The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Many Happy Returns Gemini

Author - Bob Maddams

It's not often that an NGO working in the slums of Addis Ababa has something to celebrate. The problems they face, and those of the families they help, are generally speaking far too desperate to be cause for celebration. However, perhaps every once in a while it is useful to stop and reflect upon what has been achieved thus far. After all, nothing inspires like achievement, and if the last twenty years are anything to go by then the one thing Gemini can be sure of is that the future holds even greater challenges to be met.

Gemini was founded by Dr. Carmela Abate, an Anglo-American paediatrician, working in Addis Ababa's main teaching hospital. She witnessed at first hand the terrible plight twin babies and their mothers faced. "In Ethiopia the birth of twins is not so much a double joy as a double burden," she says. "Many are born premature and have low birth weight. Malnourished mothers often are unable to provide sufficient milk for two babies and turn to bottle-feeding, frequently with disastrous consequences. Bouts of diarrhoea and vomiting result in malnutrition and increased vulnerability to further infection. Often there is just not enough food. It's a daily struggle for survival against all the odds and sadly but not surprisingly, death of the babies is all too frequent. One in three twin babies will die before their first birthday." Determined to do something about the problem, Dr. Abate launched a small feeding programme. "At first, we simply concentrated on improving mothers' diets so that they could more properly nourish their breast-fed babies, to try and give them a fighting chance. I had little idea then what Gemini would grow into." Twenty years on Gemini runs a wide range of feeding, healthcare, housing, education, income generation and youth development programmes. From helping a handful of poor mothers and their families Gemini now plays a positive role in benefiting over 7,000 of Addis Ababa's poorest families.

Gemini twenty years on

Gemini families live in conditions of the most unimaginable poverty. Most people live in shantytown shacks made of cardboard and tin, ten to a room and six to a bed. Three quarters of them have no immediate access to water or sanitation in their compounds. When joining the Gemini programme the majority of people will eat only one meal a day. Women head four out of every ten of these households, and most of them are unemployed.

This is the world in which Gemini works, and as well as providing food Gemini also provides health care programmes for its families. This includes check-ups and lessons in health, hygiene and child spacing.

Education programmes support and assist children of Gemini families providing them with books, school uniforms and grants, and there are day care facilities for pre-school children at the Gemini compound. There are job creation and income generation schemes too. Gemini women run a successful spice business. They also make traditional baskets and jewellery and operate a small screen-printing business. Many of the Gemini women are barely literate but Gemini offers credit facilities for women who want to set up small businesses to support their families. Many of these initiatives are small "one-woman" businesses such as injera making, the pancake that is the staple diet of Ethiopia. As well as much needed income this also gives the women an all-important sense of self-respect and dignity, basic human qualities that perhaps we take too easily for granted and which are all too often the first casualties of grinding poverty. "We have sponsors and funders in Britain and abroad without whose help we simply couldn't do the valuable work we do, " says Dr. Abate. "We owe them a huge debt of gratitude."

Gemini youth - creating a brighter tomorrow

Two of the more innovative Gemini initiatives have been youth development projects. Gem TV and the Adugna Contemporary Dance Theatre Company both have similar remits. Both projects have taken children from Gemini families, and ex-street kids, and have trained them to become community filmmakers and dancers. Through the dramatic and narrative power of film and dance both groups of young people address a wide range of issues affecting the underprivileged in Ethiopia today including human rights, destructive cultural practices, such as child marriage, and HIV/AIDS education. As well as developing their own artistic voice their work also gives voice to other dispossessed communities by bringing their problems to a wider audience. Adugna are currently working as part of an integrated community outreach project focusing on HIV/AIDS prevention. They perform in schools and in the countless poor kebeles to be found throughout Addis Ababa. Artistically, Adugna's reputation extends way beyond Ethiopia and in July 2002 they performed at the Montpelier Dance Festival to widespread critical acclaim. In November 2003, members of Adugna also appeared at the Madagascar International Dance Festival, one of only ten African dance companies to be invited. They performed an original piece choreographed by one of the company members. At the same time Gem TV have carved themselves a particular niche in the world of the drama-documentary, an achievement that has been recognized at international film festivals. They have also recently produced three half-hour pilot episodes of a soap opera called Mereb (The Web), which is set in a hairdressers in Addis Ababa and which explores a wide range of contemporary issues. Funding and support is being sought to turn Mereb into the first ever Ethiopian produced drama series to be screened on Ethiopian television. "We've always believed passionately in the potential of our young people," says Dr. Abate. "Both Adugna and Gem TV are shining examples of what young Ethiopian people are capable of achieving, given the chance." That said, it hasn't always been easy. "We've had more than our fair share of disappointments and near-disasters along the way," she adds. Dr. Abate is also keen to stress the importance of the Anglo-Ethiopian link in this area of Gemini's work. "The success of both Adugna and Gem TV is also in large part down to the numerous volunteer choreographers and film-makers from the UK who have come out to Addis to train and work with them. We also need to thank the British embassy and the British Council here in Addis, they've always been great supporters and really understand what Adugna and Gem TV are all about."

