten. Additionally, we actively participate in church programs, educating and enlightening communities that the cause of autism is not a curse but simply a disorder like any other. Our mission extends beyond media channels; I carry the cause wherever I am consistently advocating and educating. Autism compels me to advocate on behalf of those seemingly powerless. Autism helped me discover the power within.
I believe in the power of collaboration to shape our society. At Nehemiah, we provide training, financial help, raising funds, and supplying essential materials for autism-related causes. I have established connections with various autism centers in Ethiopia. One was with a nurse in Hawasa who initially wanted to enroll her daughter in Nehemiah. However, I convinced her of the great need for an autism center in that area, so she went on to open Bright Autism Center in Hawassa which has expanded to another branch in Shashemene. When she faced challenges, we provided financial support to keep her school afloat. I also helped set up an autism program in an orphanage in Adama, catering to around five children in a daycare-style setup. I guided them in raising funds, writing proposals, and engaging volunteers from universities. Witnessing centers like Bethel Autism Center thrive and sustain themselves is a testament to Nehemiah’s success, as our impact expands through empowering others to make a difference.
Nehemiah has also been instrumental in the establishment of a new autism center in Dessie (Reyan Autism Center), catering to around 19 students. Our support extends to numerous centers, providing financial assistance to ensure their sustainability, and in some cases, enabling them to open second branches. Notably, we have collaborated with government schools in Debreberhan, offering essential training sessions for teachers and parents alike fostering a more inclusive and supportive environment for individuals with autism. This has been a significant accomplishment as we are actively fighting biases and discrimination.
Another accomplishment is training teachers on autism which supports regular schools being inclusive because of the availability of resources—trained teachers. Our center’s effort has gained recognition from many schools which encourages special needs children to be accepted. This serves as a valuable gift to the community at large. As part of our awareness creation, we also visit medical schools to teach medical students about autism, hoping that when they graduate, they’ll pursue a specialization in autism. Nehemiah has made a difference in society by creating awareness, helping with employability, bringing families’ hopes alive, and demonstrating a sense of community. We also extend our outreach beyond Ethiopia. We know that there are parents like us suffering because of a lack of information & support. We created support groups in Texas, Dallas, Phoenix, and Atlanta, USA. No one understands our pain so we have to look beyond ourselves and help each other. Our outreach includes creating awareness and promoting Nehemiah Autism Center. We offer information whenever is requested. In return, we solicit donations like toys and games. We fundraise. We emphasize the importance of firsthand information by physically visiting and volunteering at our center in Addis Ababa.
Our well-developed volunteer programs offer many benefits for the volunteers: working with autistic kids and gaining insight of their world which builds compassion, and acceptance. Volunteering for the center also gives the volunteers the opportunity for self-reflection and appreciation of life itself. It is only when we are physically & emotionally healthy that we succeed in other aspects of our lives. It teaches volunteers about being resilient and optimistic.
Through Nehemiah, we have made an impact on the lives of several individuals and communities. None of this would have been possible without the unwavering support of my team. Some of our teachers have been at Nehemiah for 12 years. They truly believe in this cause, want to help others, and impact our community. These teachers are my pride. I am very proud of Nehemiah’s work.
Several individuals have helped me in my path. One is Meseret Kinfe, the author of YeTekur Enat Negn. I have known Messi for six years now. In the US, she ran a soccer program catering to Ethiopians. During one event, I had the opportunity to set up a table to talk about autism, and with the support of Messi and other parents who saw our post on Facebook, we sold t-shirts and other items. I encouraged the author to compile her story, a process that took two years, and we eventually launched the book at the Capitol Hotel in Addis Ababa. The funds generated from the book sales were divided equally between supporting Nehemiah and assisting single moms facing unemployment and children with disabilities. Subsequently, we launched the book in Atlanta, utilizing it as a means to raise autism awareness and gather further funds for the cause.
I would also like to acknowledge Zemi Yenus who was a true front-line advocate. She has been an incredible asset to Ethiopia. Through her efforts, she has played a vital role in raising awareness about autism among Ethiopians, becoming a beacon of support when I first learned about my son’s autism diagnosis. Witnessing her school and the impact she made motivated me to establish Nehemiah, something I wouldn’t have dared without her inspiration. Though I never had the opportunity to work directly with her, she paved the way for our cause. Her passing was a deeply challenging moment for me, as her presence and dedication will always be cherished.
In addition to my work with autism, another cause that holds deep personal significance for me is HIV. Having lost my parents to HIV, I always thought I would dedicate my efforts to fighting against this disease. At Hospice Ethiopia, our focus encompasses both cancer and HIV, and I found purpose in assisting patients and helping them prepare for the end of life. During my time as a board member, we faced the danger of closing the center, but with determination and hard work, we managed to keep the organization running and it has now grown significantly. Working at Hospice Ethiopia brought immense fulfillment as I could offer support to many individuals living with HIV, a chance to make a difference where I couldn’t for my own parents. My commitment to this cause remains unwavering driven by a deep sense of purpose and empathy.
In my neighborhood, I took part in establishing a community center that serves as a vital resource for the elderly. Here, they have the opportunity to engage in regular exercises and physical activities which prove crucial in preventing or mitigating the impact of illnesses such as diabetes. The center plays a significant role in promoting the overall health and well-being of our senior community members, fostering an environment of care and support.
During my limited spare time, I find solace in listening to spiritual music often when I’m driving. I also take moments to pray through which I express gratitude. I am very happy with my life and the journey I have taken.
My views on having an autistic son are rooted in gratitude. I am thankful to God because every child is a precious gift from above. If God destined me to have an autistic child, then it means he entrusted me with the ability to care for and love them unconditionally. However, I must admit that when I first learned about my son’s condition, it was a challenging and confusing time. Like many other parents, I questioned what I might have done wrong. I’ve met many mothers with autistic kids who develop several health issues due to stress & worry. Despite the initial struggles, I have no regrets. I don’t let myself sink. I maintain a positive outlook on life and don’t dwell on my pain. Instead, I look to the solution and use my experience to help others. I am able to find joy because I focus on the present. Through my son, I have been blessed with the opportunity to make a significant impact, helping hundreds of people and serving my community. Nathan has been my guiding light, empowering me to achieve things I never thought possible. His presence in my life has been a true blessing.
When it comes to my two other sons, they found it challenging to comprehend their brother’s condition at first. My youngest son would become upset and disruptive which is rooted in the feeling of anger and sadness. However, over time, they started to grasp the situation better. I am delighted to share that my eldest son has now enrolled in Gondar University pursuing a career in medicine with the aspiration of becoming a neurologist specializing in the treatment of children with autism. This journey has made me realize that having siblings who understand and support each other, especially as they grow older, is an invaluable source of assistance and comfort.
Being with my kids brings immense joy to my life and I cherish the moments we have together, having fun and creating beautiful memories. Family holds a special place in my heart and I make every effort to spend time with them whenever possible. Gathering with my loved ones, sharing laughter, reminiscing about old times, and going out together are moments that bring immense happiness. Even my neighbors have become an extension of my family and I find joy in connecting with them, laughing, and embracing the simple pleasures of life.
I am part of an online support group on Facebook. We have a wonderful community called “Wulo Group” where we share updates about our daily lives. It’s a place of celebration for birthdays, buying and selling items, offering advice, and even donating essential supplies like soap. Additionally, I have volunteer groups in high schools, universities, and colleges that actively contribute to our cause. While autism can be challenging, one of the biggest obstacles is the stigma surrounding it. To combat this, we focus on raising awareness and education, particularly targeting the youth as we believe they hold the power to drive positive change and create a more accepting and inclusive society.
