The original plan was for a small “family” celebration, done rather quietly and without much fanfare. Catherine Hamlin doesn’t really like the limelight very much and repeatedly said “she couldn’t be bothered will all this birthday fuss.” Her friends and family wanted to honor her long and productive life, and so some festivities were arranged, to be held on the grounds of the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital—the institution she created (along with her late husband, Reg) and to which she has devoted her entire personal and professional life.
Catherine and Reginald Hamlin left Australia for Ethiopia in 1959, initially planning to work at the Princess Tsahai Maternity Hospital and to help develop a midwifery training school. The path of their careers has been told in detail elsewhere (John Little and Catherine Hamlin, The Hospital By the River: A Story of Hope, Monarch Books, 2005), but early on they discovered the Ethiopian obstetric fistula problem, gave their hearts to these women, and devoted the rest of their lives to building an institution that could care for them: The Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital.
The Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital was founded in 1974 and has cared for tens of thousands of women with childbirth injuries. Many of the staff are former patients and many staff members have worked with Catherine for thirty, forty, or fifty years. In these circumstances, with this legacy, and with a milestone of this magnitude it would be unreasonable to expect only a “small family celebration.”
The grounds of the hospital are full of trees, green grass (carefully tended and watered) and abundant tropical flowers, bursting with color from every corner. The staff carefully prepared the largest lawn on the side of the hill with tables, canopies, and birthday decorations. The walkway down the hill to Catherine’s small modest house (which she has lived in for decades) was lined with balloons and strewn with flower petals, and when Catherine, her son Richard and his wife Diana, walked up the hill at 3 in the afternoon to join the “small celebration” that had been planned, it was almost like a royal entrance, with clapping, ululations, and radiant joy from every side.
Songs were sung, drums were played, speeches were given, cakes were cut, and presents were presented. It was a memorable celebration of a memorable life and remarkable humanitarian work which has been carried out quietly, effectively, relentlessly and with deep humility and profound compassion. The highlight of the celebration was Catherine’s short but passionate speech on the necessity to continue to provide care for these birth-injured women and to work towards the eradication of obstetric fistula (see the Facebook and web pages of hamlinfistulausa.org for the full viedo).
As Richard Hamlin noted in his remarks in honor of his mother’s birthday, “Catherine has only one son, but she has 35,000 daughters.” She is an inspiration to all who have met her. Enjoy these photos of a wonderful afternoon in celebration of one of the most remarkable women of our time.