Keeping Hope Alive in Somalia: Dr. Hawa Abdi
Her nicknames range from “Mama Hawa” to “Mother Theresa meets Rambo.”
When the Somalian government collapsed in 1991, Dr. Hawa Abdi was a young doctor operating a small clinic on her family farm 20 miles south of Mogadishu. As war ravaged the country, Abdi’s clinic grew into a 400-bed hospital and her farm became home to thousands of refugees. At one point, Abdi’s makeshift camp sheltered 1% of the country’s population, about 90,000 people.
In the spring, Abdi’s newly published memoir, “Keeping Hope Alive,” became an international bestseller, making the daily struggles of Somalians palpable for a global audience. Abdi is now a Nobel Peace Prize nominee.
Today, the camp is still home to 5,000 internally displaced people, and Abdi’s daughter, Dr. Deqo Mohamed, runs the hospital. Through the nonprofit, Dr. Hawa Abdi Foundation, the community known as the “Hawa Abdi Village” is working towards sustainability through grassroots initiatives. The project continues, even as fear and lawlessness thrive in the broken nation around them. “There is still no peace, no security, and no food,” says Abdi.
The community runs four programs: healthcare, agriculture, education and WASH, a clean water and sanitation project.
“The programs are all very intertwined,” says Abdi. “The success of one will affect the other. For example, in order for students at the school to learn at their maximum capacity, their health needs must be looked after.”
Today, 200 students are enrolled at the village school. The hospital provides free healthcare, serving an estimated 500 patients a day.
“It is very expensive for the hospital. We depend on support from our donors and partnering organizations,” says Abdi. “We are constantly struggling with funds. Yet we cannot charge the patients; many cannot even afford food.”
Usually, the sustainable agriculture program, where participants use pesticide-free farming techniques to grow drought-resistant crops, is able to annually harvest enough food for 500 families. But for the last three years, they have not been able to harvest much.
“We need investment for irrigation and physical capital such as tractors, seeds, and money to maintain the farming tools,” says Abdi.
The village’s ultimate goal is to become a self-sustaining, healthy community.
“Our farm will become a model for environmentally sustainable agriculture,” says Abdi, “and a national distribution point for drought-resistant crops and therapeutic foods to combat malnutrition.”
She believes that food security is a priority, because the hospital and school cannot function if the staff and clientele are both hungry. “We are seeking both financial and technical assistance to help us achieve this goal,” she says.
Abdi dreams of someday expanding the foundation’s work to other parts of Somalia, such as Kismayo and Baido; but, right now, Hawa Abdi’s Village requires her full attention. Security remains their greatest challenge.
“There are still militiamen around with guns and no jobs,” she says. “In the past few months, the presence of militiamen has dissuaded mothers from sending their children to school for fear of violence. It is one of the reasons why our attendance rates have fluctuated throughout the academic year.”
In July, representatives of Lafoole’s regional government surrounded the displaced-persons camp, ordering Abdi’s daughters to pay $100,000 or cease construction of a large fence meant to protect the compound. Even though they showed the men the deed to the land, proving it is their family’s private property, Dr. Abdi says that around 100 soldiers returned and destroyed the 100- by 2-meter wall that protected her village.
Abdi and her family took the matter to court, which recognized Abdi’s deed and right to build on her property. But she says that the legal victory will not translate to penalties for the damaged property, materials to build a new wall, nor protection in the future. “It is difficult to enforce law on the ground,” says Abdi. “Today, Somalia has a small window of time, and we need the help of the international community to restore law and order.”
She has learned a great deal about democracy and nonviolence from leading her camp.
Abdi believes the best way to approach a problem is by engaging the people it impacts. “It is important to keep in mind the people you are serving first,” she says. “The people have to participate.”
Assuring diverse leadership is the key to engaging people from all levels of the community. “At the camp, Dr. Hawa has enforced the rule that there will be no talk of clan division,” says Jasmine Lam, the foundation’s Nairobi-based director of development.
“She has also divided the camp up into seven committees, each committee comprises a female and male representative from the elders, youths and young adults.” According the Lam, this allows each group to engage in dialogue and problem-solving on an equal platform.
The village also uses international media as a free tool to resist the surrounding violence. “Media is the camp’s primary tool to resist domination and bullying,” says Abdi.
“We do not have guns, nor do we engage in violence. Without the voice the media is giving us, we would be powerless.”
Yet fear has not deterred the community’s aspirations.
“In the long-run, our school will stand as a prestigious institute for primary and secondary education,” says Abdi. “Our hospital will be a regional focal point for quality healthcare and training.”
Photo of Dr. Hawa Abdi (in blue) courtesy of Vital Voices: Georgia Court