Taking care of Rahel and attending to her needs brings me joy and fulfillment. While I might not prioritize self-care as much, I am content and grateful for the life I have which naturally contributes to my overall well-being. In the past, I used to find pleasure in swimming, always having a swimsuit ready in my car. However, my responsibilities at home, especially taking care of the house without much help, have shifted my focus. Yet, I make it a point not to neglect myself; I maintain a healthy diet, dress well, and embrace a sense of gratitude. Despite the challenges, I am determined not to succumb to negativity or let myself go as I am well aware of people’s expectations but choose to defy the notion of looking miserable.
I am a generous and kind-hearted person, a testament to my upbringing by wonderful parents. I have a natural ability to make friends with everyone and never let anything drag me down. After starting the autistic school, I noticed a remarkable increase in my patience. I firmly believe in letting go of grudges and avoiding negative thoughts to maintain a clear and positive mind. Some might view my optimism as naivety but embracing positivity has been the cornerstone of my success throughout life. It has allowed me to overcome challenges and achieve fulfillment in both personal and professional aspects.
My dream for my community initially was to establish a new branch of Nehemiah Autism Center every three years but financial struggles prevented us from realizing this vision. However, I now have a grand ambition of opening a boarding school that cares for autistic children who have lost their parents or have been abandoned. The existing options for such specialized care are scarce and often offer limited services. I understand that it is an extremely difficult task to achieve but it must be done. My team and I engage with as many people and organizations as we can for aid. Currently, our biggest hurdle is securing financial support. We previously considered the possibility of launching a revenue-generating business to support the school but the regulations of the Civil Society Organization prohibit Nehemiah, as an NGO, from engaging in such ventures. We can only open a school. Because of this constraint, we’re exploring all available options to achieve our goal.
It is crucial for individuals, corporations, and the Ethiopian government to support our cause and help these children. They are citizens too. Opening autism centers in every Kifle Ketema is a necessity as there are thousands who lack support and struggle to communicate their needs for help. Can you imagine how difficult their lives must be? Confronting this naked truth was heartbreaking so I am fully committed to doing everything in my power to make this a reality. We need help and we won’t quit until we’ve reached our goal.
To me, success is sharing. It is the ability to pass on your legacy to the next generation. True success cannot be achieved alone. You need to find someone who can carry the torch you’ve worked so hard to keep burning. None of us know what tomorrow holds. What will happen to the people who depend on you if you don’t have a succession plan in place? I urge people to think of their legacy and bring forth others who share their vision.
I firmly believe that you can’t live on your own or hide from the world. You need to go out and explore. You need to fight for what you believe in. You need to be able to share and create awareness for a cause you are passionate about.
I aspire for a better, kinder Ethiopia.
What do they say about Rahel Abayneh
Tewodros Getiye, Program Manager and Psychologist
Rahel is an extraordinary mother, not just to her own kids, but also to others around her. Her kindness and warm-hearted nature make her a remarkable leader and boss. Her genuine goodness and forgiving nature shine through. Not only does she make an effort to understand parents’ challenges but she actively helps them find solutions. In her neighborhood, Rahel is the go-to person for advice. She is known for her honesty and willingness to lend a helping hand whenever possible. Rahel actively participates in committees and programs focused not only on autism but also on other disabilities like Down syndrome, spreading awareness and knowledge. Rahel always fights for what she believes in making her an inspirational force to be reckoned with.
Tigist Bekele, Board Member
Rahel is an incredibly resilient and compassionate individual who doesn’t allow challenges to consume her. Instead, she fearlessly confronts issues head-on, seeking solutions with a strong belief in her religion as her guiding force. Her unwavering passion for making a positive impact on society drives her to selflessly give back and help autistic children, recognizing that by doing so, she uplifts entire families, offering hope and improving their lives. Rahel’s dedication serves as an inspiration to her friends and those around her, myself included. It is truly heartwarming to know she is recognized for her achievements and dedication to the cause of Autism.
Meseret Shebiru, Staff Member
Rahel is a dedicated hard-working, perceptive, and strong woman in pursuit of her vision. She understands the significance of having someone stand by her side as she recognizes that she cannot overcome these obstacles alone. Her kindness, open-mindedness, and ability to connect with people make her incredibly helpful and skilled at forming supportive groups. Drawing from her own experiences with her child, she simplifies complex challenges for others and empowers them to find strength within themselves.
Dr. Mulu Muleta: In a Class of Her Own
My journey began in the picturesque village of Abebe Buri in the year 1961 GC. Born into a family of hardworking farmers, I graced this world as the eldest daughter of my three younger brothers.
My childhood stood apart from the norm in that era, for it was a time when societal expectations confined girls to the realm of household chores, relegating their dreams of education to mere whispers. But in the face of these limitations, there stood a man whose beliefs were extraordinary —my father.
With unwavering dedication to my academic success and a conviction that knew no bounds, my father shattered the chains of bias and belief. He firmly held the belief that boys and girls were equally deserving of the pursuit of educational excellence. In a world that sought to confine girls to domestic duties, he pushed against the tide, urging me and my brothers to step into the hallowed halls of learning, to strive, to excel, and to reach the highest of heights. The image of my father, with his unwavering dedication and nurturing spirit, remains etched in my memory.
At a tender age, my educational journey commenced under the guidance of Kes Timhirt Bet (a priest-led schooling) an early educational foundation. My father believed that starting school as early as four years old was instrumental in a child’s development. With the assistance of our godparents, my father ensured that I had the opportunity to learn. At the age of four, he would take me to them, imparting the wisdom that if a girl could study the Book of David, she would excel in her studies. (“ሴት ልጅ ዳዊት ከደገመች፣ጎበዝ ትሆናለች።”) These religious teachers often traveled from Gojam to Shewa in search of work opportunities and held a remarkable role in our community. They would be welcomed into homes, provided with shelter and sustenance, and in turn, would create a space for local children to gather and learn. After a month or two of my stay with my godparents, my father, in his unwavering determination, brought a Kes to our very own home ensuring that I completed my Kes Timhirt Bet. It was there, within the walls that witnessed my growth and nurturing. Even at such a young age, my father’s dedication knew no bounds. During lunchtimes, he would cradle me on his lap, unraveling the mysteries of the world through his teachings.
When I turned 7 years old, I embarked on an educational journey at Ginchi Elementary School. Located in a town two hours away from my home, my brothers and I followed a memorable routine each week. Due to the challenging distance, we decided to limit our school trips to just Mondays and Fridays, making the journey biweekly. Every Monday morning, my brothers and I would wake up bright and early at 5:00 AM. We set off on a two-hour walk, braving the quiet streets and serene surroundings as the world awakened around us. Hand in hand, we walked side by side, sharing in the beauty of the awakening world. During our journey, our devoted mother would carry our youngest brother for part of the way. We would then bid her farewell and eagerly ran the remaining distance to the school compound. The anticipation of the day ahead filled us with energy and excitement. As the school week progressed, we immersed ourselves in the learning and experiences. Engaging lessons, the guidance of dedicated teachers, and the camaraderie of our classmates made each day special. When Friday evening arrived, it marked the end of the school week and the time to return home to our parents. The cycle of our journey began anew each week.
Even then, my father continued his active role in my educational journey, consistently supporting, motivating, and appreciating me every step of the way. He actively participated in school events, demonstrating his unwavering commitment to my education. I recall fondly how my father would visit my school and personally engage with my teachers, showing genuine interest in my progress. On one memorable occasion, during my 6th-grade international exam, he went above and beyond. I can vividly remember him standing by the window, eagerly awaiting the announcement of the results. As I caught sight of my excellent marks, I nodded in approval and quietly conveyed the good news to him. My teacher, curious about my exchange, glanced up and noticed my father by the window. Without hesitation, my teacher approached my father, extending a handshake and conveying these words: “She is a bright student. Please continue to support and encourage her at home.” It was a powerful endorsement, an acknowledgment of my abilities, and a testament to the impact my father had on my academic journey.
