January 14, 2021

Remembering Dr Jember: Turning dreams to life principles

City: Addis AbabaObituary

The late Dr Jember Tefera was a woman who made a legacy by following her calling, which she realised as a child in a dream.

Avatar: Zemen Mekonnen
By Zemen Mekonnen

Zemen Mekonnen is a Content Creater at Addis Zeybe. She is a graduate from Addis Abeba University School of Law and Governance.

 Remembering Dr Jember: Turning dreams to life principles

The late Dr Jember Tefera was a woman who made a legacy by following her calling, which she realised as a child in a dream. Her life path was designed based upon the dream she saw that night. Born in Madagascar in 1943, Dr Jember Tefera finished elementary school in Ethiopia and her secondary education in Great Britain. Dr Jember attributes her aspirations were designed by her mother. 

Dr Jember once said in an interview how her mother, who raised her alone after her father passed, used to make sure she assimilated poverty, "she made sure my siblings and I  fully understood our privileges." She attended Tunbridge Wells School of Nursing in England, completing her education as a registered nurse in 1965. A few years later, she received a master's degree in Primary Health Care (PHC) and M.Phil. from the University of Manchester. "I saw poverty restricting people from getting medical care, that's why I wanted to study it." 

After completing her studies abroad, Dr Jember returned to Ethiopia to do what she believed was her life calling which was helping the poor. She started working at St. Paul's Hospital, Haile Selassie Foundation. The foundation was formed to provide free medical care. While working in the hospital, Jember took notice of the essential things the hospital was missing and did a study that identified them and mapped the overall cost needed to make the hospital to be fit enough in providing medical care. She estimated the overall cost to be 32,000 ETB but the hospital could only provide 24,000. "That is when I uncovered I was good at beseeching… I collected the rest of the money from my family and friends" Dr Jember once stated.

Angered by the ideology and lack of care of the medical professionals and their means of handling patients, Dr Jember decided to resort to teaching such professionals and joined the Red Cross. After five years of working with the Red Cross, Jember and her late husband Dr Hailegiorgis, Mayor of Addis Ababa during the Haileselassie regime were both imprisoned under the Derg regime. 

Dr Jember spoke about her first day in prison in an interview once. She mentioned how she was angry with God the first day of her arrest, the late Dr Jember used to describe how she prayed to God and asked him how he would let both parents of four kids, who were under the age of eight get arrested. The next day she asked the guards to take her to their head to discuss with him about the situation. She recalled how the guards laughed and said "if being arrested surprised you wait until you get executed. That day I stopped being angry and asked God to reveal the reason why he put me in prison and the work he wants me to do." 

While under confinement, Jember provided medical care. Additionally, by collaborating with other political prisoners she assisted in the creation of a school for convicts and prison guards and was involved in the accreditation of a health assistance school that was established in the prison. The late humanitarian Dr. Jember started observing the prison and how it was lacking in many ways. She recalled in an interview she had given “the sanitation of the prison rooms and toilets was not adequate and there was no satisfactory care given to sick prisoners. With the help of a Dutch friend of mine we were able to build the first clinic in the prison at that time where the sick could be treated and pregnant women can give birth in".  Noticing the lack of medical personnel Dr Jember opened a school in the prison where prisoners and military personnel learned basic medical treatment and care. 

The undertaking continued even after she was released. She worked with Norwegian aid providers on delivering aid to people living in poverty. She identified areas where the poor were said to reside in bulk and asked them what they needed the most which was proper housing. By following the approach of expanding the scale of an already started project, a strategy Dr Jember picked up while studying abroad she started the Integrated Holistic Approach – Urban Development Project (IHA-UDP), which is a slum clearance and community development project, based in Addis Ababa. 

IHA-UDP has been in operation since 1990 upgrading three slum areas in the city and addressing the needs of over 53,000 people by implementing their integrated holistic approach. 

The works of such projects included nurturing some of the poorest people in one of the poorest nations in the world “from the womb to tomb”.  The Project has a unique integrated holistic approach so that all kinds of needs are cared for, from health to housing and education to employment. These problems are tackled together, which is more effective than, for example, improving a person’s house, but leaving them with no healthcare, job, or hope. Given the success of the project as a demand-responsive action, IHA-UDP set up the Institute for Urban Workers to share the experience of their methodology and teach both grass root and professional workers at certificate, diploma and soon Master’s degree level.

Dr. Jember was successful in running this organisation, one that has been the only NGO involved in the construction of housing for slum dwellers in Addis Ababa for considerable  years. 

People who had the chance of working with the late Dr Jember described her to be kind, calm and dedicated. Among several other awards, the 2013 LifeTime Achievement Award was bestowed upon Dr Jember Teferra who dedicated her life to alleviating urban poverty in an integrated manner. She often endorsed her team and acquaintances for the achievements of the projects she undertook. Dr Jember passed away at the age of 77 and was survived by four children.