“As a junior doctor I went to Ethiopia to work with my aunt in the desert area, and we were just wandering around the desert with camels, treating people under trees and shrubs and things in 50-degree heat … You’d have to sleep with a guard with a gun because the hyenas get quite close, so every now and then you’d get woken up with a gunshot and this hyena yelping off in the distance. And then a bit later that night a camel was bellowing just a few metres away from my head and gives birth, and I get splattered with all this amniotic fluid.”
Andrew Browning has spent more than 17 years in Africa as a missionary doctor. As a medical student, he spent time working with Rwandan refugees fleeing the genocide; as a junior doctor, he joined Catherine Hamlin at the Fistula Hospital in Ethiopia, dedicating his life to helping women who are suffering from debilitating childbirth injuries.
In this episode of Life & Faith, Andrew explains how he could give up a lucrative, comfortable life as a doctor at home in Australia to help thousands of women halfway round the world. He explains the risks of childbirth in rural places, what a fistula is, and his hope for a future where women don’t have to face this kind of suffering.
He also talks about the difference between being a missionary doctor or a secular healthcare worker somewhere like Africa – as well as how African and Western people respond differently to illness, suffering, and death.
“I remember telling people in Australia they’ve got cancer, or ‘You’ve got a life-threatening condition’, and the immediate reaction was ‘No, no, you’re wrong’ or ‘Give me a second opinion; that can’t be true’, or they’re angry. Whereas if you do that in Africa it’s much more ‘Oh, okay, sure. My time is up.’ I mean they’re much more attuned to death and accepting of suffering as part of life, they see it every day … The poor in Africa, the physically poor, people say that they’re spiritually rich, and the materially rich are often spiritually poor – at least in my experience.”
Content warning: This episode contains explicit medical details, as well as descriptions of violence, that you may find distressing and that probably aren’t appropriate for kids.
Find out more about Andrew’s ongoing work to end obstetric fistula globally through the Barbara May Foundation.
The book inspired by this episode, A Doctor in Africa, is published by Pan Macmillan.
This episode was first broadcast on 23 May 2019