I wasn’t your typical student who would rush home to bury myself in books. Instead, I found a deep joy in listening attentively to the words of my teachers. Their explanations captivated me, and I would absorb every detail, even committing to memory the way they wrote on the chalkboard. In my mind, I would scan and remember the information. When it came to homework, I preferred to tackle it right there in the classroom. I wanted to make the most of my time, sparing no extra moments dedicated solely to studying. Once the school day ended, you could easily find me outside, playing balls or running around with my fellow students. It was as if I had an unwavering belief in the mantra, “There is time for all!”—a perfect harmony between learning and fun.
I can still recall the admiration, advice, and encouragement bestowed upon me by my teachers. They saw something special in me and took pride in showcasing my abilities to the entire class. They would bring me from one classroom to another, encouraging students to ask me any question that came to mind. Their trust in my capabilities and their unwavering belief in my ability to answer any challenge that arose gave me immeasurable strength. It propelled me to push further and strive for greatness.
In contrast to being shy, timid, or reserved, I embraced an outgoing nature. I was never one to hold back, and I allowed my playful side to shine whenever I wanted. This vibrant approach to life allowed me to fully engage with the world around me, making the most of every experience.
Upon completing my primary education, I embarked on the next chapter of my academic journey in Ambo. It was a time filled with both excitement and challenges, sharing a rented house with four of my closest friends. Together, we created a supportive and nurturing space where we could navigate the trials and triumphs of high school. Our rented abode became more than just a place to live. We cooked meals together, studied side by side, and provided unwavering encouragement to one another. We became a tight-knit support system, relying on each other’s strengths and offering a shoulder to lean on during difficult times. Together, we pushed through the demanding rigors of high school, sharing our dreams and aspirations, and motivating one another to reach our full potential. While the distance from my family presented its own set of challenges, the support and companionship of my friends helped bridge that gap. We created a home away from home where we could find solace and encouragement amidst the demands of our studies.
My father’s profound desire to see me and my siblings prosper was tragically cut short when he passed away while I was just entering the pivotal stage of my sophomore year in high school. The untimely death of my father, amidst a backdrop of political upheaval, shattered my world. His absence left an irreplaceable void, robbing me of his unwavering support and guidance. It was a devastating blow, threatening to derail my dreams of pursuing higher education. This became a source of immense hardship and sorrow for our entire family. As the anchor of our family, my mother found herself thrust into a new role, shouldering responsibilities that were once shared. Overnight, she became both mother and father. In addition to the emotional toll, my father’s death also had a significant financial impact on our family. Grief threatened to consume me. It took time for me to know that succumbing to despair would betray the legacy my father had left behind. In the face of adversity, I made a conscious decision to rise above the circumstances and forge ahead, turning our shared aspirations into a driving force for success. Though he did not live to see me don the graduation gown or embark on my college journey, his unwavering faith in my potential fueled my determination to fulfill his dreams.
In the final days of high school, it was time for us to make a pivotal decision about our future fields of study at university. Deep within me, there existed a profound love for numbers. There was an indescribable joy that swept over me when I delved into the world of mathematics and solved intricate equations as the allure of numbers and physics fascinated me beyond measure. However, my teacher held a different perspective and envisioned a different path for me and my friends—one that led to the noble profession of medical doctors. I can still vividly recall the moment when I confidently put down “Engineering” as my desired field of study only to have my teacher tore it up before my eyes and replace it with “Medicine.” In that instant, my dreams of pursuing a career in engineering were momentarily shattered as my teacher’s well-intentioned guidance redirected my aspirations.
The idea of pursuing medical school hadn’t even crossed my mind. I held onto a belief that had been ingrained in me from an early age—the notion that women, particularly Ethiopian women, were destined to become only nurses. This belief took root in my mind during a significant event in my life—the car accident my mother had been involved in. As I stood in the hospital, I observed white men adorned in white coats being hailed as doctors, while Ethiopian women served as nurses. This stark contrast solidified the notion that perhaps, as an Ethiopian woman, my career options would be limited to nursing, while the prestigious title of “doctor” was reserved for white men.
It was challenging to be admitted to the School of Medicine back then. Especially considering the stringent requirements for medical school admission. Particularly during a time when access to libraries, books, and even teachers was limited. The scarcity of resources posed significant challenges, making the pursuit of knowledge and academic excellence all the more demanding. However, against all odds, I found myself among the select group of only twelve qualified students chosen for this esteemed opportunity from my school.
By a remarkable stroke of luck, my friend and I found ourselves among the fortunate few who were chosen to be part of the pioneering group of medical students at Gondar University. The allocation process was simple yet arbitrary, with odd-numbered names destined for Addis Ababa University and even-numbered names like ours assigned to Gondar University. It was a significant moment for us to be part of history as the first batch of medical students at Gondar University, the second institution in Ethiopia to establish a School of Medicine after Addis Ababa University. We cherish this honor and still gather for reunions every month or two, celebrating our shared journey and the bonds we formed.
Prior to this milestone, Gondar University primarily graduated students as Health Officers. This posed its own set of challenges, particularly regarding the resources available to us. We were concerned about the availability of books, the adequacy of the laboratory equipment, and even the qualifications of our European teachers. Many of our teachers hailed from East Germany, and there was understandable apprehension about their familiarity with the diseases prevalent in our region. Tropical diseases, in particular, are not commonly encountered in Germany, and we worried that their knowledge base might not sufficiently equip us to treat patients in our own country. We did not accept and settle for such issues. Instead, we were determined to address them head-on, recognizing their importance and refusing to compromise on the quality of our education. To address the concern regarding our teachers, we advocated vigorously for a more comprehensive education that would better prepare us for the specific health challenges of our region. Our efforts paid off when teachers from Addis Ababa University stepped in to bridge the gap. They dedicated two to three months to teach us their specialized subjects, ensuring that we received a well-rounded education that encompassed the unique healthcare needs of our nation.
My journey through Medical School was made even more challenging by the presence of political issues that loomed over. Some of my fellow students were dismissed, while others faced imprisonment and such. Many chose to withdraw from the school altogether, as leaving seemed to be the only way to make it out alive. And so, unfortunately, not everyone was able to persevere until the end.
Despite the numerous challenges we faced, giving up was never an option to consider for me. Hearing about the stories of persecution and the struggles faced by my fellow students, thoughts of self-preservation would occasionally arise. It was tempting to think that it might be better for my family if I prioritized my own safety. However, a louder voice within me reminded me of my roots in the rural area and the expectations of those who hoped for me to succeed and make a difference. With my single mother and younger siblings in mind, I saw the obstacles ahead as a mountain that I had to overcome, whether by pushing through it or climbing over it. Additionally, having my friend by my side made all the difference. The friendship bond we shared made the path we walked seem smoother, our burdens lighter, and our joys more vibrant.
When I initially enrolled in Medical School, there were 120 students in our cohort. Among these, only 20 were female students. As the years progressed, the number of students gradually dwindled, and ultimately, only half of the original group successfully completed their medical education. Within that small group, a mere seven of us were women. I consider it a personal victory to have been among the 20 female students who qualified for admission and, ultimately, one of the seven who reached the end. As a result of perseverance through these trials, those of us who remained until the finish emerged as resilient and well-prepared individuals. This was clearly evident when we reached our Internship years and were assigned to Tikur Anbessa Hospital. The senior professors who served as our examiners were not only impressed but also proud of our exceptional performances. Their recognition served as a validation of the immense dedication and determination we had invested in our education.
