by Angela Mercy [Mike's sister]
“There are places in the world we feel a part of, places of which we can say, ‘here I want to live forever; and it is no matter that I must die.’” - N. Scott Momaday
Mettu, Illubabor, Ethiopia was that place for my brother, Dr. Michael Brady, or ‘Dr. Mike,’ as he was known to most of this Ethiopian friends.
When Mike first went to Mettu, he wasn’t a doctor. He arrived there in 1968 soon after earning his BA in English from Georgetown University. Mike was assigned to teach eight grade English at Saint Gabriel’s school. Once he adjusted to life without electricity, running water, supermarkets or any of the conveniences he had taken for granted, Mike realized teaching English as a second language to 70 eighth graders in two shifts wasn’t enough for him.
The house he rented had more space than he required. Before long students occupied some of that space. They were students who walked distances too far to permit them to make the trip to school daily and students whose families were too poor to survive without their labor and to feed them as well. By making room in his house, Mike afforded these students the opportunity to stay in school. They, in turn, provided the life and enthusiasm that turned the long, low mud house with the corrugated metal roof into a vibrant home. Mike contracted with the owner of a local tea shop to provide students with bread and tea before class began. While he himself didn’t feel the need for a morning meal, he knew that a moderately full stomach made it easier for them to learn.
Mike subscribed to the axiom, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” He required the students to work for their room and board. Household chores were divided among the residents. A kitchen garden was planted and cared for. Mike encouraged the young people to use traditional skills to create crafts, and he taught them how to market their products successfully. The students mimicked Mike’s gestures and mannerisms. The one that brought the greatest laughter was of Mike peering over his glasses with furrowed brow communicating disapproval. They were also eager to imitate his passion for picture taking, swimming and reading.
Before Mike completed his first two-year commitment to the Peace Corps, he decided he wanted more time in what he saw as a tropical paradise populated by some of the happiest people he had ever known. On his visit to the States before commencing his second two-year tour in Mettu, he bought point-and-shoot cameras, photo-developing equipment, books and a couple of dozen pairs of brightly printed bathing trunks. He created a library in his home, a photo lab in the school and great pride among the children the first time they headed for the river in swim trunks. In addition to creating life-long friendships and helping his students to develop skills of daily living, Mike was able to prepare them to successfully write the examinations required for admission to high school and to find the financial resources to keep them in school.
Inspired by an American medical doctor working at a mission in Gambella, after completing four years in the Peace Corps, Mike registered at the University of Washington in Seattle to take the pre-med courses that would permit him to apply for medical school the following year. After the near miracle of a 26-year-old English major gaining acceptance to medical school, Mike entered on academic probation. The following years continued to contain more of both amazing triumphs and heartbreaks than most of us experience in a lifetime. One of his proudest days was June 7,1980 when he received his hard-won MD degree. To his great disappointment the political situation in Ethiopia made it impossible for him to move there to practice medicine.
While Mike never lived in Ethiopia after 1972, he visited there 15 times over the remaining 30 years of his life. He went to celebrate weddings, visit friends, bring gifts, swim in the river, take pictures and promote literacy. During a number of these trips, he collaborated with local doctors and public health officals, on initiatives to promote public health, teach reproductive health, and encourage AIDS prevention. These projects continue to make a difference in Ethiopia today.
No one was more surprised than I was when, a few days after Mike’s untimely death in October 2003, I heard myself say, “We have to take half of Mike’s ashes back to Ethiopia. Only part of him belongs to us.” My sister agreed without hesitation.
In October 2005, my husband and I, with my son, our nephew and one of Mike’s former students now living in Seattle, flew to Addis Ababa with a portion of Mike’s ashes. I believe it was Michael who prompted this improbable trip, and it had its desired results. When friends and former students of Mike’s learned of our upcoming trip, they alerted the municipal government. They spoke of the love and good works of this great man, Dr. Michael Brady. They were honored that his family would bring his remains to his adopted home. As we approached Mettu in two white Toyota Land Cruisers, we were greeted at the river by 40 children in bright blue school uniforms singing, “Welcome Dr. Mike’s family.” The official delegation of adults stood behind them ready to welcome us with the traditional three kiss greeting, bouquets of flowers and ice-cold bottles of Ambo mineral water. Later that day we were honored at a lavish luncheon put on by the municipal government. Officials showed three parcels of land and offered us our choice of them to build a library in Michael’s memory.
After our return to the States we learned that the municipality of Mettu (population approximately 30,000) had planned to build a library but was unable to secure funding. This awareness infused us with even greater determination. Bridge Michael Foundation was incorporated as a nonprofit in the state of Washington in April 2006. We have recently received our 501(c)(3) status from the IRS, are in the process of creating an international NGO and are raising the funds needed to build and sustain a library. A committee in Mettu is advising us on the desired content of the library collection and working with an architect to design the building.
One of the things I’ve learned from my Ethiopian friends is that their definition of family is much broader than ours. Anyone who extends a hand in love and compassion is family. Our journey to carry Michael back to that place created a bridge between the branches of his family. Our foundation will ensure that bridge endures to transport cultural and intellectual exchange, hope and love between the United States and Ethiopia and most specifically between Mettu and Washington State.
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