When Edna Adan Ismail, founder of the pioneering Edna Adan University Hospital in Somaliland, walked into Women Hold Up Half the Sky a few weeks ago, she exclaimed to the crowd of visitors who had gathered to see her, “I am very emotional by the way, so if I get emotional, bear with me.” She walked through the gallery, half a world away from her home in Hargeisa, and took in the stories and images of her life on display. Edna did get emotional. And impassioned. And I did, too.
As I learned in chapter seven of Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, one woman dies from childbirth every minute somewhere in the world. The personal narratives they share in the book put a face to that statistic, making every heartbreaking word worth the read.
In a country like Somaliland, Kristof and WuDunn write that there are four main factors that account for such grim maternal mortality: biology, lack of schooling, lack of rural health systems, and disregard for women. This only makes it that much more impressive that against all odds Edna learned to read and write even when there were no schools for girls; was the first Somali girl to earn a scholarship to study abroad in Britain; trained to become the first qualified nurse-midwife; served as First Lady of Somalia while her husband served as Prime Minister; had a career at the World Health Organization; held the position of Foreign Minister of Somaliland; and finally reached her lifelong goal of founding and administering a hospital. Being in her presence is inspiring, and I feel proud to know that she is out there fighting for every woman’s right to good health care and education.
At the informal talk given by Edna in the gallery that November afternoon, Skirball Executive Vice President Kathryn Girard summed up my emotions rather well when she applauded Edna’s efforts to improve conditions for mothers locally in Somaliland and around the word. “This exhibition is about a lot of pain, and a lot of things that don’t currently go right in the world,” Kathryn explained. “It was very difficult to choose to have an exhibition about the global oppression of women—and as Kristof says, about discrimination that is both legal and lethal. It is only because there are stories like Edna’s, that there are women and men like Edna—whose stories we can tell as part of the exhibition—that we were willing to engage with this subject.”
Full of admiration and nothing of an unbiased journalist’s perspective, I had the honor of sitting with Edna to ask her a few questions about her incredible life’s journey.
Q: When did you realize that you wanted to spend your life savings to build a hospital?
A: The hospital is something that started in my head when I was eleven years old. So it took a long time. The reason I wanted to build a hospital is first, because I am a nurse. I am a midwife. If I had been a carpenter, I would think about doing something with wood. But I am a nurse, and babies are my business. It is a profession that has given me so much freedom. Freedom to think. Freedom to decide. Freedom to do. And to motivate so many others.
I have wanted to build a hospital since I was eleven because my late father was known as the father of healthcare in my country—the first Somali doctor in his time. And I often heard him saying, “Oh, I wish I had a better pair of scissors than this. Oh, I wish I had a better hospital than this.” And in my mind I thought that one day I would build the kind of hospital that my father would have liked to work in. That’s it. That is how the idea started. And then in my professional life, whenever I saw something good—a good hospital, a good department, or a good tool—I thought, THIS I will have in my hospital one day.
Q: Was it difficult raising the money to build the hospital?
A: Life takes you many places, takes you up, takes you down, turns you right, turns you left. I started building my first hospital in the early ’80s in Mogadishu (my country Somaliland was united with Somalia at that time). But unfortunately, before the hospital was finished, war broke out in Mogadishu. Warlords took my hospital, they took everything we had—and it was gone. That first hospital swallowed $150K of my savings. And that left me very angry. Here I had spent my whole life working toward opening this hospital and some guy with a gun walks in and takes it.
The second hospital got built after I retired from the United Nations’ World Health Organization (WHO) in 1997. It took me four years. I opened it in 2002, and in March it will be ten years old.
I used everything I had to build it. Anything I didn’t need I sold and turned into cash for the hospital. When I wore my designer Italian-made shoes as the First Lady of Somaliland, I still walked on pavement and sometimes stepped in dog poop! Now I go to Hargeisa market and spend $10 on shoes. When they wear out, I throw them away and get another pair.
I did fundraising in the U.S. and in Canada, and a lot of business people in Hargeisa made very generous contributions. They gave me cement, stone, and steel. And that is how we finished it. Today, we continue to have support, because running it is not the easiest.
If I had to do it all over again, I would do it. The only thing I would do differently: I would have a bigger operating theater, I would have a better water supply, I would have solar power on the roof. But I would do it again and again.
Sometimes people joke. They ask, “How can you do it? You were once a First Lady, you were once a diplomat! How can you live like this?” And I say, “Today I feel I don’t have much money in the bank, but I am so much richer than I was fifteen years ago.” Because every little child alive today that is delivered at my hospital I cannot measure in pounds or dollars or euros. I get so, so much more. I’m seventy-four years old and I feel that the hospital has given me a new life.
Q: Tell me about the nursing program at your hospital.
A: I try to give women in my community an opportunity. They are my army, my soldiers. I train them to think, to work, to be a person. Many people ask what I think is the solution to gender inequality. I say “Education 1, 2, and 3.” Education 1—educate girls; Education 2—educate the community; Education 3—educate the decision-makers and politicians.
For the nursing program, we advertise on the radio and in the local papers and receive an average of 300 applications for forty positions a year. We interview the applicants—about their physical health, education, confidence—and we scrutinize their commitment. We then give a written examination, testing them on English, chemistry, etc. We accept the top forty applicants, strictly based upon these test scores.
The little we have done at the hospital is just a drop in the ocean, but if it is inspiring others to invest in women, then that is something. If God gives me the time, one of the things I would like to leave behind is 1,000 trained midwives. It is amazing what you can do even on a garbage dump. The site of the hospital, by the way, was once a garbage dump, was once a cemetery, was once a military execution ground. And it is now a hospital!
The entire Skirball staff was honored that Edna Adan took the long detour from Hargeisa to Los Angeles—on her way to Geneva, Switzerland to give a Tedx talk about human rights—and took some time to see the exhibition. I encourage everyone to visit the Edna Adan University Hospital website to learn more about how you can support Edna’s mission, follow her travels, and see more photos of Edna’s visit to the Skirball!