As I progressed through my medical studies, a remarkable turning point occurred during my final year of internship. Among our esteemed teachers from Germany, there was one extraordinary obstetrician and gynecologist in her sixties. Accompanied by her two former students, who had also become accomplished obstetricians and gynecologists, she would grace the labor ward every evening at 9:00 PM; a trio united in their mission. Reverently, we began to refer to them as “the Trinity,” for they moved and worked as one harmonious entity. Their arrival would spark a flurry of excitement as we all rushed to witness them perform. Despite her frail physique, requiring the support of her students as they moved from place to place in the hospital, her surgical prowess defied all expectations. In a mere 15 minutes, she would effortlessly complete Cesarean Section (CS) deliveries, showcasing an unparalleled level of skill and precision. Her efficiency and expertise were awe-inspiring. Moreover, her kindness and compassion towards the patients left a lasting impression on me. Night after night, I watched her in action, and as time passed, I found myself irresistibly drawn to the field of Obstetrics and Gynecology. I admire her exemplary skills and compassionate approach in all she did. To this day, she remains my role model, and the passion she ignited within me for this specialty continues to burn bright.
I did an internship at Zewditu Memorial Hospital, where I had the privilege of working under the guidance of a kind and experienced senior gynecologist. He recognized my unwavering dedication and genuine interest in the field as I consistently arrived early and stayed late, fully immersed in my work. Whenever he visited the labor ward, he would often find me there. One particular moment, as he performed a surgical procedure, he turned to me and posed a question: “If I handed you this blade, what would you do?” I confidently outlined the steps I would take. To my surprise, he did entrust me with the responsibility. As an intern, it was a rare opportunity to take the lead in performing five cesarean deliveries. The surge of adrenaline mingled with my deep-rooted interest, overpowering any apprehension or fear. Guided by the assurance that my senior would be there to correct any missteps, I embarked on the procedures with determination. This encounter served as a profound catalyst, solidifying my commitment to Obstetrics and Gynecology. It reinforced my belief that this field was my calling and that I possessed the drive and capability to excel within it. At the age of 23, I graduated from medical school, earning a humbling recognition in the local Serto Ader Newspaper as “The accomplished young lady who completed medical school at such a young age.”
I went on to complete my postgraduate studies in Gynecology and Obstetrics at the age of 29. It was a time filled with mixed emotions and concerns, particularly regarding my own fertility. Seeing patients struggling with infertility due to age heightened my worries and I felt a sense of urgency. In light of these concerns, I made the decision to get married immediately after graduating in June. The following year, also in the month of June, I was blessed with the arrival of my first son. Five years after the birth of my first son, I welcomed another addition to our family. The decision to have another child stemmed from my eldest son’s request for a sibling to play with. Although it brought me great joy to fulfill his wish, the timing presented its challenges.
During this period, my husband was pursuing his master’s and Ph.D. studies, which required him to be away. As a result, I found myself shouldering the responsibilities of raising two young children mostly on my own. It was a demanding and sometimes overwhelming task, but I was determined to provide the best care for my children. Fortunately, I had the invaluable support of my mother who stepped in to help me navigate the challenges of being a mother and managing the household. Together, we formed a strong support system allowing me to fulfill my parenting duties while balancing other responsibilities such as night duties and jobs that required traveling to different parts of the country and world.
As one of only two siblings, I felt a strong desire to provide my sons with the same sense of belonging and happiness that I experienced growing up in a large family. With my brother living next door and my other brother’s children close by, we formed a big family with a total of six children. Together, we created a tight-knit group that fostered a deep sibling bond.
Being a dedicated advocate for education and academic excellence, I took it upon myself to tutor not only my own children but also the children of my brothers. Even after long days of work, I would stay up until late at night, sometimes until 1:00 AM, to ensure that they fully understood their lessons. This commitment was essential because I had to march off to work early the next morning, leaving me with limited time. I invested immense effort into ensuring the educational success of all the children who grew up under our collective efforts.
Today, I can confidently say that my children have achieved remarkable success. They are my ultimate priorities, and it is their happiness that fuels my drive to work effectively outside the home. I have no regrets about the way I raised my children. My eldest son completed his Civil Engineering degree at Addis Ababa University, and he is currently pursuing his master’s degree in Germany. As for my second son, Dr. Lemi, he recently graduated from medical school at Addis Ababa University, embarking on a promising career as a doctor. The satisfaction and accomplishments of my sons bring me immense joy, reinforcing the belief that nurturing happy children is the foundation for success in all aspects of life.
During my professional time at Hamlin Fistula Hospital, I had the privilege of serving in diverse and impactful roles over a span of 18 years. I was the first obstetrician and gynecologist to work with the Hamlins. I served as a skilled surgeon and led the Research and Training Unit eventually holding the position of Medical Director. For a remarkable six years, I took the responsibilities and challenges that came with being the Medical Director. It was within this institution that I dedicated the longest chapter of my career as an Obstetrician and Gynecologist. Throughout my tenure, I worked tirelessly driven by the profound joy that radiated from my patients’ eyes as I witnessed firsthand the transformative power of compassionate and specialized care. Guided by a deep sense of purpose, I collaborated with a team of exceptional healthcare professionals to provide comprehensive and innovative solutions to women suffering from obstetric fistula. Together, we worked tirelessly to restore dignity, heal physical wounds, and empower these women to reclaim their lives.
One accomplishment here was that I and my professional coworkers addressed the challenges faced by patients who had to travel long distances to reach the fistula center. Instead of having a single center in Ethiopia, we decentralized the services and established outreach centers in Bahirdar, Mekelle, Yirgalem, Harrar, and Metu. This strategic decision aimed at providing better accessibility for patients and reducing complications they faced before reaching the hospital. This ensured that patients had access to medical facilities where cesarean section surgeries and other necessary procedures could be performed. This approach aimed to prevent the occurrence of fistula complications altogether. This emanated from the recognition of the importance of timely intervention and the impact it could have on a patient’s quality of life.
The Patients who had already experienced fistula complications faced difficult situations looking for means of transportation to reach Hamlin Fistula Hospital or any other medical facility. They would be looked down on by people who have no shame explicitly demonstrating their disgust. To overcome this barrier, we adopted the principle of “If the patients cannot come to us, we can go to them.” The establishment of decentralized centers was a proactive step to bring fistula treatment closer to the affected individuals. By reaching out to patients in their local communities, we aimed to provide timely and essential medical care, eliminating the need for extensive travel and associated complications.
I joined the Safe Motherhood National Task Force as a member force while I was at Hamlin (1984 – 2008 continued at WAHA) where we collaborated with the Ministry of Health on a campaign to eradicate fistula by 2020. Unfortunately, the goal was not achieved due to inadequate healthcare facilities and ongoing conflict in our country which brought the incidence rate higher again. However, we continue our efforts with a renewed slogan of “Make fistula history by 2025.” Our aim is to eliminate this complication of poverty and ensure that no woman in Ethiopia struggles with obstetric fistula.
In 2000, I successfully completed my one-year Master of Science program in Disease Control with a specialization in Reproductive Health at the Institute of Tropical Medicine in Antwerp, Belgium. In addition to my academic achievements, I also obtained a Certificate in Leadership Training from the University of San Francisco in 2003. While serving at Hamlin Fistula Hospital, I had the privilege of serving as a consultant Obstetrician and Gynecologist at the African Union (AU) Medical Center for a duration of seven years. This part-time role allowed me to expand my professional horizons and contribute to the healthcare landscape on a broader scale.
