Nathan Barlow and his wife, Mrs. Doris Barlow, with their son and three daughters, arrived in Ethiopia in 1945 to resume the former SIM (previously called Sudan Interior Mission – now known as SIM – Serving In Mission) medical ministry in Soddo. The SIM story in Wolaitta begins in 1928 when Dr. Thomas Lambie and other missionaries arrived in Soddo and were given a large piece of land by Dejazmatch Yegezu, Governor of Wolaitta, on the outskirts of Soddo, called Otona. A hospital was built at Otona and functioned until April, 1937, when the Italians arrived in Soddo and evicted all the missionaries, including Dr. Roberts. It was in 1946 that Dr. Barlow reopened the Soddo hospital located at Otona.
Soon after Barlow’s arrival in Wolaitta, he saw the need for an expanded rural medical programme, and he began discussions with the Ethiopian Ministry of Health (MoH) about the possibility of opening a training centre for rural medics. He then called the Wolaitta Kale Heywet Church (WKHC) leaders together and proposed his plan of the training centre for rural medics. These church leaders fully endorsed Barlow’s concept. It was agreed that each of the eight districts (Hospa Dana) would select a designated number of capable men for training. When full permission for such a programme was granted by the MoH, the first class was admitted for a two-year training period. These graduates were assigned back to their respective districts and operated rural clinics fully approved by the Ethiopian MoH. Through this means, the local Wolaitta population were able to receive adequate help for chronic illness such as malaria, TB, dysentery, amoeba, typhus, etc. These health assistants were able to refer severe medical cases to the Soddo SIM hospital.
The Soddo medical training programme later was expanded to trainees beyond Wolaitta. Young men and women with ability and who were holders of eighth grade pass certificates from neighbouring KHC areas such as Kambatta, Hadiya, Timbaro, Qucha, Gofa, Gamo, Sidama, etc. were also admitted. These MoH approved rural health medics made a significant contribution to the work of the Gospel throughout southern Ethiopia.
Barlow made another significant contribution to Wolaitta by encouraging the construction of domestic stoves made from stones and clay and elevated high enough to keep small sleeping children from rolling into the fire. This was done to reduce the number of child burn cases admitted to the Soddo hospital each year.
Barlow was very generous to the poor who came for medical treatment. If these needy people came to the Soddo hospital with a letter from a local WKHC elder affirming that they were indeed poor, they were treated without cost.
Another very helpful programme that Barlow initiated within Wolaitta and nearby provinces was baboon and hyena poisoning. Baboons were multiplying very rapidly at the expense of the farmers’ gardens, especially corn crops. The hungry hyenas were preying upon the farmers’ domestic animals. Barlow trained several exterminator teams who were able to poison hundreds of these predators and thus brought relief to large sectors of the rural population of southern Ethiopia.
Barlow was a keen promoter of personal hygiene. He developed a community programme of deep-pit ventilated latrines that was to eventually impact every Wolaitta household from the disease-bearing flies.
And furthermore, in his old age in 1999, he left his comfortable retirement in California, USA, and together with our own skilled surgeon, Dr. Kelmu Desta and well-known SIM surgeon, Dr. Harold Adolph, launched the “Mossy Foot Project” in Wolaitta. This project brought relief and healing to hundreds of patients afflicted with elephantiasis. This programme was both curative, in that the doctors operated on the swollen feet, removing excess swollen tissue, and also preventative, in that all Wolaitta people were strongly encouraged to wear shoes. It was discovered that the reason for contracting “mossy foot” was that small silicon particles, very prevalent in the red earth of Wolaitta, would enter the pores of the feet. The only long-term remedy to rid Wolaitta of elephantiasis was that all should, wear shoes - children, men and women. For this reason Dr. Barlow established a small shoe-making enterprise that provided employment of mossy-foot patients as well as providing affordable footwear for the poor.
Dr. and Mrs. Barlow served in Ethiopia from 1945 to 1977. Because all of the SIM medical work was nationalized by the then Ethiopian communist government, they returned to America. They were then in their mid-sixties. Rather than remain at home in retirement, they served in a medical capacity in the following African countries: Niger, Kenya, Zaire, and Central Africa Republic.
As it says in Luke 19:10, For the Son of Man came seek and to save what was lost. Barlow came to Wolaitta because his love for the Wolaitta people and his desire to see the lost come to salvation.
While in Wolaitta, Barlow was involved in many other ministries. He helped the poor, provided care and provision for the orphans, helped the blind and distributed eyeglasses to the elderly, and provided housing for the poor. In addition, he treated badly mutilated accident patients and constructed a special wing on the Soddo Hospital for recovering elephantiasis patients. He also introduced fruit trees and taught Wolaitta farmers how to graft various varieties.
In his untiring service in developing Wolaitta to be a wholesome place to live, he was like an untiring Old Testament prophet. In his early years he travelled by foot to outlying clinics month in and month out, with the result that in his older years his feet developed incurable sores.
Barlow was a man of God, clever and wise, Christlike in his love for others, full of hope and patient in suffering. He was a true prophet, who thought of others as better than himself. He was a man of his word and did not change his mind in compromise. He was a father not only to four of his own children, but he has given spiritual birth to tens of thousands in Africa and also in America.
At this time, Barlow is in God’s house, in a better place where there is no sickness of the body. And for this mercy we greatly thank God. He is together with righteous people from all nations, from all language groups, with the fathers and mothers of Wolaitta who have gone before us. He is now with WKHC and SIM co-workers in the Gospel who have died. He will be received with joy and gladness and will see his Saviour face to face. For this we are comforted and thank God.
Submitted by E. Paul Balisky, but directly quoted from: Markina Meja, Unbroken Covenant with God: An Autobiography in the Context of the Wolaitta Kale Heywet Church. Bellevue, ON: Guardian Books, 2008, pp. 228-233.
E. Paul Balisky is a former lecturer at the Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology. He and his wife, Lila, serve as members of the DACB Advisory Council and now reside in Grande Prairie, Alberta, Canada.