AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.
NPR's East Africa correspondent, Gregory Warner, regularly covers dramatic and serious stories. In the past month, he's reported on the conflict in South Sudan, the funeral for South Africa's Nelson Mandela, and the treatment of HIV in Kenya. But today's story, one from Ethiopia, is a different kind of tale that he just could not get out of his head.
Here's Gregory Warner.
GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: In 2010, a well-traveled freelance photographer named Kristie McLean came to Ethiopia, a country she'd never been to, to photograph women with a childbirth injury that can happen when the baby gets stuck.
KRISTIE MCLEAN: In the West, if the baby gets stuck, they give you a C-section and everyone is fine. If you're delivering in a mud hut and there're no doctors available to do a C-section, then that's when the woman gets in trouble.
WARNER: She talked to women who'd been in labor for days, after which the baby is usually dead and a hole, called a fistula, can form between the birth canal and the bladder or the rectum.
MCLEAN: The woman is then left incontinent - urine, feces, or both depending on where the hole is. Typically, their husbands and their families reject them. They're completely shunned from society.
WARNER: Obstetric fistula, as it's called, can be fixed with a simple surgery. But women who are shunned by their families have little means of raising the money for treatment. Those that are helped by charity have often waited a long time on lists. They can be weakened physically and mentally. So when Kristie and another photographer on this trip were introduced to anew patient in Ethiopia's Hamlin Hospital, they were cautioned not to extend their visit past 30 minutes.
MCLEAN: And that amount of time came and went. My partner wouldn't stop shooting. The fistula patient was cowering and was clearly not comfortable. And I said as much to my partner, and her response was: Don't tell me what to do. I paid thousands of dollars of my own money to be here and I'm going to get the shot. I went outside and was just wondering, what the hell am I doing here?
WARNER: Not just what the hell am I doing in Ethiopia but what am I doing with my life.
MCLEAN: If this is what it's like to be a professional photographer, I'm in the wrong place. And I stumbled out into the parking lot.
WARNER: And in the parking lot she spotted a young man covered with dust.
TSEGA MEKONNEN: Our clothes, our shoes is full of dust. Our car is full of dust.
WARNER: He said his name was Tsega.
MEKONNEN: Tsega Mekonnen.
WARNER: I telephoned Tsega in Addis Ababa to fill in parts of the story that Kristie says he told her right there in the parking lot that day; that he was an engineer who built grain mills in far off villages. That in his travels hearing about fistula patients, he was inspired to do something to help; and that now, once a month, he was volunteering with a church, unpaid, to transport women with fistula from their remote villages two days journey to this hospital in the capital.
MEKONNEN: We drive on forests, very bad roads, very slow driving.
MCLEAN: And he said that they always travel with three women. And on the day that they were going to leave there were only two women.
WARNER: There was some question whether to make the trip or wait for a third
MCLEAN: Because petrol is expensive and they decided to go anyway.
WARNER: But then Kristie says that on Tsega's way to the hospital, he found the road blocked by a crowd.
MCLEAN: And Tsega got out of the car and asked someone on the side of the road, what's going on, what's happening. And someone said there's a woman who's hanging from a tree and she's trying to kill herself.
MEKONNEN: Because nobody wanted to work with her, to live with her, because she is leaking, there is very bad smell.
MCLEAN: That her husband had chased her from the house and that her family had rejected her and she had nowhere to go. And he was able to say, come down from the tree and come with us, and we have room for you in our car. And we're going to the fistula hospital. And that was Hijaibe, she was 22. And the word Hijaibe means amazing. The name Tsega means grace.
I don't know what it was specifically about that story because I had interviewed other really interesting, really lovely women. But I heard that story of Hijaibe and it changed something in me.
WARNER: And something about this story when she told it back home in Seattle...
MCLEAN: ...sitting next to me on airplanes or in the frozen food section, not even good friends of mine but complete strangers...
WARNER: ...wanted to help Kristie help these women.
Obstetric fistula affects up to two million women and girls around the world. And there are a number of fistula organizations already. But Kristie collected enough money on her own to set up a new project in western Ethiopia, in the region where Hijaibe lives, to help women support themselves after surgery.
(SOUNDBITE OF A GOAT)
WARNER: On her fourth trip back to the country she took along a tape recorder. Three years had passed since she'd heard the story in the parking lot. And now she'd come to celebrate. She'd raised enough funds to help Tsega build a special grain mill that would benefit women with fistula. The proceeds from the mill allowed women to own livestock.
MCLEAN: So we are standing here with Hijaibe and her six sheep. So I'll let you...
MCLEAN: ...let her tell you about how she feels about having her new sheep.
HIJAIBE: (Through Translator) I'm very, very happy to have these sheeps. I forget my problems by seeing them.
WARNER: Hijaibe was still living with the symptoms of her injury. Surgeons could not fix the hole in her birth canal, there was just too much scar tissue. So when Kristie finally mustered up the courage to ask her on tape about her attempted suicide three years before, the pain was just as fresh.
(SOUNDBITE OF WEEPING)
HIJAIBE: (Foreign language spoken)
(SOUNDBITE OF WEEPING)
MCLEAN: Hijaibe said that she was completely out of options; that she was completely out of hope. And that she had found some rope and she had strung it through the tree.
WARNER: With every intention of ending her life until a person found her, stopped her and saved her. Except, Kristie now learned that that person...
MCLEAN: Wasn't Tsega...
WARNER: The man called Grace.
MCLEAN: ...that took her down from the tree. It was this other woman.
WARNER: One of Hijaibe's neighbors. Tsega didn't enter the story until two months later, when he heard about Hijaibe from villagers.
MEKONNEN: They were talking about Hijaibe. And I tell them, please bring this woman to me. I'll take her to hospital.
WARNER: Tsega confirmed Kristie's original version, except...
MEKONNEN: No, no, no...
WARNER: ...this most important detail.
MEKONNEN: When she trying to kill herself, I didn't see.
MCLEAN: It's possible that the discrepancy is pure interpretation. Because we're talking about a woman on the tree and then they're telling me that they brought this woman and that they had one spot left. So I'm not even realizing that there's...
WARNER: A two month gap.
MCLEAN: Right, a two month gap. So...
WARNER: Yeah, I mean, does the two month gap change the story?
MCLEAN: I think the two month gap makes it a different story.
WARNER: When she first heard the story there in the hospital parking lot, she herself was in a profound state of doubt about her life and her career. The story she thought she heard suggested that the unlikeliest rescue can come exactly at our lowest moment of despair.
MCLEAN: There's times in our lives where we're that person hanging from the tree. We're looking for that place. We're hoping for that place.
WARNER: You could say that this story rescued Kristie. It gave her a purpose. And so, while intellectually she knows that the true version is not that different...
MCLEAN: The pain is the same and I think the sense of hope is the same.
WARNER: Just that miraculous cinematic timing is gone.
MCLEAN: And there's an awkward part for me because I don't want people to think I've been gaming this whole time, for some kind of sensationalist story because it's not my character and it's not accurate. On the other hand, emotion is what moves people to action and so this is that tender spot.
WARNER: Now that she's met these women, seen their lives up close, she no longer needs a supernatural coincidence to be moved to compassion. But if back then, when she was still a stranger, she'd heard the real story...
MCLEAN: It's likely we would have shaken hands and I would have went on my way.
WARNER: And that's what she fears when she tells this story again at fundraisers, that most people will do.
CORNISH: Gregory Warner, NPR News.