I also have a Ph.D. from the University of Bergen, Center of International Health and Clinical Medicine. My doctoral research involved conducting a nationwide prevalence study on obstetric fistula in Ethiopia. My PhD research focused on the prevalence, magnitude, causes, and consequences of obstetric fistula in Ethiopia. It was a nationwide community-based study that covered all regions except for Gambella due to security issues in 2005. This unique research involved both interviews and pelvic examinations to accurately diagnose fistula, rather than relying solely on medical history which can be influenced by various factors. We also analyzed the psychosocial and medical impacts by examining identified cases. The analysis encompassed a dataset of over 14,000 cases, allowing us to assess factors such as age and social background. Additionally, we examined different types of fistula and treatment outcomes. The findings from this study have provided valuable insights to the global community. Conducting community-based surveys is both time-consuming and costly, making them rare. Therefore, our research has become a significant point of reference for numerous other studies.
This pioneering research entailed carrying out an extensive door-to-door census across all regions of Ethiopia to assess the scale of fistula cases. The study required immense coordination and effort, as I led a team that traveled to even the most remote villages across the nation. We aimed to identify and document every single case of obstetric fistula at the community level. This enabled us to gather accurate epidemiological data to understand the true prevalence of this debilitating condition. Completing this PhD was a major milestone in my career. The rigorous research skills I developed through my doctoral training equipped me with valuable knowledge that I have applied extensively in my medical practice. I am proud to have made a significant research contribution towards understanding and addressing major maternal health challenges facing Ethiopian women.
After serving for 18 years at Hamlin Fistula Hospital, I transitioned to a role at the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) where I coordinated a master’s training program for over a year. In this capacity, I developed the curriculum for the Integrated Emergency Surgical Officers Master level training, which implemented task shifting. Task shifting involves transferring the skills and tasks of gynecologist obstetricians to non-doctor healthcare workers, such as nurses or health officers, in areas with limited access to specialized medical professionals. This approach aims to address the challenges faced by countries with low obstetrician and gynecologist availability.
While working at UNFPA and being involved in task shifting, my responsibilities primarily revolved around paperwork rather than direct clinical interactions with patients. However, there was a significant turning point in my perspective when one day, as my son was driving me home, I shared with him the story of a patient I had previously operated on. This patient was desperately seeking my help after experiencing complications from a surgical error made by other doctors attempting to rectify the issue. Dr. Zufan, a friend of mine and the founder of Hemen Hospital, had located the patient and referred her to me. I performed the necessary surgery at her hospital, resulting in a successful recovery for the patient. As I recounted this story to my son, he witnessed the joy and fulfillment it brought me. It was at that moment that he recognized my deep passion for hands-on clinical work, a passion that I had unconsciously overlooked amidst the paperwork. His observation served as a wake-up call, urging me to redirect my focus towards clinical practice, where I could directly witness the positive impact on patients and experience the profound joy it brings.
In 2010, I joined Women and Health Alliance (WAHA) International as a Fistula surgeon and representative for their Ethiopia office to develop an international training program. Registering the NGO in Ethiopia proved challenging due to the prevailing negative perception of NGOs at that time. It took 18 months to complete registration. WAHA International, headquartered in Paris, France, is a medical NGO committed to delivering comprehensive healthcare services to impoverished communities, with a specific emphasis on the well-being of women and children.
As time passed and I contemplated my own experience and expertise, I became acutely aware of the importance of knowledge transfer for sustaining the field. This realization fueled my desire to create a lasting impact. While my passion lies in clinical work, I recognized the incredible potential of a university-based approach. So my work primarily involved collaborating with universities such as Gondar, Jimma, and Arsi, where we provided hands-on training and created Fistula centers. At WAHA, the mission is to extend our reach to areas that the Hamlin Fistula Hospital couldn’t previously cover, ensuring that women in need of care receive the attention they deserve. I embarked on this innovative journey, training dedicated consultants and teachers who were eager to enhance their skills. These individuals would then pass on their acquired knowledge to their students, creating a ripple effect of expertise.
It is also important to reintegrate fistula patients into society. These women often faced challenges and stigmatization within their communities, which could take a toll on their well-being. Being fortunate enough to be granted a 200m2 area in Debark, a space for cured fistula patients to showcase their remarkable handiwork in weaving was established. This initiative served multiple purposes. Firstly, it provided these women with a platform to display their skills and creativity, allowing them to regain a sense of pride and accomplishment. Secondly, it created an opportunity for people to support and empower these women by purchasing their woven products. This fostered a supportive and inclusive environment where the community could directly contribute to the empowerment and rehabilitation of these courageous women.
The heavy workload and constant traveling at WAHA prompted me to reassess what I wanted to do for the next stage of my life and give time for myself and my family. A falling accident that could have been fatal led my family to make a difficult decision—to prioritize my well-being and put an end to my nomadic work. In 2017, I bid farewell to WAHA and officially retired. In the same year, I embarked on a Urogynecology sub-specialty program in Jima, which spanned a year of intensive study and training. This program allowed me to delve deeper into the specialized field of urogynecology, which focuses on the diagnosis and treatment of pelvic floor disorders in women. Determined to continue making a difference in the lives of women, I established my own Mother and Child care clinic—a sanctuary where healing and support would be provided. It has been five years since the clinic’s inception, and during this time, I have dedicated my efforts to treating fistula and prolapse patients free of charge.
I find fulfillment in offering compassionate care to those who have endured immense suffering. Every day, I strive to create an environment of hope where women can find solace and regain their strength. My clinic serves as a beacon of light, a place where the burdens of financial constraints are lifted and medical treatment is accessible to all. The joy that comes from witnessing the transformation of these brave women fuels my passion and commitment. With each patient I treat, I am reminded of the power of empathy, kindness, and unwavering support. I work daily, looking toward a future where no woman is left to suffer silently, where fistula and prolapse become mere echoes of the past. My mission continues as I remain dedicated to the cause of providing effective, compassionate care to women, one patient at a time.
I’d like to see fistula no longer haunt Ethiopia. I’d like to see a world where healthcare centers for mothers are not only accessible but readily available when they are most needed. These are the dreams that fuel my passion and purpose. I yearn for the day when the mere mention of fistula evokes memories of a bygone era, replaced by stories of triumph and healing. Before I bid farewell to this world, my ultimate desire is to witness the resounding proclamation that fistula has been eradicated, forever banished from our nation, and the acknowledgment of healthcare as a human right to mothers and the underprivileged.
“I want to see a fistula-free Ethiopia.”
Throughout my journey, I have been able to open doors of opportunity for thousands of women in Ethiopia, as well as other low-resource countries in Africa and Asia facing these health-related challenges that range from obstetric complications and reproductive health issues to infectious diseases and chronic conditions. These women’s medical needs have been addressed and their holistic well-being has been promoted. The impact of this approach is far-reaching. When women are healthy, they can actively participate in their communities and contribute to social development. They become advocates for their own well-being and agents of change within their families and communities.
As a dedicated doctor working in the field of Obstetrics and Gynecology, my demanding work schedule often limits my ability to have an active social life and participate fully in my community. With early mornings, late nights, and even overnight stays at the hospital, my commitment to emergency procedures and patient care leaves little time for personal engagements.
However, amidst these challenges, I am grateful for the unique opportunity I have to partake in traditional gatherings, such as Edir. This allows me to foster a sense of belonging within my community. While my work may keep me occupied, I treasure the moments I can join in these gatherings, as they provide a vital connection to the people around me. The joy and fulfillment these bring remind me of the importance of balancing my professional commitments with the vibrant aspects of my personal life.Despite the demanding nature of my profession, I cherish the opportunities to engage with my community through these traditional gatherings, reinforcing my identity, and creating lasting memories that rejuvenate and inspire me in my life journey.
