“Someone else’s happiness can make you happy”

I met Baudina Dooper in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. She brought me to the place she’s managing: Alemachen (http://www.alemachen.org), a temporary home for handicapped children that need to undergo a medical treatment in Addis Ababa. When I saw the way she was caring for the children and dealing with all kinds of daily challenges as if they were nothing, I asked myself: “How did she become such a strong and giving person?” I wanted to hear the story of her life in order to understand ‘what’ was driving her and maybe even get a little piece of that ‘what’ for myself. Here is her story. I hope it will inspire you too.

Baudina Dooper

Where I come from
I was born in Blauwhuis, a small catholic village in Friesland, the Netherlands, in 1950 and was named after my grandma on my mother’s side. My name is Baudina Dooper. My parents come from Blauwhuis too.

The first time my parents met: a funny little story
On her 10th birthday, my mother was sent to the village on her bicycle to buy some sugar for a cake. On her way to the village, she came across my father who owned a transportation company and was driving his truck on the same road. She tried to keep up with his car on her bicycle. My father, who was already 24 and engaged to be married, was looking at her through his rear-view mirror as he was driving. Suddenly he could not see her anymore. She had fallen into a ditch. He took her out of there and brought her home, soaking wet.

After that my parents didn’t see eachother for many years. Both of them went on with their own lives. My mother had left the village on her 16th birthday to work as an obstetric nurse in The Hague, Zwolle and Breda and my father had married a woman with whom he had 10 children.

The tragedy that brought my parents together again
My father’s first wife passed away while giving birth to her tenth child of which two had already died before. After this incident, my mother who was turning 30 received a letter from her brother. He asked her to return to her birthplace and take care of my father and his eight remaining children. My mother immediately gave up her job, moved in with him and welcomed home the motherless baby that was just coming out of the hospital. Apparently she told my father “You helped me out once, now it is time for me to help you.”

Life wasn’t easy
My parents had six children together. I was the oldest of the six. Together they have raised a family of fourteen children. After me they had three boys and two girls. The brother that came after me passed away when he was sixteen. Although it wasn’t always easy, my parents stayed together until the end. At that time that was how things went.

We were far from rich. My father was a bad businessman. He was on the road regularly and his customers didn’t always pay their bills. He used to say “Other people are also short of money.” My mother would reply, “Yes, but we still need to feed the family!” As a child I knew that life was tough for them. I believe that’s also why I never wanted to cause them any more trouble than they already had. That’s one of the reasons why I’ve always been a well-behaved and obedient child.

I’ve always wanted to be a nurse
The first time I went to a hospital was when I was four or five years old. I had fallen from a swing, had a rupture in my shin-bone and had to go to hospital. I just loved the smell there. I saw people wearing white walking by and said to my mother “Mummy, when I’m old enough, I want to do this too.”

At fourteen, I quit school and started working
When I was fourteen, my mother asked me if I still wanted to become a nurse. I told her that becoming a nurse was still my dream and she said “You know what? We’ll go to the hospital tomorrow!” So the next day we stepped on our bicycles and went to the hospital in Sneek. At the information desk my mother asked the receptionist “Can we talk to the head nurse?” The receptionist made a phone call and said “Yes madam, it is the second door to the right in the hallway.”

My mother knocked on the door and the head nurse told us to come in. Her name was nurse Hertenrijck and she was a hefty Belgian woman. Once we were in her office my mother said “Yes madam. This is my daughter, she’s almost fifteen and wants to become a nurse. Could you use her now?” During those times, it was officially not permitted to work before one’s 15th birthday. Nurse Hertenrijck replied “Oh, I’m sure we can find a solution. Until her birthday she can work as a vacation assistant and afterwards she can work here on a permanent contract. She can start tomorrow at eight o’clock in the morning”.

This is how I left school when I was fourteen and started to work in order to help my parents financially. The next morning I was suddenly wearing a white apron. Work started at 6:30 am every day of the week. Every morning, in the dark, I stepped onto my bicycle to help at the nursing school which had at least hundred little rooms with students that needed to eat three times a day.

