Ms. Gobena and her mother, Wosene Biru, went to live with her grandparents. When she was 10 her family arranged for her to marry a much older man, but she ran home soon after the ceremony. Her family returned her to her husband, who kept her locked in a room at night.
Ms. Gobena managed to escape through a hole in the roof and made her way to Addis Ababa, where she found a family to take her in. She attended school and later found work as a quality control inspector with a company that exported coffee and grain.
The job afforded her a stable, middle-class life, but after establishing Agohelma she lived in near poverty. She never took a salary, and her bedroom was attached to one of the orphanage dormitories.
Ms. Gobena — known to many as Emaye, an Amharic word that loosely translates as “Wonderful Mother” — did not simply raise the children under her charge. Along with their classroom education, she made sure that they learned marketable skills, like metalworking, embroidery and, more recently, photography. She gave the older children seed money to start their own businesses.
“I don’t have words to describe Emaye; she was my everything,” said Rahel Berhanu, a former Agohelma orphan, in an interview with the magazine Addis Standard. “After getting my diploma, I started working with her. She was a mother above mothers.’’
Ms. Gobena did not leave any immediate survivors, though she might disagree.
“I have no children of my own,” she told The Times of London in 2004, “but I have a family of hundreds of thousands, and I have absolutely no regrets.”