Looking back on my life journey, I am filled with immense gratitude. Despite formidable challenges, I persevered in pursuing my passion for women’s healthcare. My father ignited a spark within me that grew into a burning flame, fueling my dedication to education and excellence. Though his physical presence is gone, his unwavering spirit continues to guide me. My life’s purpose found meaning in restoring hope and dignity to women afflicted by fistula. I walk proudly on the path paved by the footsteps of my patients, whose resilience and courage taught me the true meaning of strength. As I pass the torch to the next generation, it is my hope that the light continues to shine brightly, illuminating the way toward a future where every woman has access to compassionate, quality care. This is my enduring dream and legacy.
What do they say about Dr. Mulu Muleta
Dr. Genet (protégée)
Dr. Mulu is a kind, cooperative, and highly skilled physician who goes above and beyond to make a difference in the lives of her patients and the community. She embodies compassion, professionalism, and a deep commitment to improving women’s reproductive health. Her impact is felt not only in the medical field but also in the lives of those she touches with her care, empathy, and willingness to help others.
Throughout her career, Dr. Mulu has devoted herself to the excellence of reproductive health for women. She has been actively involved in advancing academic development in reproductive care and treatment, pioneering the urogynecology fellowship program in the country. Her dedication to training others and conducting extensive research in the field has been remarkable. She has particularly focused on women facing neglected problems, including those who are poor, abused, or lacking support. Dr. Mulu has tirelessly worked beyond urban areas, reaching out to rural communities. During her time at the Hamlin Fistula Hospital, she played a pivotal role in establishing satellite sites, which significantly improved access to reproductive health services for many. Dr. Mulu embodies qualities of humility, continuous learning, and respect for others. She remains up-to-date with the latest medical knowledge and fosters a welcoming and collaborative environment. Whether interacting with senior professionals or first-year students, she treats everyone equally and with the utmost respect. Her meticulousness, punctuality, and politeness are evident in her work, and she serves as an exemplary team leader.
Dr. Mulu’s influence reaches the highest levels as she engages with policymakers and contributes to the “End Fistula Project.” This initiative aims to design and implement strategies to eradicate fistula, a condition that affects countless women worldwide. Her expertise and insights help shape policies that can bring about lasting change and improve the lives of those affected.
On an international stage, Dr. Mulu’s stature as a recognized FIGO fistula surgeon allows her to make a global impact. She travels extensively, presenting her work and operating on patients in Asian, African, European, and American countries. Her ability to share her experiences and knowledge contributes to the advancement of reproductive health practices worldwide.
A significant accomplishment of Dr. Mulu’s leadership was the development of the Gondar Fistula Hospital Centers at the University. Overcoming challenges, she spearheaded the establishment of a dedicated space for fistula patients. Through her tenacity and persuasive skills, she successfully convinced leaders to allocate space for the hospital. The result was an outstanding facility with a capacity of 70 beds, equipped with two operating rooms and a rehabilitation area.
In my own personal journey, Dr. Mulu lifted me up when I was a young physician, fresh out of school with an abundance of confidence but lacking in knowledge. She taught me the true essence of humility and showed me how to provide exceptional care to my patients. Through her guidance, she transformed me into a compassionate and dedicated doctor, emphasizing the importance of connecting with patients on a deeper level.
Dr. Mulu’s impact as a mentor and educator is both profound and inspiring. Her dedication to uplifting others and fostering a sense of purpose in their lives is a testament to her passion for reproductive healthcare. Through her transformative teachings and unwavering support, she has left an indelible mark on the lives of countless individuals, forever shaping their personal and professional journeys.
Her story is one of resilience and unwavering commitment to improving the lives of women. Her own hospital stands as a testament to her determination to make a lasting impact in the field of reproductive health. Through her selfless service, she not only transforms the lives of individual patients but also empowers a new generation of healthcare providers to carry on her mission. Dr. Mulu’s unwavering dedication and tireless efforts continue to inspire and uplift both her patients and the wider community, leaving an enduring legacy in the fight for women’s rights and access to healthcare.
Misrak Beneberu, Patient
A previous patient who was cured only by the hands and expertise of Dr. Mulu and her holistic patient care.
I had the privilege of experiencing Dr. Mulu’s extraordinary care during a critical period in my life. When no other doctor was able to identify or help me with my health issue, Dr. Mulu stood out as the one who went above and beyond to find a solution. Her exceptional attention and genuine empathy towards my well-being were evident. Words cannot adequately express the gratitude I feel towards her for helping me when I felt hopeless.
Dr. Mulu’s reputation as the best urogynecological doctor in the country led me to seek her expertise. Yet, despite her remarkable achievements, she remains incredibly humble. She deflects attention away from herself, always focusing on her patients and their needs.
Her unique blend of professional excellence and compassionate care is what makes her an extraordinary doctor. Her genuine dedication to her patients’ well-being is truly inspiring. It is an honor to have been under her care, and I am forever grateful for the support and guidance she has provided me.
As women enter middle age, regular check-ups and timely management of health issues become increasingly important for maintaining a high quality of life. Unfortunately, many women face the challenge of being caught in a bewildering state of suffering without clear answers. Dr. Mulu’s specialization in treating women during menopause is truly exceptional. Her ability to blend professional excellence with a compassionate personality sets her apart.
Dr. Mulu’s humility and selflessness are qualities that make her an exceptional doctor. She is an unsung hero in the lives of countless women who desperately need her help. It is our responsibility to spread the word to ensure that every woman in need has the opportunity to experience the life-changing care that Dr. Mulu provides. This is not just for her but for all of us who depend on her expertise and compassion.
Dr. Lemi, Son
When I think of my mother, I would describe her as an extraordinary woman who embodies boldness, determination, and compassion. Throughout her journey in the provision of healthcare, she has consistently displayed these qualities, leaving a lasting impact on those around her.
First and foremost, her boldness stands out. She fearlessly pursued her career, starting from her early days working at a Fistula Hospital to her involvement with WAHA and eventually establishing her own hospital, Ithiel. She never shied away from challenges and was always willing to take risks in order to make a difference in the lives of others. Her unwavering commitment to serving the community is truly inspiring.
In addition to her boldness, my mother’s thirst for knowledge is remarkable. Despite living in a time when education for women was not highly valued, she pursued multiple degrees and diplomas, dedicating years to her education. From an MD in medicine to a master’s in public health, specializing in OBGYN, and even obtaining a Ph.D. and a subspecialty in gynecology, her academic achievements are a testament to her dedication and perseverance. Her pursuit of knowledge has not only inspired me but also countless others who look up to her as a role model.
As a mother, she has been an unwavering source of love, support, and guidance. She has always made sure that my brother and I felt her presence in our lives despite the demanding nature of her work. Her selflessness and ability to balance her professional and personal responsibilities have been truly remarkable. I am grateful for the sacrifices she made to ensure that we had the best opportunities in life.
Furthermore, she has played a significant role in instilling the value of education in our family and the wider community. She has gone above and beyond to support not only my brother and me but also my five cousins, her siblings, and anyone close to her. Through her guidance, she has emphasized the importance of academic success and cultivated a deep desire for learning within all of us. Her influence has created a nurturing environment where everyone feels like a part of a big family.
My mother is a woman of extraordinary qualities. She is bold, determined, and compassionate. Her relentless pursuit of knowledge, unwavering support as a mother, and dedication to education have left an indelible mark on our lives.