Fighting HIV/AIDS

Twenty years ago when Gemini was founded the letters HIV and the word AIDS had yet to enter the language. The world is a very different place today. Poverty and the spread of HIV/AIDS go hand-in-hand. Sadly, Ethiopia - and the Gemini families - are no exception. One of the more recent and greatest challenges Gemini has faced in its twenty years history is to combat the spread of the disease amongst its families. To this end Gemini operates a home care programme for those living with HIV, and a large-scale preventative outreach programme, which educates and informs people about the dangers of HIV and advocates lifestyle changes as a means of protection against the spread of the virus. A team of Community Based Reproductive Health Workers, who have all been recruited and trained by Gemini, spearheads this initiative.

Twenty years of achievement


• The mortality rate amongst twins has decreased over 5 times and there has been a marked improvement in general health


• 243 jobs have been created


• 1,600 children are being supported to attend school


• 115,00 people are being reached with reproductive health information and services


• 337 families (30%) have graduated from the Gemini care programme and become self-supporting


• Over the last 20 years, Gemini has supported 1,539 individual families, totalling 9,200 people


• In the last 3 years Gemini built or upgraded 70 houses


• In the last 15 years Gemini has enabled 450 children to attend their Day Care Centre


• One of our initial pairs of twins has now entered University


• Over the last 16 years Gemini has supported 2,043 children through education


• Gemini has a staff of 40 with 18% being mothers of twins


• Gemini has supported 20 mothers through College and University


• One Gemini mother trained as a Nursery Nurse and now runs her own private nursery called Twin Kindergarten



1987: Gemini moves to first permanent site


1998: Adugna performs at the Royal Albert Hall on BBC Television's Blue Peter


2001: 50th Gemini house built


2001: Gem TV's film Stolen Childhood is screened before a specially convened audience of Ethiopian MPs


2002: Gem TV wins the Unicef film competition in Ethiopia as part of the "Say Yes To Children" campaign. Two Gem TV dramas (Stolen Childhood and Another Kind of Life) are sent to the UN in New York


Famous visitors to Gemini in Addis Ababa include Dr. Carey, Archbishop of Canterbury; Kofi Annan, United Nations Secretary General; Michael Buerk, BBC newsreader; Cheryl Baker, TV Celebrity

As Gemini celebrates twenty years of achievement, Dr. Abate reflects more on the future than the past. "So much has been done, yet so much more remains to do. And how successful have we been?" She takes a moment to consider the question carefully before modestly replying, "that's probably not for me to say." But someone who was prepared to go on the record recently and sum up Gemini's achievement was United Nations Secretary General, Kofi Annan . After a visit to Gemini he said, "I think what you have done here should be an inspiration for civil societies around the world and I hope it will be replicated around Africa. To see the bright eyes and to see the mothers and how they feel about this programme and the fact that they have continued to be involved - it's a credit to you and this work."

How You Can Help

Today the Trust supports over 7,100 families in Addis Ababa, each with a set of twins or triplets, totalling over 807,000 people. But every day Gemini still has to turn away mothers who desperately need help, and there are more than 100 families on the waiting list. If you would like to find out more about the work of the Ethiopian Gemini Trust, or make a donation, please log on to our website at

Bob Maddams celebrates the 20th anniversary of the founding of the Ethiopian Gemini Trust, a remarkable Ethiopian NGO that has always maintained strong links with the UK

First Published in News File Spring 2004

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