The Tenacious Heart
Passion, commitment and perseverance are the cornerstones of my success.

My story

I was born in 1991 in Asmara during the war between the Derg and TPLF. I was named Selamenesh meaning you are my peace. I am the founder and president of Gojo, an accommodation and temporary shelter for patients in need. I am also a consultant, pediatrician and assistant professor of pediatrics and child health at Addis Ababa University, a wife and a mother.

My mother was pushed out of Eritrea two days after she gave birth to me due to the directive that commanded every Ethiopian return home. I can only imagine how difficult a journey it must have been as my navel was torn in the middle of nowhere but my untrained yet enlightened, prudent mother stitched it traditionally. We arrived in Addis Ababa where my soldier father was imprisoned, so we could be near him.

Raised with my younger brother who was often sick, I felt he took all my mother’s attention as she used to take him to the hospital regularly, but later understood she cared deeply for us both. She locked me indoors to prevent danger outside, so I didn’t have the chance to play outdoors as a child except at school. The lack of social interactions as a child made me shy in public, which I later overcame. My husband taught me to combat my reserved personality, be self-assured, and speak in public.

As a pediatrician I realize the associated psychology of children whose mother was anxious during pregnancy; they sense tension and stress while in the womb with an equivalent magnitude. My mother’s fear of losing her husband and the turmoil of war while she was pregnant with me brought about my worrisome personality. I felt a strong responsibility for my brother and to change my family’s situation during my childhood, which led to my desire to improve communities.

I am so grateful to my mother who made me who I am today. My mother is my mentor. She also taught me how to be wise with finances. Rather than spending my small allowance from my father on sweets, I would save it for my mother, which continued throughout my professional life. Her generous character and unconditional love toward us is contagious. Like most Ethiopian parents, my mother used physical punishments, which only added to my unexpressive behavior in public. She was open, however, advising me about womanhood including menstrual cycles, relationships, sex and marriage. Her core value was being candor in any situation, teaching me to speak the truth and converse candidly with her and others.

As for education, I went to Wisdom Paradise Kindergarten, then John F. Kennedy and Eyerusalem primary schools. I attended Menelik II High School then joined the medical college of AAU. During primary and secondary schools, I vigorously participated in extracurricular activities like HIV prevention club, debate club, community and tutorial services.

During my 2nd year in college I served as president of the AAU Females Association of College of Health Science. We created awareness on menstrual health, sanitary pads, panel discussions

on how to cope with the new environment and financial support to those in need. I screened the most financially vulnerable and allocated funds from the Jericho Foundation.

My passion for medicine grew as a consequence of a severe scalp problem I encountered when I was a 4th grade student. I was given a very harsh topical treatment without a positive outcome. I did not understand how the treatment did not cure a simple case, so I resolved to be a medical doctor. Because I was an outstanding student, I was rewarded by my parents, which motivated me to excel.

During my internship in the surgical department of Yekatit Asra-Hulet Hospital, I met a young man named Alemayehu who got referred from a hospital in Ambo for treatment of a fractured bone in his arm. I told him to go to Tikur Anbessa Hospital as his case can only be treated there. He cried heavily, saying he came on foot from Ambo, walking three days and nights. He had not eaten, felt exhausted and had no idea where Tikur Anbessa was. He did not have a penny for food, let alone transportation, he said. Growing up in a culture of, “Men don’t cry,” I could not take his condition lightly. I sat with him, asked details, persuaded my friends to have him dine with us, and spend the night in a corner of the hospital. The next day we sent him to Tikur Anbessa.

Alemayehu’s situation was not unusual in government hospitals, but it was unbearable for my friends and me to witness. As a result of this experience, I mobilized a few friends to support other patients in need as much as we can through individual contributions. I was sharing my day- to-day encounters with my (then) fiancé, who was even more enthusiastic toward serving others. Acknowledging this as my other passion, he said I should do it on a larger scale. This was the start of my social involvement and Gojo.

The inception of Gojo was inspired by patients like Alemayehu who had no place to stay, no food to eat, no one to support them and no money to return home after finishing treatment. Some become homeless in Addis Ababa streets. Many senior doctors have done a great deal to share what they have and got burnt out in the process feeling one person cannot make a difference. Still, as I started practicing medicine clinically, I realized there are too many with touching stories. When my fiancé gave me the idea of institutionalizing the support on a larger scale, five female colleagues agreed to help.

