Amazing Grace sung in African

Bronwen Hanna on A Walk to Beautiful depicting the Hamlin Fistula Hospital

A Walk to Beautiful is an award-winning documentary that follows the lives of five Ethiopian women, each suffering obstetric fistula—an appalling medical condition related to childbirth.

The film opens by introducing us to the first of these women—Ayehu, a forlorn 25-year-old who lives with her toddler in a tiny hut outside her village. Immediately striking is her resigned hopelessness and her isolation. She plays no part in village life. Ayehu has a 'fistula' or hole in her bladder, brought about by an obstructed labor that lasted a week and finally ended when her dead baby was pulled from her body.  When told by a friend of a hospital in Addis Addabi where they can stop the urine that trickles constantly down her legs, she decides to walk there, and as the audience we walk with her, hoping that she might get a second chance at life.

Each of the five women crisscrosses Ethiopia, drawn like magnets to the Hamlin Fistula Hospital in Addis Ababa. It is a long and shameful walk.  For Ayehu it is a six-hour trek to the nearest road followed by a seventeen-hour bus ride to Addis. As she walks to the back of the bus and tries to slip into obscurity I find myself on the edge of my seat, hoping her stench will be tolerated; that she will make it to the hospital.

The strength of this documentary is its ability to transport the viewer into the world of these women. Slowly the full horror of their situation is opened to us. Not only have they endured the trauma of extended labor and their lost babies, but their distress is compounded by the rejection of husbands, families and community.  One realizes that for a woman in rural Ethiopia, status and community acceptance are powerfully tied to the role of the mother and that the shame of fistula sufferers is only in small part about the misery of the medical condition. These women long for inclusion.

The story is narrated by the girls themselves as well as Catherine Hamlin, who, along with her husband Reg, founded the hospital in 1974. Not only does the film display a deep understanding of the physical and emotional suffering of fistula patients, but also the social and economic forces that result in so many African women suffering the condition. Poverty, poor nutrition, under-age marriage and a life carting heavy loads such as water carriers are all part of the mixed bag of causes that tell the story of Africa itself. While fistula was eradicated in the West by the end of the 19th century, primarily through the caesarian delivery, in the developing world approximately two to three million woman suffer the condition untreated.  

The film is full of contrasts, from the despair of illness to the joy of being healed. From the dark and lonely hiding places to the lush grounds and jacarandas in bloom at the hospital. From shameful rejection to open welcome, care and belonging. Patients arrive in urine soaked clothes and leave in a new dress and bright patchwork shawl, a symbol of a new start. For the great majority of patients, the healing is not only physical, but emotional as well. And it starts before the operation. Ayehu looks over the long lines of ward beds and shakes her head “I thought I was the only one” she says in wonder.  

This is a documentary where nothing is wasted, not the pictures or the dialogue, and what emerges is an engrossing, educational and confronting picture of Africa itself

Years ago I read Hospital by the River which describes Reg and Catherine Hamlin’s early years in Ethiopia. While I didn’t find the book anywhere near as powerful as the film, one thing that struck me was the Hamlin’s motivation for establishing the Hospital in the first place. That motivation largely came from a profound and deeply-held belief, grounded in the Jewish Old Testament and the Gospels, in a God who cares deeply for the outcast.

One is reminded of the interaction between Jesus and the “Woman with the bleeding”, documented in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Another tormented outcast, she quietly touches Jesus’ cloak, in the hope that this act in itself will heal her. But what is striking about the story is not just her physical healing, but the way that Jesus publicly acknowledges her and re-integrates her into society.

Catherine Hamlin herself commented when being interviewed for the making of the film:

  “We know that God is behind this work. I want to say that specially; that He has helped us over the years. We believe in prayer, and we believe that He has answered our prayers for many individual patients. With the work in the hospital we've been blessed.”   

This is a documentary where nothing is wasted, not the pictures or the dialogue, and what emerges is an engrossing, educational and confronting picture of Africa itself. A sensitive and beautiful film, I cannot recommend it highly enough. I left the cinema feeling like I had been on a journey, and had a head full of questions and challenges—to not be overwhelmed by dire circumstances but to start somewhere. When I see a need, to do something about it. Many will be grateful that this is precisely what Catherine and Reg Hamlin did.  

This inspiring story is a metaphor for a compelling Christianity that emerges naturally out of a picture of a God who cares for the lost and the lonely. ‘Amazing Grace that saved a wretch like me’, sung in African.

Bronwen Hanna has a degree in history and political science

The feature length version of A Walk to Beautiful (85 min.) is available on DVD exclusively from or by calling +1-212-413-9200. Special features and bonus materials include deleted scenes, commentaries, and two additional films, one of which revisits some of the women featured in the film, three years after their inspiring journey.

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