Abebech Gobena was returning from a pilgrimage to the holy site of Gishen Mariam, about 300 miles north of the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, when she saw the woman and her baby.
It was 1980, and Ms. Gobena was passing through an area recently stricken by drought and an accompanying famine. All along the road were bodies — many dead, some dying, some still able to sit up and ask for food.
“There were so many of these hungry people sprawled all over, you could not even walk,” she said in a 2010 interview with CNN. She handed out what little she had — a loaf of bread, a few liters of water.
At first, Ms. Gobena thought the woman was asleep, and she watched as the baby tried to suckle at her breast. Then she realized the mother was dead.
A man nearby was collecting bodies. He told her he was waiting for the child, a girl, to die.
Without thinking further, Ms. Gobena picked up the baby, wrapped her in a cloth and took her home to Addis Ababa. She returned the next day with more food and water.
“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,’” she recalled. “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 the year she had 21 children living with her and her husband, Kebede Yikoster. At first supportive, he eventually gave her an ultimatum: him or the children.
Ms. Gobena left him, and most of her possessions, taking the children to live with her in a shack in the woods. She sold her jewelry to raise money, then eked out an income selling injera bread and honey wine. Unable to pay the children’s school fees, she found a tutor to visit the shack.
She took in more children, and after years of battling government bureaucracy in Ethiopia, in 1986 she managed to register her organization — Abebech Gobena Children’s Care and Development Association — as a nonprofit, enabling her to raise money and accept grants.
She bought farmland outside Addis Ababa, where she and the orphans worked, and sold the produce to fund the orphanage. They also built dozens of latrines, public kitchens and water points around the city.
Today the organization, known by its acronym in Amharic, Agohelma, is one of the largest nonprofits in Ethiopia. Along with its orphanage, it provides free school for hundreds of children, HIV/AIDS prevention and maternal health care — according to its own estimate, some 1.5 million Ethiopians have benefited from its services since 1980. They and many others call her the “Mother Teresa of Africa.”
In June Ms. Gobena contracted Covid-19. She entered the intensive care unit at St. Paul’s Hospital in Addis Ababa, where she died on July 4. She was 85. Yitbarek Tekalign, a spokesman for Agohelma, confirmed her death.
“Abebech Gobena was one of the most selfless and pure-hearted people I ever met,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the World Health Organization and a former Ethiopian minister of health, said in a statement. “She helped many children not only to survive, but succeed in life.”
Abebech Gobena Heye was born on Oct. 20, 1935, in Shebel Abo, a village north of Addis Ababa in what was then Shewa Province. That same month, Italian forces in Eritrea invaded Ethiopia, setting off the Second Italo-Ethiopian War. Her father, Gofe Heye, was a farmer who died in the fighting.
Ms. Gobena and her mother, Wosene Biru, went to live with her grandparents. When she was 10 her family arranged for her to marry a much older man, but she ran home soon after the ceremony. Her family returned her to her husband, who kept her locked in a room at night.
Ms. Gobena managed to escape through a hole in the roof and made her way to Addis Ababa, where she found a family to take her in. She attended school and later found work as a quality control inspector with a company that exported coffee and grain.
The job afforded her a stable, middle-class life, but after establishing Agohelma she lived in near poverty. She never took a salary, and her bedroom was attached to one of the orphanage dormitories.
Ms. Gobena — known to many as Emaye, an Amharic word that loosely translates as “Wonderful Mother” — did not simply raise the children under her charge. Along with their classroom education, she made sure that they learned marketable skills, like metalworking, embroidery and, more recently, photography. She gave the older children seed money to start their own businesses.
“I don’t have words to describe Emaye; she was my everything,” said Rahel Berhanu, a former Agohelma orphan, in an interview with the magazine Addis Standard. “After getting my diploma, I started working with her. She was a mother above mothers.’’
Ms. Gobena did not leave any immediate survivors, though she might disagree.
“I have no children of my own,” she told The Times of London in 2004, “but I have a family of hundreds of thousands, and I have absolutely no regrets.”