Based on a detailed research we completed by distributing questionnaires in six government hospitals in Addis Ababa we realized how immense the problem was. We discovered Tikur Anbessa alone had an average of 70 patients per week who were in need of shelter. The gravity of the situation prompted us to take action. With my most trusted friends from high school and medical school, we established a committee of 15 with different professions and talents to move forward. We prepared a project proposal with the concept of Gojo.

We sought guidance from Dr. Ahmed Reja, former medical director of Tikur Anbessa, who then referred us to Professor Admasu Tsegaye, former president of AAU. Professor Admasu wrote a support letter to the Ministry of Health to accompany our proposal. The ministry approved our proposal, and we secured our license from the Charity Societies Agency in 2015. We started Gojo initially feeding up to 70 patients out-of-pocket at least once a month and eventually once a week. The feedback we received from the patients and the excitement and hope we read on their faces was moving. Imagine how critically ill, starving patients would feel when they receive such generosity. The feeding took place at Tikur Anbessa thanks to the support of Professor

Abebe Bekele, former dean of college of health science, who was passionate about our cause. He helped us do what had never been done in the yard of Tikur Anbessa.

The next step was to build the shelter and seek funders, which we found through Eng. Habtamu Kassahun of Defense Construction Enterprise on condition that we secure land. Finally, we got a 120-meter square land inside the health center near Gola Michael Church behind Tikur Anbessa.

Gojo now accommodates 52 patients plus 52 immediate family members as of October 2017. The shelter provides a light breakfast every day, lunch three times a week and hosts holiday lunches for up to 70 people. We cover transportation costs of patients who have completed their medical follow-ups or have extended treatment, not able to afford returning home.

In addition to Gojo, I believe I am contributing to the social welfare as a pediatrician. Child psychology is complex because they are unlike adults who can express their symptoms. I founded a neurodevelopment and behavioral pediatrics clinic that also conducts research. Practicing something that can bring a visible change no matter how challenging it may be and seeing progress in children is highly rewarding. I feel I am nurturing a healthy, future generation.

I am most proud of being a pediatrician, a mother to my beautiful baby Heyab, marrying my best friend and mentor and establishing Gojo. Gojo has provided 179,270 meals through daily light breakfast, lunch three times a week, holiday lunches and memorial as well as occasional dinner services. The shelter has accommodated 76,650 patients in its ward thus far which played a great role in healing them from psychological and economical pain. We have also contributed towards decreasing the rate of rape and related diseases that mostly women patients experience while staying on streets.

For anyone to thrive I say follow the three crucial steps to success: first have passion, then commitment to make it happen, and perseverance to keep going and reach the end goal. Our target should be transforming the lives of others. We, pediatricians, say we must survive, thrive and transform. Initially, I mobilized my five female colleagues not only because they are my best friends but because science has proved that the pace of the female brain development is five years faster than that of men. This is a big asset in addition to the multi-tasking skills we possess. I want all women reading this to bear in mind that we are naturally gifted. Dream big, stick to your dream no matter how difficult it might seem at the beginning and persistently work toward it.

I dream of a peaceful in Ethiopia as it is essential for economic development to eradicate poverty, our biggest enemy. With an almost equal level of importance I want to see the concept of giving and sharing prevail in our community. Gojo is a vehicle that cultivates a culture of giving.

What do they say about Selamenesh?

Highly responsible, hardworking, determined, disciplined, persistent and a person of her word is how her colleagues describe Selamenesh. Dr. Yirgu Gebrehiwot, Director for Clinical Services at The College of Health Science at AAU, believes she is sharing and ardent about her vision of providing for the poor and destitute. The work of Selamenesh and her colleagues in alleviating the problem of disadvantaged patients is exemplary to all Ethiopians. He asserts Gojo accommodates the overflow of patients from Tikur Anbessa which otherwise would be left out to fend for themselves on the streets. He also marvels that feeding 70 people with just 20,000 Birr for a month is a lesson we all should learn from. Selamenesh is an ambitious human being who balances all aspects of her life effectively. “Selamenesh does not usually choose a red carpet walk or a bed of roses.”

Another colleague, Dr. Saba Lambert, emphasizes Gojo’s brilliant strategy to engage the main stakeholders, Tikur Anbessa staff and the Ministry of Health, to build Gojo in an environment where meaningful projects are not considered viable. It took Selamenesh’s determination and perseverance to be successful. “She really inspired me from just meeting and seeing her achievements.”

According to Dr. Rahel Hailu, co-founder of Gojo, Selamenesh is rational and reasonable. As a young woman who grew up in a stifling culture where people may discourage women’s growth she succeeds, which shows nothing deters her from doing what she sets out to do. As a woman, Selamenesh understands the struggle for women to achieve, hence she coaches and mentors other women.