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'Africa's Mother Teresa' on raising Ethiopia's famine orphans

  • Abebech Gobena is the founder of Ethiopia's first orphanage
  • Her humanitarian work started when she saved the life of a baby girl suckling on the breast of her dead mother
  • Now Gobena's orphanage cares for over 700 children

Editor's note: Every week CNN's African Voices highlights Africa's most engaging personalities, exploring the lives and passions of people who rarely open themselves up to the camera. This week the show profiles Abebech Gobena who has saved the lives of hundreds of orphans and is known as "Africa's Mother Teresa."

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (CNN) -- The sight of a baby girl suckling on the breast of her dead mother changed the course of Abebech Gobena's life forever.

The year was 1980 and Ethiopia lay in the grip of what would become one of the most devastating famines in its history.

Gobena, a devout Christian, was on a pilgrimage to a holy site in the north-east region of the country when she came across the dead mother and her baby, lying amid a sea of people who were starving to death.

"When I was returning, there were so many of these hungry people sprawled all over, you could not even walk," Gobena told CNN.

Video: Africa's Mother Teresa
Video: Taking care of the children
Video: Educating a generation of children

"I had some bread on me, so I tried to feed them. I fed two men. When I reached this woman, she was dead, but the child was still suckling at her breast," she continued.

"One of the chauffeurs charged with picking up the corpses said to me, 'I am waiting for the child to die so I can pick up both bodies. I just can't bear to take the child as well while she is still alive,'" Gobena said.

Without a second thought, Gobena bundled the tiny girl into her arms and smuggled her to the country's capital, Addis Ababa. In that instant, she transformed both the baby's future and her own.

Haunted by the images of the dying people, it wasn't long before Gobena headed back to the countryside in an effort to source water for the destitute locals. She came across another child in the arms of his dying father.

Find out more about Gobena and her orphanage.

Gobena told CNN: "At the end of the day, as we were going home we came upon five people, three of them dead, two alive. One of the men dying by the side of the road said to me, 'This is my child. She is dying. I am dying. Please save my child.'"

Gobena took the baby boy home which posed a threat to her own safety, she explained to CNN.

"It was a terrible famine. There were no authorities. The government at that time did not want the famine to be public knowledge. So I had to pretend the children were mine and smuggle them out."

By the end of 1980, Gobena had taken in 21 children. But her desire to save the young children caused friction in her family.

"My family, my husband gave me an ultimatum, choose the children or choose your life," she told CNN.

"My relatives, even my mother said, 'She has gone mad, she should be checked at the mental institution.'"

My family, my husband gave me an ultimatum, choose the children or choose your life.
--Abebech Gobena, founder of the Abebech Gobena orphanage.
  • Africa
  • Ethiopia
  • Family
  • Addis Ababa

Gobena continued: "I was not welcome at home. So I decided to move to some land I had bought with the intention of raising some chicken. I moved into this forest area with the kids."

Thirty years on and Gobena, now more famously known as "Africa's Mother Theresa," is the founder of Ethiopia's oldest orphanage. Gobena's thirty-year legacy means she has raised a generation of Ethiopia's abandoned children, orphaned by the ravages of famine, war and HIV/AIDS.

However, leaving her own family was a tough decision for Gobena, who had struggled since childhood to gain an education, job and secure family life.

Born in 1938, she was only a month-old when her father was killed during the Ethio-Italian war. As tradition dictated, she was brought up by her father's parents until the age of 11, when she was married off without her consent.

Revolting against her marriage, Gobena ran away from home to Addis Ababa, where she scraped a basic education, gained a job as a quality controller and remarried.

She told CNN: "I suffered because of the traditions of the country I was born in. But things have improved. My goal is not to marry them off, but to raise them as adults who can take care of themselves."

Gobena has come a long way since 1980 when she struggled to survive, resorting to selling her possessions and tearing up her own dresses to make clothes for the infants. Now her orphanage, as well as sheltering, also acts as a school, educating over 700 children.

But she says: "I have no regrets. God has helped me get to this point. I always had great faith in God.

"I knew we would survive, even selling small things by the roadside. I am so happy because none of the children died, and all of them grew up."