Dr Andrew Browning is an Australia-trained obstetrician who has worked all his professional career in Africa as a medical missionary, specialising in fistula surgery. He has operated on more than 7500 fistula patients, trained midwives and doctors, developed new surgical techniques and helped to create hospitals and charities – including the Barbara May Foundation. He oversees the International Federation of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists’ fistula training program, advises the UN on related issues and was made a Member of the Order of Australia in 2019. Married to Stephanie, they have two sons and live on the Central Coast.
Did you grow up wanting to be a doctor – or something else?
I always had it in the back of my mind that I’d be a doctor. My father was a doctor in a country town and there was an unspoken assumption that I’d follow in his footsteps. However, when I was six a returned missionary nurse spoke at the Sunday school I attended, telling wonderful stories about Africa and my young mind thought that this is what I would be; a missionary doctor. Combined with the unspoken assumption, I didn’t really have much choice!
You come from a faithful Christian family; how did your personal faith in Jesus become real?
I was very blessed growing up in a Christian household and most of my extended family of about 30 were Christians as well. Church and Christ were always a part of our lives but it wasn’t until I was 14, attending a youth rally lead by YWAM in the small Southern Highlands town of Hilltop one windswept, wet, cold winter’s night, that I was told that Christ died for me and I should accept him as my Lord and Saviour. I did that then and there and felt so liberated by Christ’s love. There have been many times of doubts and ups and downs, but God has been faithful and I pray that once I put my hand on the plough (Luke 9:62), I won’t look back. Where would you look to!?
Tell us about the colourful aunt whose life and work influenced your early visit to Ethiopia.
Where do I start? Aunt Val has essentially been lost in Africa since 1974 – for as long as I can remember. She initially went with SIM but didn’t last long with them, and then did all sorts of things in the Horn of Africa including being involved in the wars, with freedom fighters, aid, relief, disaster work.
She’s been persona non grata in several countries for being too outspoken about injustices and suffering but she also holds peace medals and the Order of Australia Medal for doing just that. Motivated by her life devoted to her Lord Christ, she is still living and working in Ethiopia. She and her Ethiopian husband, Uncle Ishmael, started a development organisation in the 1980s that now looks after nearly 1.5 million nomads with literacy, education, health care, road building, water harvesting, market implementation, veterinary work and much more.
Aunt Val has almost no material wealth, shares a basic compound in the desert with up to 50 needy people and works tirelessly. I’ve never seen her rest. Just a few weeks ago I was with her in the desert and she had just returned from the front line of the current civil war, describing the different sounds the shells and artillery make. She’s currently helping to support 300,000 displaced people from the war who have no food, water or shelter.
One biographer described her as a “whirlwind of a woman well over four feet tall”. I’ve met and worked with many people like Dr Catherine Hamlin – incredible people, who to me are at one level, but Valerie is in a league of her own with regard to what she has done in her life, what she has sacrificed and, again, in response to the gospel. The gospel changes lives.
Now I’ve started talking about her I don’t know where to stop!
Was it Catherine Hamlin who really inspired your concern for fistula sufferers?
I visited her and her hospital in 1996, a couple of years after her husband Reg died. I met the patients and was immediately drawn to them, so I would say that the patients themselves inspired my concern for them, a love for the unloved that Christ himself inspires. Dr Hamlin was the facilitator or introducer of me to the patients rather than the one who inspired me.
How do you describe the toll that such injuries take on individuals and their families?
It’s an awful and lonely condition. Women with fistula have suffered the heartbreak of delivering a dead baby after a three-to-seven-day labour, often with no pain relief or help in their village. Then, struggling to recover from the long labour, they find they are leaking urine and sometimes faeces with no control – every minute of every day. The smell and shame they feel is overwhelming, rejected by all, divorced, they are sentenced to a life of ostracism and loneliness unless they can get help.