“World’s best doctor by day, world’s best mum by night”
In the eyes of others, my mother is simply a professional woman in her white coat, stethoscope around her neck, and a name tag proudly displayed. They admire the fulfilling life she leads and the remarkable work she does. But what they fail to see are the hidden struggles she endures. They don’t witness her sitting on her bed, exhausted from sleep deprivation, or collapsing in the operating room due to hunger after a long day without a meal. They don’t realize the times when illness weakens her hands, making it challenging to hold the surgical scissors.
Unbeknownst to many, she selflessly gives others health while often sacrificing her own well-being. Her personal hardships go unnoticed and unacknowledged. Unlike most people who can leave their work behind when they return home, my mother is constantly on the move. Despite the passing years, she tirelessly dedicates herself to her profession, working with the vigor and energy of someone much younger.
The true measure of a person’s worth lies in the time they dedicate, the effort they exert, their performance, and their intentions. As a healthcare provider, personal matters take a backseat the moment she steps into her job. It fills me with immense pride to witness the unwavering consistency with which my mother delivers exceptional care, performing up to seven surgeries a day. However, it also breaks my heart to see her endure the hidden burdens that others fail to recognize.
Even if the world may not offer her the recognition she deserves, it is of no consequence. The genuine appreciation she receives from those whose lives she has touched is far more meaningful. As her son, I am deeply moved by her relentless determination and selflessness. I yearn for others to witness the sacrifices she makes and the challenges she overcomes each day.
My mother exemplifies the epitome of a healthcare provider, where personal matters pale in comparison to the lives she touches. The consistency with which she has served throughout her lifetime fills me with a mix of pride and sorrow. Pride for her extraordinary dedication and sorrow for the unseen hardships she endures. Even if the world fails to recognize her, she lacks nothing in terms of true recognition and appreciation.
“We recognize her as a Brilliant Doctor, a Loving Mother, a Leader!
Rekik Bekele: A Beacon of Light for Thousands in the Dark
Born and raised in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, I grew up in a household of seven children. With five brothers and only one sister, helping around the house with chores was primarily the responsibility of the girls. My mother Elfenesh Entele, a very strong-willed woman with great entrepreneurial skill and spirit, was my role model growing up. She taught me the importance of hard work and determination, instilling in me a sense of resilience and ambition. Despite the challenges we faced as a family, my mother’s unwavering optimism and determination to provide for us inspired me to strive for success and become a beacon of hope for others facing similar circumstances.
I completed my primary schooling at Mekan Hiwote School, which greatly shaped me and built my values and ethical standards. I went to Higher 12 to attend high school and Etege Menen School to complete my preparatory college. In 2004, I joined Addis Ababa University where I studied electrical engineering. Although I was not a prodigy student during my stay at the university, I developed a genuine interest in the subject and received my BSc in 2008.
My first job was with a firm called Addis Mebratu Architects and Engineers. It was a project-based job, and I was assigned to work with a team in Axum, Ethiopia, to help set up the electrical system of the back then newly constructed Axum University. During my stay there, I learned that the only way to gain any real experience was to be hands-on in the tasks assigned not only to me but also to my colleagues and brave enough to challenge myself and try new things. It also taught me the importance of teamwork and problem-solving skills, as we faced various challenges in setting up the electrical system. Additionally, it helped me develop a strong work ethic and a willingness to step out of my comfort zone to learn and grow professionally.
After the project phased out, I had the opportunity to work for a person called Nebil Yeshak, a person I consider my mentor. My first assignment while working at Solar 23 (now called Solar Development) was the installation of solar-powered lighting systems for a health center in the off-grid community of Koda, a small off-grid community on the outskirts of Bonga. The 15 days I spent in this community changed my life forever. The struggles the people of Koda faced in their daily lives because of a lack of electricity were unbearable to witness. The major light source for many of the people was a traditional kerosene lamp, which had numerous health hazards such as carbon monoxide poisoning, cataracts, macular degeneration, bronchitis, asthma, and other health problems, not to mention the obvious fire hazard, which leads to extreme burns on victims and even death for some.
One specific story that changed my trajectory forever was the night a woman in labor was brought to the emergency room of the health center in blinding darkness. For the people of Koda, taking a woman in labor to the health center is not a common thing. The person had to be in critical condition for the family members to consider seeking out medical help, especially during the night. The woman presented with a complicated case of a breached baby. Although the health professionals had adequate skills to help the woman, the lack of proper lighting made it extremely difficult to deliver the baby. In the end, the midwife had to hold a torch light in between her teeth to deliver the baby.
Witnessing this incident made me change my perspective on life. I felt that the electricity people most often take for granted in the cities could mean life or death for most of our country’s off-grid communities. This was how I found my passion for electrification.
Ethiopia is the second most populous country in Africa, with a population of about 110 million people. However, electricity is only available to around half of the population. This is a major issue since energy is necessary for economic development and social advancement.
In recent years, the Ethiopian government has made major investments in the electrical sector. The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), which is intended to generate up to 6,000 megawatts of electricity, was inaugurated by the government in 2018. The GERD is Africa’s largest hydroelectric dam, and it is projected to play a significant role in boosting Ethiopia’s access to power.
The Ethiopian government has also invested in other renewable energy projects, such as solar and wind farms, in addition to the GERD. These initiatives are helping to enhance Ethiopia’s electricity supply while simultaneously reducing the country’s dependency on fossil fuels.
The solar energy sector is playing an important role in Ethiopia’s electrification. In 2020, the country had 1.2 GW of installed solar capacity, accounting for 10% of total installed power capacity. The government has established a goal of obtaining universal access to electricity by 2030, and solar energy is likely to play a critical role in accomplishing this goal.
I worked at Solar 23 for over two years and had numerous hurdles, particularly working in isolated places as the lone female, which can be challenging. Although my social meetings and trips were regarded as regular for my male coworkers, they often gave the wrong impression to others who were unfamiliar with the metropolitan culture I grew up in. I recall being dispatched to one of the off-grid places to install solar systems for a health center with my colleagues. We went out to dinner as a group, along with our new driver at the time. For our driver, who was born and raised in the country, seeing a female partake in such a gathering without an “ulterior” motive (a cultural difference) was a new experience. So, when we returned to the health center where we had set up camp, he began wreaking havoc and demanded that I bed him. Needless to say, my coworkers made certain that no danger came to me and stayed up all night guarding me. That night taught me an important lesson: be cognizant of other people’s cultures.
After leaving Solar 23, I decided to work for an NGO where I was stationed in Lalibela. I had hoped to improve the lives of the locals there, but the bureaucracy and way of doing things in the institution were not as effective and efficient as I had hoped. So I decided to venture off on my own.
In 2014, I founded my first company, RK Renew Lighting and Cooking PLC with my then-partner. There was a lack of supply of the inner cladding of the stoves, and the company’s business model was built around solving this shortage. RK Renew produced improved cooking stoves by traditionally making stove liners. It sold the liners to World Vision. However, I was not convinced that the project would be sustainable, as I believe that most charity-supported projects fail because the artificial market created for them. RK Renew failed only after one year in 2015 due to the difference in vision we had for the company; therefore, the partnership couldn’t last. I remember the time being deeply emotional and upsetting because I had put all my efforts and energy into the company. Nevertheless, I could not lose hope; I could not give up on my dreams. I knew that setbacks and failures are part of the journey towards success. I decided to learn from the experience and use it as motivation to start anew, determined to find a sustainable project that aligned with my vision and values.