How my dream came true
One day, after having worked there for approximately one and a half years, nurse Hertenrijck told me that they were going to start offering preparatory training for people like me that didn’t receive enough schooling to go to nursing school. She said “I’ve observed you and believe that you would be a good pupil. Ask your parents for permission. The training takes nine months. Please know that you won’t earn anything during that period, but that you will get a warm lunch every day.” After having asked my parents, my mother said “Ok, but you will need to earn your own pocket money.” That’s how I started with the preparatory training to become a nurse and started to work in a butchers’ shop over the weekend.

When I was 18 I could finally start with the real nursing school. I moved out of my parents’ house and had my own little room for the first time in my life with my own single bed, my own sink and my own little bookshelf with some books on it. I felt like the queen of the day. I had bought my own toothbrush and was sure that no one else would touch it. I was intensely happy.

The man of my life
In the dormitory I was in the same group with one of the sisters of my husband, Dirk, whose parents are from Blauwhuis too. I met him at her wedding. It was on a Friday, and I was twenty years old. When I had to leave and go home Dirk said “Can I come and see you tomorrow afternoon?” I said “Yes, that’s fine with me.” On Saturday he said, “Can I come again tomorrow afternoon?” Again I said, “Yes, that is fine with me.” While driving home on Sunday, I was thinking to myself “Funny, if tomorrow this boy asks me to marry him, I know I will say yes.” I immediately felt at home with him. I didn’t feel insecure at all, felt like I could just be myself and apparently he felt the same way with me. We knew things about each other without having to discuss them. It was very special.

Caring for children
We married one and a half years after having met. It was in September 1972. We moved in together in Wageningen, where Dirk was studying. I was a graduated nurse and applied for the specialization at the child’s department of Wageningen’s hospital. I was admitted and on October 1, I started the specialization that lasted 11 months. I loved it, especially the incubator care and the babies. They are defenceless and really need the care. At that time parents visited their baby’s only three times a week for one hour, so nurses had a very important role.

In June 1973 Dirk graduated and I passed my final exam. After following a language course in Indonesian, we left for Indonesia on a car-free Sunday of 1973. Dirk didn’t really feel the need to move abroad, but thanks to this opportunity he could avoid doing his military service, which was enough of a reason. Eventually, we started to enjoy the travelling and continued doing it.

Upon our arrival in Indonesia, I immediately went to the hospital to offer my help. But I soon became pregnant and gave birth to my eldest son, Rutger. Several months after his birth I went back to the hospital in order to work as a volunteer. But soon enough I became pregnant with my second son Ridsert which meant that, in the end, I wasn’t able to do a lot over there.

Rome and Grenada
When Ridsert was four weeks old, we moved to Rome, Italy, and lived there for one and a half years. I was a mother and a housewife. After this, we moved to Granada, a small Caribbean Island North of Trinidad, close to the Eastern side of Venezuela. We lived there for four years. Although I was participating in family planning groups, I wasn’t really working out there. The kids were still small and Dirk travelled a lot. During our stay, a communist revolution took place on Granada. This was intense, but we didn’t suffer that much. We had a big garden with lots of fruits and vegetables and could eat fish that freshly came from the ocean. We were not short of anything and actually had a fantastic time over there.

The premature department of the university hospital in Nairobi
After four years on Granada we moved to Nairobi in Kenya where Dirk got a job at ICRAF (World Agroforestry Centre, http://www.worldagroforestry.org/ ). By that time Rutger was seven and a half and Ridsert at almost six years old. They were already living in their fourth country. We lived there for eleven years. Soon after arriving, I went to the ministry of health to register as a nurse. In order to complete my registration I had to do a trainee-ship in the university hospital. After finalizing it, I offered my help as a volunteer at the premature department of the same hospital. I worked there four days a week until we left Kenya, 10 years later.

The department hosted approximately one hundred babies. At least a quarter of the children had been abandoned by their mothers. Sometimes three babies had to share one incubator. Also, the hospital didn’t have enough flannel diapers to wrap all the babies which meant that some babies were lying naked in their beds. Because of this Dirk and I gave a party and told everybody to give us money for the hospital instead of gifts. With that money I bought piles and piles of flannel diapers so that all babies could be wrapped in them.

