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Jember Teferra obituary

Mike Barrett
·2-min read

Jember Teferra, who has died aged 77, was a remarkable woman who lived to help others, despite enormous challenges in her own life. An Ethiopian, she studied and worked in the UK for a number of years before returning to her homeland, where she was devoted to efforts to combat poverty and poor health in Addis Ababa.

Jember was born in Madagascar, where her Ethiopian parents, Gebremariam Teferra, a diplomat, and his wife, Shiferra (nee Etsegenet), who was a third cousin to the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie, were living in exile during the second world war.

Her father died in 1949 after the family had returned to Ethiopia, and she received her secondary education in the UK at Clarendon school for girls near Abergele in north Wales. She trained as a nurse at Tunbridge Wells School of Nursing in Kent, qualifying in 1965.

Jember then worked as an agency nurse at hospitals in London, but in 1967 she moved back to Ethiopia to become ward sister and then matron at St Paul’s Hospital in Addis Ababa, which provided free medical care. Dissatisfied with the standards she found there, she planned and costed radical improvements, and then discovered she had a gift as a fundraiser, as well as a talent for overcoming resistance to change.

In 1968 she married Haile-Giorgis Workneh, an eminent civil engineer who was minister of public works and subsequently mayor of Addis Ababa. They were both deeply committed members of the Ethiopian Orthodox church, and raised four children.

The following year she became health education and social services coordinator for the Red Cross in Ethiopia. She was in that post in 1974 when the military overthrow of Haile Selassie led to the emergence of the repressive regime of the Marxist Dergue, which imprisoned her husband for eight years. In 1976 Jember herself was jailed, spending five years separated from her young children, in appalling conditions. Typically, however, she used her skills to provide medical care for inmates, and helped to establish a school for convicts and prison guards.

When she was released in 1981, Jember continued to work to alleviate poverty, initially with Save the Children, then setting up and running the Integrated Holistic Approach-Urban Development Project, a scheme that eventually improved housing, health, education and employment opportunities for more than 50,000 people in the slums of Addis Ababa. Her work received international recognition and funding, and the project still operates today.

Her husband died in 1996 on the same day her younger son, Abi, killed himself. Her book Abi’s Story (2009) uses this trauma to reflect on the mental health problems caused by conflict, oppression and isolation. In recent years she spent time in London caring for her other son, Worqneh, who was incapacitated by a stroke.

Jember is survived by Worqneh, by two daughters, Memmenasha and Lelo, and a brother, Dawit, who looked after her children while she was in prison.