When I met Mother Teresa

It was February 1985 when I first arrived in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. There was a humanitarian crisis with famine as a result of drought in a war torn land.

There were so many firsts for me when I arrived to work in a famine relief shelter in Mekele, Tigre , which was one of the worst affected areas.

It was my first time:

  • in Africa
  • living in a military dictatorship
  • living in a Marxist state
  • seeing poverty in the extreme
  • experiencing the desperation and hopelessness of people displaced by war and famine
  • being overwhelmed by the resilience of the human spirit
  • meeting a future saint

I'm on the left of Mother Teresa and my 2 colleagues, Joanne and Colleen are on the right

In Mekele, there were 40,000 displaced people who had come from outlying areas of Tigre, forced to the city to find food and shelter. There were about 7 different organizations providing relief and we (2 New Zealand nurses and I) ran a shelter for 5000 people with help from local Tigrinyans.

One of our main functions was to ensure those children extremely underweight received food. All children received our standard mix of milk powder, oil and sugar once a day, but those who were extremely underweight (actually skeletal) received this formula four times a day. When we got supplies, we added milk biscuits and multivitamins. I didn't look at the expiry date of the vitamins at the time, but am now aware that sometimes it is the 'past the sell by date' vitamins that end up in the third world.

Anyway, one of the groups working had nuns from the Missionaries of Compassion, whose leader was Mother Teresa. Mother Theresa came to Mekele and visited a few of the other shelters, including ours. I remember being surprised by how little she was. I also remember her asking about how we fed our babies and what we did for the pregnant and lactating mothers. I was impressed by how hands on she was and how she really understood our issues.

We were doing the best we could with what we had but the food - the oil, milk powder and sugar mix - was calorie dense but it wasn't exactly nutritious. Not only that, our most malnourished children developed a Kwashiokor pattern (protein - energy malnutrition) as they started to gain weight - so they developed swelling of the legs as one sign. So, I had one of the young girls in the shelter go to the market daily to buy eggs and we gave our very malnourished children an egg as well as the milk mix in an effort to increase their protein intake. This was supplemented by the grain the families received.

Mother Teresa completely understood the issues we were having and I remember being quite moved by her visit and a little in awe of her quiet, yet clearly very effective, way of getting to the basics then shining light on them to get things done. 

I remember my 6 months in Ethiopia fondly. The visit from Mother Teresa was just one of the highlights. I loved the people I worked with - I learned so much from their resilience and their ability to be satisfied with so little. It always tugs at my heart strings every time I see children suffering from malnutrition and preventable diseases.

I have often been asked about that time in Ethiopia and my usual response is that however much I may have helped in that crisis, I believe that I was the one who benefited most from my being there. I think this is true whenever we strive to help others.

Me with some of the children in the shelter

Recently, I found a cause I can support that provides nutrient-dense food (rather than just calorie dense food) to children in Africa. The meals come as Vitameal and one Vitameal feeds one child for one month. What I really like is that the food is delivered in school which encourages parents to send their children to school. So I feel lucky that I can commit to buying 4 Vitameal a month for children who need the nutrition and I know that it is giving true nourishment.

Part of having an abundant lifestyle is remaining grateful for what you have. Giving back to those less fortunate seems the correct thing for me to do. Giving back can be in so many ways - you don't need to give money, youcan give time, so you might volunteer at a local school or hospital. Look locally to see what moves you and what is needed.

This week was the 5th anniversary of the devastating Christchurch earthquake and there is still much to be done. And today, I am seeing pictures of the devastation Cyclone Winston has caused in Fiji. There are people all around us who could do with some help. Do what you can. It will enrich your life.

If you want to know more about Vitameal cause, click here.

To donate to UNICEF's response to the Fiji cyclone, click here.

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