Skip to main content

A Hamlin Tribe

A Hamlin Tribe by the Rivers of Ethiopia: Book Review

By Mitiku Adisu

A 1958 ad in The Lancet read: "A gynecologist wanted to set up a school of midwifery for nurses in the Princess Tsehai Memorial Hospital in Addis Ababa." Reginald Hamlin [d. 1993], a New Zealander, his obstetrician Australian wife Catherine, and their 6-year-old son Richard answered the call.The prospects for decent pay were not promising, but they came anyhow because they loved Jesus and had a burning desire to help the poor. This is 53 years ago and counting!
In 1974, the Hamlins established a separate hospital to fully focus on fistula patients; a fistula is when obstructed labor tears the bladder and the uterus. Women in this situation were effectively pushed to the margins of society for the rest of their brief lives, until the Hamlins began their work. And then, one by one, they came to find relief from pain and shame, and an abiding hope in Christ. Every year, sufferers by the hundreds travel to the hospital on foot, on the back of a relative, a mule, a lorry, crossing rivers and bridges. To date, over 25,000 have been successfully operated on and gone back to their villages to once again contribute to their community. Now add to the 25,000 the children they produced, the children their children produced, and, of course, throw in aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, and you will understand why we think this is a tribe bound together by suffering, hope, and joy!

This is a chance for you to read and be inspired by an absorbing account of a couple’s story that, in a very organic way, is also a human story and a manifestation of God’s goodness. Consider, for example, how God brought together different nationalities [Indians, Italians, Greeks, Armenians, Brits, and so on] and those of different social, economic, and academic backgrounds in answer to prayers--often in the nick of time--to realize and sustain this beautiful work. Only God can do such a thing! 

Another point of fact is the Hamlins’ interaction with local culture and the love and respect that engendered throughout the years. In no way were Ethiopians romanticized or put down by European standards. The Ethiopians are as much the owners of the narrative and the work as are the Hamlins. Ministering to needs ran both ways in that the Hamlins ministered to the people as well as received help from those they ministered to. It does take some humility to recognize and allow those ‘from below’ to minister to us in the hour of our need.

Here is how Catherine narrated one such incident:
One morning, not long after Reg had died, I rose at 6 am and went out to sit on the verandah in the dawn to meditate and to pray, as had lately become my habit. On this occasion, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the feeling that everything was too much for me and that I would never be able to run the hospital by myself. I was not crying but evidently looked as though I was, as Birru [the groundskeeper] appeared and knelt by my chair. He took my hand in his, kissed the back of it, and said, ‘Don’t leave us; we’ll all help you." I was so touched that I really did cry then, partly from relief and joy. Birru’s words and actions were just what I needed. They dispelled any thoughts of not carrying on. I began to realize the enormous blessings that I had, and the future seemed suddenly bright and exciting. " [Parenthesis added on page 245]

The Hospital By The River is a must-read for seminarians as well as a resource book for medical and development practitioners and historians. The story is first and foremost about commitment; specifically, commitment between a husband and a wife. Do we live in an age where commitment has become a series of conveniences? The long-term missionary is today an endangered species. Polls and stats come before prayers. It is no longer solely where the Lord leads, but where one registers quick results. One reason for the upswing in short-term missions is not just the ability to raise funds and do good in the name of Christ but also the inability to discern God’s clear call. [Click] We believe the Hamlin story has a lot to offer in this regard. We close with a fitting benediction from the book:
But more than anything else, my heart is uplifted in thanks to God our Father, and our Savior Jesus Christ for all he has done for us. The future I leave in the hands of an Almighty and all-loving God—what could be more secure, as God is faithful? May we, too, be faithful. [p.304]
ps: The book is a record of a social history, and hence, worth translating into Amharic to introduce especially the new generation to a life of service.