Dr. Barlow’s Compassionate Heart

The following brief history was written by Amsalua Mekonen, the first person to work in Ethiopia with Dr. Barlow when he began the Mossy Foot Project in 1997.

Amsalua Mekonen

Amsalua Mekonen

I remember clearly the day Dr. Barlow arrived in Soddo in January 1997. People from all over Wolaitta and other parts of Ethiopia had arrived to attend a 4-day conference at the Terepeza compound.

Dr. Barlow arrived on Sunday, the last day of the conference. As the conference ended, he stood up to make an announcement and said: “I have come back to Ethiopia to treat people who suffer from foot disease. I invite anyone with problems with their feet to come to my house tomorrow to receive treatment.”

Just as he announced at the conference, Dr. Barlow began work on the next day, the second day after he arrived in Wolaitta.

Dr. Barlow was staying at the Terepeza compound and used to visit one of the other doctors, Dr. Mary Vanderkooi. At that time I was working for Dr. Mary, who introduced me to Dr. Barlow. Dr. Mary told him that I was an honest hard worker, and recommended that I work for him. So I began working half time for each doctor. My duties included buying medicine, shoes, and clothing for people in need, cleaning, and preparing food for Dr. Barlow at Dr. Mary’s house, since he did not have a stove or furniture.

Within a week after I began working for Dr. Barlow, the number of patients coming for treatment had increased so that the workload was too much for one person. Josiah joined us to work with Dr. Barlow doing wound care. Later that year, Dr. Kelemu returned to Ethiopia and joined us.

We were very busy taking care of all of the patients that came. In fact, the managers of the Terepeza compound began complaining about the influx of patients, so we moved our clinic to the Bosa Anka church. Dr. Barlow added porches with shade and built several toilets at the church to accommodate the patients.

Buying shoes for the growing number of patients was a challenge, so we decided to make shoes for them. Israel was hired in March to make shoes. He used wood to make the soles. He bought cow skins from the market and cut them into pieces to attach to the wooden sole. The shoes Israel made were very big because of the size of the patients’ feet. When Dr. Barlow saw that the shoe making work was too much for one person, he hired Fikre. Israel and Fikre continued to work together making shoes.

Later that year, Dr. Barlow told us that he was going to Addis Ababa to raise funds for the work. While he was gone, we stopped working. He came back in April and we started to work again. People came from all over the country. Dr. Barlow would wake up at midnight to examine patients, taking their blood in order to run tests to determine what was causing mossy foot disease. Also, Dr. Barlow rented Ato Mitawo’s house as a place for patients to stay who had had surgery.

Next Steps 1998

While we were working, the funds began to run out again and Dr. Barlow returned to the US to raise money. We had run out of the potassium permanganate required in the treatment. Dr. Barlow told us he would come back with more money so we could buy medicine.

When Dr. Barlow left, I was engaged to Ato Desta. A month after he went, we were married. Now I have four children.

When Dr. Barlow returned, everything improved and we continued working. Instead of making shoe soles from wood, Dr. Barlow brought already prepared shoe soles and designs from Addis Ababa. Instead of using the skin of cows for making shoes, we started to buy leather from Addis Ababa.

Dr. Barlow also received a legal official letter from the government for the work to continue.

Growth of the Project in 1999

We started work in a better and improved way in 1999. Before then, all the work was done by me, Dr. Barlow, Dr. Kelemu, Josiah, Israel, and Fikre Dora. In 1999, we started more departments such as training. Tamenech was another worker who was hired at that time.

We began opening new sites and more workers were hired to staff them. This meant that we needed more shoes.

Dr. Barlow initially gave the shoe requirements to three shoemakers named Koste, Abyne, and Lukas. They made the shoes as specified and sold them to Dr. Barlow. This approach was not very efficient so Dr. Barlow hired the shoemakers to work for him at the office at Soddo. Later more workers were added and shoe making became one the main activities of the project.

Dr. Barlow’s Death

In 2004 at the age of 91, Dr. Barlow was called home by the Lord. After his death, everybody in Soddo thought the mossy foot work would stop. But Dr. Barlow’s daughter Sharon and her husband Jim provided the leadership to continue his work. The work continued without even stopping for a month.

My Experience with Dr. Barlow

Dr. Barlow was already old (84) when he started the Mossy Foot Project. He was an interesting man, with a strong leadership and management style. He treated both patients and workers with respect; all were equal in his presence.

Dr. Barlow was very kind to the patients. Sometimes he would take off his own socks and give them to a patient. The patients’ feet at that time were very large. We had to cut off part of the socks in order to fit them onto patient’s feet. When Dr. Barlow saw a person in need, he would take off his own shirt and socks. He was known for his generosity.

Initially, the Mossy Foot Project did not own a vehicle. When Dr. Barlow went to the bank to exchange money, he walked all the way from Terepeza to Soddo unless he got a lift from the SIM or Kale Heywot church vehicle. Otherwise, he walked all the way to Soddo with a stick to defend himself from rabid dogs. At the bank, Dr. Barlow would take out the money and give it to me to pay the workers and purchased the supplies we needed.

Everybody in Wolaitta knew of Dr. Barlow. If you asked any person above the age of 30 if they knew of Dr. Barlow, they would say: “Of course I do.” Dr. Barlow lived in Wolaitta from 1945 to the beginning of the Derg government in 1977. Fathers would tell their children about Dr. Barlow and how kind he was. When the children grew up they wanted to see him. His life was bound with the Wolaitta people’s history.

When Dr. Barlow returned to Ethiopia in 1997 after a 20-year absence, people who had heard about him came from all over the country to visit him. When we would go to market with Dr. Barlow, we were surrounded by the crowd following us. Students would shout, “Look! That is Dr. Barlow,” and follow us.

Dr. Barlow was a man of faith. At the yearly conference where pastors and evangelists gave their reports, Dr. Barlow gave out tape players and tapes with Christian teachings in the Amharic and Wolaitta languages. The tape presented the gospel message about Jesus Christ and eternal life.

Before Dr. Barlow treated a patient for the first time, he would ask them if they knew Jesus Christ as their savior. He encouraged everybody to be strong in the Lord. If a patient replied that they had not accepted Jesus Christ as savior, Dr. Barlow would give the tape and tape player to them. Every patient would ask Dr.Barlow to pray for them before they returned home. “Wosa” is a Wolaitta word that means pray. This word was known between Dr. Barlow and his patients. He would pray for every patient before they said good bye. Dr. Barlow gave himself to the Lord. He was an inspiring person.

The first thing Dr. Barlow did before he began work in the morning was to share from the Bible and pray. Spiritual things came first in his mission. The foundation of the Mossy Foot Project was prayer and faith in God’s love and power to provide. Today also the foundation of the project must be prayer. This will give strength and success to the project.