In 2016, I established Green Scene PLC, an institution dedicated to providing solar energy and renewable energy sources to underserved off-grid communities in Ethiopia. Green Scene PLC has reached more than 100 communities across different parts of Ethiopia and equipped more than 9,000 households with solar-powered electric solutions. Green Scene has also ventured out to solve the communities’ problem of accessing reliable agricultural machinery, such as a water pump, which could enable farmers to cultivate year-round without worrying about having enough rainwater. Thus far, we have been able to provide more than 80 farmers with reliable and affordable solar-powered water pumps that are reliable during the winter as they convert the energy of the sun to power the pump. The company aims to begin assembly of such products in the country in the near future to better address the demand and also maintain prices at an affordable rate. By assembling these products in the country, we can also create job opportunities for local communities and contribute to the economic growth of the region. Additionally, this localization of production will reduce transportation costs and carbon emissions associated with importing water pumps from other countries.
The Ethiopian government has also implemented a number of policies to promote the development of the solar energy sector and help support ambitious private companies like Green Scene PLC. Some of these policies include:
- Feed-in tariffs: The government offers a feed-in tariff of 0.75 US cents per kilowatt-hour for solar projects that are connected to the grid. This tariff is designed to encourage private investment in solar projects.
- Tax incentives: The government offers tax incentives for solar projects, such as a reduction in corporate income tax.
- Financing: The government provides financing for solar projects through a number of programs, such as the Green Climate Fund and the Sustainable Energy Fund for Africa.
These policies have helped to create a favorable environment for the development of the solar energy sector in Ethiopia. As a result, the sector has grown rapidly in recent years. In 2020, the country added 400 MW of solar capacity, which was more than any other country in Africa.
Be it as it may, I also have to mention that the solar energy is one of the most challenging sectors there is and we face numerous struggles everyday while doing our jobs. We find the very people you were meant to facilitate our work become an obstacle. There is a sea of corruption and lack of foreign exchange that hinder our performance. However, I am a firm believer of always doing things the right ways. For me the end never justifies the means; if a good deed tented with wrongful ways of doing it, like corruption, it becomes a seed for something far worse in the future. It might be painful, and it might take time but the clean way is always the best way for me.
Green Scene PLC works with more than six microfinance organizations, to make purchase and installation fees affordable to the community. It has also developed a pay-as-you-go solution with Tele-Birr in order to make solar solutions affordable to the underprivileged community.
Additionally, Green Scene PLC actively collaborates with local communities to raise awareness about the benefits of solar energy and provide training on maintenance and usage. By fostering partnerships and implementing innovative financing models, the company is making significant strides toward ensuring that even the most marginalized populations have access to clean and sustainable electricity.
I dream of seeing a fully electrified Ethiopia in the near future, and through my company, Green Scene PLC, I aspire to take a 10% share in the 2030 government plan to achieve 100% electrification. I believe that renewable energy, especially solar power, is one of the most sustainable and safest energy sources available. I am one of the few influential women in the energy sector, and I strive to empower and bring forth other young females in my sector. I also partner with Partnership for Change so my company can hire women agents to represent it across the country, ensuring they benefit from every opportunity. Currently, I have about 150 agents across the country. I am a very assertive, ethical, and optimistic individual who always focuses on the bigger picture. I believe that by promoting diversity and inclusivity in the energy sector, we can foster innovation and drive positive change. Through my leadership, I aim to create a work environment that values and supports women, enabling them to excel and contribute their unique perspectives to the industry. Together, we can build a sustainable future powered by renewable energy sources and equal opportunities for all.
In 2021, I was named Influential Women of the Year by the Ethiopian Women in Energy Network (EWIEN), and I was also selected as one of the 25 Women Shaping Our Future by @ChangeNOW! In 2023. I am a franchise farmer with Purpose Black Ethiopia, an Acumen fellow, and a board member of Solar Energy Development Association Ethiopia (SEDA-E). These recognitions and affiliations highlight my commitment to making a positive impact in the energy sector. Through my role as a franchise farmer, I am actively involved in promoting sustainable farming practices and empowering local communities. As an Acumen fellow and board member of SEDA-E, I contribute to the development and implementation of renewable energy initiatives in Ethiopia.
My business has been incredibly successful, but it has also consumed a significant amount of my time. I frequently work long hours and travel. As a result, I don’t spend as much time as I would like with my children. I feel bad about this at times, but I know that my business is crucial not just for providing for my family, but it is also the means by which I help the community and seek to alleviate their burden in the best way I know how.
My two children, who are six and two years old, are both bright and beautiful. I adore them, but I’m not always sure how to communicate with them. I try to be there for them as much as possible, but it’s quite difficult when you have so many responsibilities at work. I often feel like I’m failing them as a mother. However, I’m grateful for my mother and my friend Elsa Alene. They are both wonderful women, and they love my children as much as I do. They are always there for my kids when I can’t be, and they help me raise them. I know that I couldn’t have done it without them. You know how people say “It takes a village.” Well, they are my village, and I am eternally grateful for their support.
Finally, I want to show my utmost gratitude to my husband, Andrew Steven. When I first started my business, I was so scared. I didn’t know if I would be successful; all I had to go on was my passion to help my fellow countrymen, and I was worried about how it would affect our family. But he never wavered in his support. He encouraged me to follow my dreams and helped me make them a reality. His leadership in taking care of our children and our lives in general has made it possible for me to focus on my business, and I am forever grateful for that. I know that it hasn’t always been easy, but he has always been there for me, and I am so lucky to have him in my life. I want to thank him for everything he does for me and our family.
What do they think or say about Rekik Bekele?
The most common words used by Rekik’s friends and family to describe her are resilient, driven, community-oriented, and a problem solver. Her colleagues are fascinated with her optimistic outlook and her ‘can-do’ attitude towards any challenge she faces. An employee and mentee of hers, Ms. Amen Aneleye, had this to say about Rekik: “She is a very ethical and hardworking person I have come across; I do not know of many social entrepreneurs as successful and influential as she is in the energy sector. I admire her resilience and commitment to succeed in a very male-dominated sector. I aspire to one day become like her and solve problems in my community.”
Similarly, her husband, Mr. Andrew Steven, also can’t describe Rekik without using words such as committed and passionate. While speaking about his wife, he said, “Rekik has a consuming love for her community. Everything she does, whether it is when she was employed or at Green Scene, is to help solve their problems and make their lives easier. It is what keeps her going; the love she has for her people is what keeps her passionate about the work she does.” He further added that Rekik’s dedication to her community is evident in her tireless efforts to bring about positive change and improvement. Whether it is organizing community events, advocating for better resources, or collaborating with local organizations, Rekik’s commitment shines through in every endeavor she undertakes. Her unwavering determination to solve the problems of her community has made her a respected and influential figure among both residents and fellow activists alike. Rekik’s impact extends beyond her professional achievements. She is known for her dedication to empowering women in the energy sector, actively working towards creating a more inclusive and diverse industry. Her ability to inspire and mentor others, like Ms. Amen Aneleye, is a testament to her leadership skills and the positive change she brings to her community. Rekik’s friend of 14 years, Tsion Tesfay, also admires Rekik’s optimism and commitment in all the things she does. Tsion says, “Rekik is an inspiration to everyone around her. She never takes no for an answer and would go through a hurricane to see her vision come true. She is the kind of businesswoman who is not bothered by the profit margins or her capital gain but rather more concerned about how she could help the people in need of her services and their satisfaction with Green Science’s services. I often tease her that she is running an NGO and not a business”. Tsion stresses that her friend has always been a problem solver; no matter what the circumstance, she would find ways to make lemonade from the lemons she was dealt with. Tsion admires her friend’s determination and resilience in the face of challenges. She believes that this mindset is what sets her apart from other entrepreneurs and allows her to truly make a difference in people’s lives. Tsion is confident that with her friend’s passion and problem-solving skills, Green Science will continue to thrive and positively impact the community.