Baby Margaret
I had intense experiences over there. There is one child I will never forget; Baby Margaret. She was born with a caesarian-section and had hydrocephalus. When her mother saw her, she just walked away. Over there, they didn’t have the means to treat the baby. Her head kept on growing and growing and eventually she started to have bed sores on her head. She died when she was nine months old. I was there when she died. I wanted to bury her myself. Unfortunately the sister in charge didn’t want me to because the people at the moratorium could have thought I had something to do with her death. This meant she was going to end up in a mass grave, which made me very sad. Over the nine months she lived I really started to care for her. I was one of the few that held her in my arms from time to time. I still dream about her. But after everything I had to reconcile myself to the situation. After all, what kind of life would she have had, if she had remained alive?

All in all I still have good memories and contacts from that period. I loved working in that hospital where the baby’s needed me so much and I managed to create tight relationships with my colleagues. Initially they found it hard to trust me. They thought I had some kind of agenda and didn’t understand I could do this kind of work without even believing in heaven. Luckily, they eventually understood that I was doing the work because I wanted to do something meaningful. At the end I really felt like we were one. At last they trusted me. To me nothing is more important than trust. Not even love. Without trust it’s impossible to build something up.

Back to Friesland
But that period came to an end and in 1993 we moved back to the Netherlands after having spent 20 years abroad. Rutger was going to study in Wageningen and I didn’t want to send him to the Netherlands by himself. After travelling through Africa with the family for four months Dirk started to work in the Netherlands as a freelance consultant, Rutger went studying, Ridsert subscribed to the English school in Haren and I went to live in our summer house at the Snekermeer and started looking for a job.

Working at the child’s department of the hospital just wasn’t the same anymore
Dirk was travelling most of the time and I worked in a refugee centre for a while, but quickly started to work in the child’s department of the hospital in Sneek again. The work was very different from what I used to do in Wageningen 20 years earlier. In contrast to the past, parents were now almost always present, as a result of which it was extremely difficult to forge strong links with the children. As a nurse you’re only there to do unpleasant things such as give shots, and treat wounds. As soon as you enter the room, the children start crying. Singing or reading stories to them isn’t part of the job description anymore.

Also good to be back
Of course it was a bit strange to be back in the Netherlands after so many years abroad. But thanks to my time in the hospital in Sneek, I was given the opportunity to learn many new things in my field, which are still very helpful to me today.

Moreover, after so many years abroad, I found it interesting to be made privy to the way the society had developed. It was very valuable to be home again for a while. I knew the reality here was very different from the reality there and I was able to adapt myself quite well.

Time for a new adventure
After six years in Holland, the kids were doing fine. For our part, we could leave again and eventually Dirk and I decided we preferred to be together instead of separated. Dirk found a job in Bonga, in the Ethiopian countryside, in the south-western part of the country. The two of us lived there, in the middle of nowhere, for four years; a very special experience with very good and intense memories.

The first six months I stayed home because we didn’t have a car. We lived in a beautiful place and quickly set up a guest-house which was a good way to keep on meeting other people from time to time. Soon after our arrival we also got acquainted with some Americans who were living nearby.

The outreach program
In the village we were the only foreigners, but 25 km away from the village, over the unpaved and muddy roads on the hills, there was an American clinic. Once I had a car I went to that clinic and worked in an outreach program together with the Americans.

Twice a week I went to remote villages to give vaccinations and health talks. The same villages were visited once a month. I gave speeches about subjects such as hygiene, nutrition and family planning. Most villages weren’t reachable by car which meant that we had to walk a lot. The villages we went to had to be less than a three hours walk away because we wanted to be home before dark. In total, we visited approximately ten villages on a regular basis. People always welcomed us warmly. They asked us for advice and expressed their gratitude by giving us corn or by organizing a coffee ceremony. It was a beautiful time.

