The Quiha Zonal Hospital is a plain, prefabricated metal building. It sits on the dusty plateau above Mekele, along the wide, well-paved road the Italians constructed when they tried, and failed, to colonize Ethiopia. Most days, the building blends into the landscape of dishwater-colored hills. But the morning we arrive, the hospital, obscured by a crush of bodies, looks more like I imagine it did when it was hastily built, by other Italians with better motives, to treat the victims of Ethiopia’s famine, a catastrophe that killed a million people in the mid-eighties.
I’ve come with Geoff Tabin and a medical team organized by his Himalayan Cataract Project. Their goal is to conduct the largest eye surgery camp in Africa’s history, restoring sight to as many as 800 people. Patients have traveled by bus, by donkey cart, and on foot. By 8 a.m. it’s already hot, and more than 400 people ribbon the hospital building, squeezed into every sliver of available shade. We arrived on a predawn flight from Addis Ababa. But any notion of sticking to our original plan—checking into a hotel, showering, and fortifying ourselves with coffee—evaporates when Tabin makes eye contact with the few of his patients who are still able to see. “We’ve got to . . . get to work,” he says. You can hear the weight of 400 blind Ethiopians’ expectations in his voice.
There are stories that spill out before you unpack your bag of dirty gear, stories you can’t wait to tell your friends and family when you return home. This isn’t one of them. This is a story about strength, but also human frailty. About limitations—mine anyway—and how, occasionally, we’re lucky enough to spend time with people who teach us how to transcend them.
But Tabin would never talk up our trip in such a solemn way. When he was trying to convince me to come, when I started getting three or four calls a day, he raved about the beauty of northern Ethiopia. “Like Moab but more amazing,” he said. “We’ll climb up to incredible rock churches carved into cliffs. We’ll drink the best coffee in the world, go dancing every night, and push the ‘fun-o-meter’ into the red.”
At least he was right about the coffee.