A Walk to Beautiful (10/10)
by Tony Medley
Ask 10 men what fistula is and 9 will probably guess thatís itís a river
in Poland. Ask 10 women and many, if not most, will probably correctly
identify it. (To get technical, it is an abnormal duct or passage that
connects an abscess, cavity, or hollow organ to the body surface or to
another hollow organ). Obstetric fistula results from a prolonged
pregnancy that causes a woman to be incontinent.
Director (with Amy Bucher)-Cinematographer (with Tony Hardmon) Mary
Olive Smith tells the stories of five Ethiopian women who suffer from
devastating birthing injuries and who make the journey to reclaim their
Although not many people here know about it, there are 2-3 million cases
of obstetric fistula worldwide and 100,000 in Ethiopia alone. These
cases are the most pathetic. Many are caused by young girls who are
forced to marry at 13 years old and younger. When they become pregnant
at such a young age, their pelvic area isnít big enough for a baby held
to term to pass through. The result is an agonizing labor that can last
as long as 10 days. Usually this causes the baby to be stillborn.
The most dramatic aftermath of prolonged birthing is obstetric fistula,
a hole that forms between the vagina and the bladder (and in some cases
the rectum) during prolonged, obstructed labor. Affecting two million
women worldwide according to conservative estimates, this horrific
injury leaves victims incontinent, often suffering nerve damage, and in
some cases unable to bear children.
Because Ethiopian women live in a horribly impoverished country, they
canít get medical treatment. Many live a six-hour or longer walk to the
nearest road, making getting medical treatment extraordinarily
difficult, if not impossible. So they are condemned to suffer with their
problem. Abandoned by their husbands, their family doesnít want them
around because they smell and are messy. So they are basically banished
to live alone in shacks, feeling full of shame and rejection, just
waiting to die.
The title, ďA Walk to Beautiful,Ē reflects the difficult travel many
fistula sufferers undertake to reach the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital.
Most villages are a two-day walk from a road, and bus fares cost, what
is for many, a fortune. Added to this is the misery and rejection of
dripping urine, and sometimes feces. But without a cure, women with
fistulas commonly spend the remaining years of their lives in shame and
Smith tells the stories of five young women afflicted with fistula,
Ayehu, 25, Yenenesh, approximately 17, Wubete, 17, Almaz, around 21, and
Zewdie, 38, and a mother of 5 children when she became afflicted. She
starts with them living alone and isolated from everyone else in their
village and follows them as they learn of a possible cure, take the long
walk, enter the hospital, and receive the treatment that could change
their lives. Itís a journey Iím so glad I could watch them take.
Each story is different and heart-rending. You wonít soon forget the
sweetness of these women as each tells her heart-breaking story. Smithís
film presents African natives in a light in which Americans probably
donít often think; that they are people like us, with feelings as
intense as ours. They donít live like us. They donít have beautiful
clothes and nice houses and apartments in which to live. They donít have
automobiles or television or electricity or roads or telephones or
supermarkets or, even shoes. Worse, they donít have doctors and
hospitals where they live in jungle villages. But in the end they are no
different than we are with all our luxuries that we take for granted.
These women have such tender, sensitive eyes, and express their
suffering so eloquently, that you can feel the hurt every time you look
at them, all the while admiring their bravery. Some of their comments
ďI donít go visit
ďIím afraid someone
will notice my shame.Ē
wouldnít help me. He said itís my destiny to be like this.Ē
The husband of the latter replied, ďI have needs so I moved in with
someone else,Ē coldly and selfishly condemning her to a life of
loneliness caused by a bad pregnancy in which he was a partner.
These are just a few examples of how these poor, sweet women are
abandoned when ill fortune hits them through no fault of their own. In
fact, many are condemned to youthful marriages against their will which
causes them to become pregnant before their bodies are ready for it.
Each young woman tells her story in her own words. There is no
narration. In fact, as the movie starts you donít realize what the
problem is except for a few shots of the leg of one of the women, which
clearly has fluid dripping down it.
The World Health Organization has called fistula ďthe single most
dramatic aftermath of neglected childbirthĒ. In addition to complete
incontinence, a fistula victim may develop nerve damage to the lower
extremities after a multi-day labor in a squatting position. Fistula
victims also suffer profound psychological trauma resulting from their
utter loss of status and dignity.
Australian obstetrician-gynecologist, Drs. Catherine Hamlin, and her New
Zealand born OB-GYN husband, Reginald, came to Ethiopia to spend a year.
They were so taken by the good they could do for these poor,
unfortunate, forgotten women, that they established their hospital, The
Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital, in 1974. Its sole purpose is to treat
women with fistula and related illnesses. Since then they have rescued
28,000 young women from the ignominious shame into which they had been
cast, providing free fistula repair surgery to approximately 1,200 women
every year and care for 35 long-term patients.
You wonít see a more rewarding film this year. In Amharic & Oromiffa.
February 3, 2008