A woman I will never forget
There is one woman I met during such a visit to a village who I will never forget. I was waiting under a little shelter in a school-yard when a woman in a beautiful dress came walking towards me. She came with her twin babies who had to be vaccinated. Her oldest daughter was holding one of them and she was holding the other one. They were number 10th and 11th, two little girls. Her other children were at school and came running towards their mother during their break to hug and kiss her. Although they had seen her in the morning, they seemed extremely happy to see her again. I loved watching them. This woman fascinated me.

She had also come to get some information about family planning because she didn’t want any more children. She told me her father gave her away to her husband when she was 13 years old. Two years later, she was pregnant with her first child. When I asked her if she was having sexual intercourse with her husband at the age of 13, she looked at me with a naughty gleam in her eye and said “What is the purpose of marriage?” She told me she had a good man. She was his third wife and he had sent away his first two wives once he had married her. She said that she had a good and happy life with him.

She was surrounded by happiness. She was living in the middle of nowhere with almost no possessions, but was completely at peace with herself and her situation. Although she had been circumcised, she didn’t want that to happen to her children. She found it important that all her children would go to school.

This encounter was a very important lesson to me. We tend to think that life is difficult for people in her situation, but she proved that having been circumcised and given in marriage at a young age doesn’t necessarily leads to unhappiness.

Ethiopia after all
After this beautiful experience in Ethiopia, we went back to the Netherlands for a while. Dirk started working on a project funded by the European Union aimed at promoting organic farming in Eastern Europe and I started a course in public Health at the Graduate School in Amsterdam while working in home-care.

Quickly after settling in the Netherlands, Dirk received a call from a man called Bruce who was working at an organisation named the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI, http://www.ilri.org/) in Nairobi. He asked Dirk to come and work at one of ILRI’s branches based in Addis Ababa. Initially, Dirk refused, but Bruce insisted and eventually we decided to move back to Ethiopia. I made the decision to follow him once I had finished the first year of my schooling. I really thought it was a shame to stop studying, but Dirk wasn’t happy with his job in the Netherlands and ultimately, nothing is more important than happiness.

The Mother Theresa house
I had resolved to go to the Mother Theresa house as soon as I had arrived in Addis. I’ve been working there for five beautiful years. It is a retreat hospital founded by the order of Mother Theresa from Calcutta called “The Missionaries of Charity”. The order has 15 houses in Ethiopia with the main one situated in Addis. Sick people living on the street can find shelter in such a house until they are cured.

The house was inhabited by many abandoned children and handicapped people. Some of them were already almost dead when they entered the house. An average of three people died in it every day while I was working there. Anti-retroviral drugs were non existent and a great deal of people had aids.

Currently, I work at Alemachen (www.alemachen.org), a temporary home for handicapped children that need to undergo medical treatment in Addis Ababa. I used to send children to the centre when I was working in Bonga and in the mother Theresa house. That’s how I met the Priest that used to be responsible for Alemachen. At one point he wanted to go back to the Netherlands because of health problems. That’s when I offered to take it over.

Practice what you preach
It doesn’t really matter where or how, but if I can be useful to someone else it makes me happy. It’s as simple as that. It sometimes surprises me that there are not more people having this attitude. In the end it is quite egoistic. I do it because it makes me happy.

Mother Theresa has always been an important example to me. That woman completely obliterated herself for others. Although she has passed away, she is still doing this through her followers. A great deal of priests, Fathers and nuns fail to practice what they preach. Mother Theresa and her sisters really committed themselves to the dying, the sick and the weak without asking anything in return. I find that very admirable.

The value of a smile
Although I also find it important to enjoy things such as good food and wouldn’t be able to give up as much as Mother Theresa in order to help others. I’ve always been working for free and apparently this is becoming less and less common. People in my position often want to be paid, as if voluntary work doesn’t deserve as much appreciation. It is as if the only recognition one can get from work is money. I find this a pity. It’s a pity that people often can’t see that the value of what you do sometimes lies in a smile; that a smile can make you happier than money.

I love to help others, to make them happier human beings. In the end, that’s also what I do at Alemachen. When the children leave, they are less handicapped than when they arrived. That’s something positive which makes me feel good. It makes me feel satisfied that I’ve been able to do something for them. Someone else’s happiness can make you happy.

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