Robert Waterhouse Sun 21 Apr 2019 18.08 BST
Gebremedhin Bekele served as executive director of Cheshire Ethiopia. Its workshops make prosthetics and assemble rough-terrain wheelchairs and its social workers help people reintegrate into society
My friend Gebremedhin Bekele, who has died of cancer aged 68, devoted his life to Cheshire Ethiopia, the NGO that is Ethiopia’s principal provider of post-polio rehabilitation.
I met him when asked to write a history of the organisation for its 50th anniversary, a moment for celebration in a country where disability is a continuous challenge.
Founded in 1962, when Group Captain Leonard Cheshire was invited by two of Emperor Haile Selassie’s grandchildren to set up a home in Addis Ababa, the institution existed on royal patronage, expatriate enthusiasm and some funds from Cheshire until 1974, when Derg revolutionaries swept away the emperor and his court. As most non-Ethiopians fled the country, Gebremedhin, then a junior social worker in his early 20s, increasingly took charge.
Somehow he persuaded the Derg not to appropriate Menagesha, the centre high in the hills outside Addis donated by Princess Tenagnework. His willpower had already been tested by Cheshire himself. Visiting Addis for a 1973 conference, Cheshire was dismayed to find that the home was not the residential haven he had envisaged but rather a place from which, once rehabilitated, children were returned to their communities to make room for others.
The second of nine children born to Bekele Sira, a farmer, and his wife, Ehite Balye, in Woliso, Oromia, Gebremedhin won scholarships from a small village school to a teacher training course at what is now Addis Ababa University and then, after adding a social services diploma, joining Cheshire as a junior social worker in 1972.
As executive director, Gebremedhin pioneered an approach that has treated thousands of cases. Thanks to infant vaccination, polio is almost eradicated in Ethiopia, but there remains a need for corrective measures in conditions fostered by poverty in Africa’s second most populous nation.
With four regional centres and an extensive outreach programme, Cheshire Ethiopia’s workshops make prosthetics and assemble rough-terrain wheelchairs; its physiotherapists get patients on the move; its social workers help them reintegrate.
Ethiopia still faces major problems with the issue of disability. Local NGOs try to maintain government cooperation while satisfying overseas partners. It is a diplomatic and financial minefield.
Approachable and charming, but forthright when necessary, Gebremedhin was a defiant example to those critics of Ethiopia’s so-called “donor” culture.
Despite his illness, Gebremedhin remained committed until his death. His wife, Hiwot Estifanos, whom he married in 1974, supported him throughout.
She survives him along with three sons and two grandchildren.