A Doctor in Africa by Andrew Browning (Pan Macmillan)

It seems extraordinary that 2021 marks two decades since Catherine Hamlin’s book The Hospital by the River was published, introducing millions in the West to the distressing realities of obstetric fistula.

The author of A Doctor in Africa, Andrew Browning, has followed in Dr Hamlin’s footsteps as a compassionate champion of the women, communities and nations in need of better access to maternity services so debilitating fistulae can be cured – or prevented from occurring in the first place. 

He has dedicated his medical career to this work on Jesus’ name. For Dr Browning, the decision to live and work with his family in majority world locations, with many potential dangers, has not been about safety (something he is often asked), but whether it is the right thing to do.

The Lord, he says, has “given me the skills to be able to do it and so I do it in his service. After all, Christ let by example... I don’t think he asked, ‘Is it safe?’ as he was led to the cross to be crucified”.

Fistula is virtually non-existent in countries like Australia but, in the majority world, thousands of women each year develop holes between their bladder, bowel, uterus, vagina and rectum during obstructed childbirth. If they survive, and the fistulae are not repaired, they will leak urine (and/or faeces) for the rest of their lives.

The statistics quoted are chilling. In Australia, one in 16,000 women die from pregnancy complications. In African countries south of the Sahara the figure is one in 37. 

In A Doctor in Africa Browning shares the background of his early life, faith, study and experiences as a medical student before his fateful meeting with Catherine Hamlin in 1996. In her Addis Ababa hospital, he saw with joy the transformative effect of the often-simple surgery to repair obstetric fistula, and when Hamlin invited him back to work with her, God’s answer was clear.

The continent is brought to vivid, colourful, chaotic life within the book’s pages, as he works in a range of locations across Ethiopia and beyond, seeking always to refine and improve the surgery available for fistula damage. We are also given a privileged window into different cultures, as well as witness practical, trusting faith in the great God who loves to give good gifts to his children. 

And the stories! Working with his Aunt Val among the Afar people in the 50C-plus heat, where every kid over the age of 10 has their own sword. The suspicious witch doctor whose own successful fistula operation causes her to send all the other women of her village to Browning’s hospital. The funding provided, after prayer, just when it’s needed.

Over time, Browning’s passion for supporting women begins to focus as much on prevention as cure. This leads to the creation of the Barbara May Foundation, which raises funds to help build, equip and run maternity hospitals in areas of great need.

Through it all – from family life to funding shortfalls, safety concerns to health problems – God reveals himself as sovereign. Prayers are answered, wisdom and endurance are provided, and sorrow is turned to joy.

It’s a bit of a cliché to label a book as inspiring, but there really is no other word that effectively communicates the impact of A Doctor in Africa. The dedication of Dr Browning and the many staff and volunteers with whom he has worked, former patients and their families, and supporters across the globe... it’s moving, occasionally upsetting, sometimes funny, always inspiring.

However, this isn’t just because “good” work is being done. It’s because God is being glorified by those who serve, give and trust in his name. It’s because disaster, red tape, illness and human frailty won’t stop his work. It’s because the book is a challenge to all others who believe to ask where their heart is, and how they can serve.