We know that about 40 per cent think about or attempt suicide with this condition, but we don’t know how many actually succeed. It's heartbreaking knowing that these women are loved by Christ, they are made in his image, but their dignity is lost. We can help restore their dignity, but only turning to Christ will make them fully restored to being made in his image.
The Lord has led you into many places as surgeon and teacher. Where exactly is the work now being done?
The fistula work is now being done all over Africa and South East Asia, for which we give thanks to God. Reg Hamlin once had a vision that Christ was telling him to light a candle of hope for these women over Africa. That has now been fulfilled. I am now based in Australia and travel back to Africa, and also Nepal, on a regular basis to teach, operate and check on the hospitals we have built and run with the Barbara May Foundation. Last month I was in Ethiopia, South Sudan and Tanzania. In a few weeks I will return to Tanzania, Uganda, Malawi and Ethiopia, and so it goes.
How many visits have you now made overseas and what is expected of you when you arrive?
I couldn’t answer that! We lived in Ethiopia for 10 years and Tanzania for seven. While in Tanzania – and for a period of time in Ethiopia – I’d travel somewhere every month to teach and operate, everywhere from Sierra Leone to Malawi. Now based back in Australia I go back four to five times a year, and also once a year to Nepal. When I go back, I go to several hospitals in different countries on each trip. I go to operate on difficult cases that the staff have kept for me. I train the surgeons, check on the administration and spending of our projects and spend time with the staff.
Meeting and marrying your lovely Stephanie – was that a plot or providence (or both)?
I think it was providence. We had met in Australia and had a relationship when we were young, but I was making a beeline for Africa and Steph, having had 18 years as a mission kid in Tanzania, wasn’t keen on returning so after a couple of years we went our separate ways. However, she later felt convinced by God that she should become a missionary and her mission, SIM, placed her in Ethiopia – only about three kilometres from where I was living. It was the closest we had ever been geographically (I first met her when she was living in Broken Hill and I was studying in Sydney – a long drive for a date). She was also the only other single Australian in Ethiopia, so we ended up getting married in Ethiopia.
Her own ministries through schools have been wonderful. How are they going?
Yes, Steph is a teacher and built one international school in northern Ethiopia in the town where we were living. She handed it over to a British educator who has since developed it into a larger school spread over two campuses. Then when we moved to Tanzania, she did the same and it was where our boys went to school. It is also doing well, an international church school under the Anglican Diocese of Kilimanjaro.
Tell us how the patients at the hospitals (from many faiths) come to hear of Jesus?
That depends on where we are working. Our hospital in the Afar desert (in Ethiopia) is in an area with almost 100 per cent Muslim people. If we spoke directly about our faith we wouldn’t last so we work, loving the patients and praying for them. I remember once in a Muslim area a patient asked me why I was showing her love when all her own people had rejected her. That of course opens up chances to tell her that Christ loves her, gave himself for her and wants to see her restored physically and spiritually.
In Tanzania it is very different. We have morning devotions with the staff and patients, we have daily prayers for our patients and distribute “megavoices” to the fistula patients. These are small solar-powered devices that contain health information and the life-changing news about Christ. These go with them back to their villages where others also hear about God’s gift for them.
Is financial support for the fistula work strong at the moment? And is it a complex issue?
There is so much to be done. God has provided the funds we have to do the work we do. If God provides more funds, then we will help more women.
Our job is to be good stewards with what he has provided and we praise God for his provision so far. All the women who come to us are treated for free. The funds given to build and run the hospitals are provided by generous people, predominantly Christians.
Your book A Doctor in Africa is a terrific read – what kind of feedback have you had?
It’s on its second print run and there has been some feedback. I’d like to think that I am just a character in the book: its aim is to make people aware about the lot of the women we serve – to show their bravery, their strength and more importantly that it is God who is behind it all, providing, directing and sustaining.
I get excited when I hear that people have been encouraged by reading the book. I pray that it will be a witness to God’s goodness and his people, the church, working to reduce suffering in the world, being salt and light and pointing people to the new heaven and earth that is to come at our resurrection.
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