A Timely Lesson from Gocho, a Middle-Class Ethiopian
Today I met my friend Gocho in Addis Ababa. The first story he told me over coffee inspired me—no, that’s not strong enough—it pierced me and split my heart open; but first some background.
Gocho, is a 31-year-old food server at a large hotel. He works 48 hours per week and makes $4.24 per day, $103 per month after taxes. He lives with his brother in a rented 12’ x 12’ mud house. The toilet and cold-water shower are out back and shared among four families. He doesn’t own a car.
To be considered Middle Class in Ethiopia, one needs to make at least $1.90 per day (World Bank, 2015).
I met Gocho two years ago when his brother invited him to join a two-week humanitarian trip to the destitute city of Assosa, “the forgotten land of Ethiopia.” I sat next to him on his first airplane ride and joyfully watched his surprise at the view above the clouds.
Though he had no medical background, he played the role of “pharmacist” as our team offered medical aid and water purifiers to at least four impoverished villages per day.
In this region, there is only one doctor for one million people. Though life-saving medications cost pennies and a major surgery costs approximately $7, people there don’t have access to the money or transportation to the one small hospital.
Before traveling to Assosa, Gocho believed Addis Ababa was the most poverty-stricken place he could imagine.
“Then, in Assosa, I saw worse poverty. I was very shocked.” One of the worst parts for him was the life of the children. “The children, they don’t go to school, and that makes our future very dark. I feel very sad.”
While in Assosa, he gave little bits of money to a few people, though he understood this help was very inadequate and short-term.
Upon returning home, he experienced a shift in perspective. “Life is not so difficult in Addis.”
Last year Gocho eagerly returned to Assosa with the team. He was asked by Philippa, an American “regular” on this trip, to help her treat multiple infected foot wounds (many villagers are barefoot or wear worn-out sandals). He felt sick to his stomach at the thought.
“I want to throw out (vomit). I feel I can’t do it,” he told me.
He gathered his courage and practiced the steps on his first patient, an elderly gentleman, whose foot was so infected from wounding it on a stick he was in danger of an amputation.
Mix water with hydrogen peroxide in a bucket. Place the foot in the bucket and very thoroughly clean the infected wound. Put antibacterial ointment on the wound. Wrap it carefully. Give oral antibiotics.
This process takes some time, and Gocho began asking the man about his life. He lived alone, was lonely and had no one to care for him. His one son lived hours away in Addis. He feared leaving his land because the government would take it.
Gocho listened and gave this man’s foot and heart his undivided attention. The man was deeply grateful.
With this first patient, Gocho had a turning point. “Before this, I felt something like this was disgusting and I looked away. After doing this, I feel blessed and I am meaningful. I can help people.” He loved asking about their lives and listening to their stories as he cared for them.
“We rise by lifting others.” Robert Ingersoll
Gocho began treating as many wounds as he could. “In wound care, you see exactly what you are doing—the infection, the pain, the response of the people and the relief of the people. That’s very important for me. Patients tell me, Thanks so much and God bless you.”
Being impoverished is difficult enough. Being impoverished AND sick is unbearable.
Giving money, he told me, might last a couple of days. When you give wound care, “You give health. That’s a big thing.”
“No one has ever become poor by giving.” Anne Frank
In his normal life, every day Gocho wakes up, goes to work, goes to school (he’s studying computer science), and goes home. Every day. Year in and year out.
How have the humanitarian trips changed him? “Before that, I feel happiness is only coming from good things, like TV or entertainment. After that (Assosa), I feel so happy. When you do it (wound care), it is difficult, but you are happy to see their faces after, so happy.”
Gocho tells me he feels grateful for small things and sleeps peacefully at night.
“I used to want to be a rich person. After that (experience), I want to help people.”
Let’s be honest, no one in America would want to trade places with Gocho. His life is brutal. But seeing the love and gratitude in his eyes, I believe many would want access to his peace of mind.
His ability to transcend his circumstances, to live with the deep joy of helping others, inspires me to follow his lead during this very challenging time in America, when I easily find myself exhausted and despairing. The reality is, we have wells of reserves if we can only tap into them as he has.
In the end, Gocho says, “We are human. We help each other and we do the right thing if we can. I don’t need so many people to come to Assosa or Ethiopia or Africa—but maybe their families and neighbors need help.”
“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” Mahatma Gandhi