When Dr. Hawa Abdi Abdi was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012, I was struck by how one woman was able to achieve so much in war torn Somalia; an ocean of violence beneath Africa’s piece of sky. In 1983, her life of service to her people began in a one room clinic she set up to help pregnant mothers in her community.
At the collapse of the Somalia’s Siad Barre’s government, the growing Hawa Abdi Hospital stretched beyond its limit to become a haven of respite, an island of hope sheltering men, women and children displaced by clan warfare and civil war. Dr. Hawa Abdi’s rural health clinic and the expanse of family land on which she hosted desperate families soon became known as the Hawa Abdi village. With the help of her physician daughters Deqo and Amina, Dr. Hawa Abdi Foundation (DHAF) was set up to meet the overwhelming needs of the village. In an environment where charity organizations dread to stay, DHAF operates largely alone; one woman , two daughters and over 90,000 lives at a time. Becoming an Alfred Nobel Peace Prize Nominee in 2012 put her on the global map. Subsequent international awards like Women of Impact award, John Jay Medal for Justice and the Glamour Magazine’s 2010 Women of the year along with her two daughters has shown that the world does not forget good deeds.
With the gift of her book ‘Keeping Hope Alive’, I was privileged to traverse through the many seasons of Dr. Hawa Abdi’s history sharing in the many trajectories and ravages of her remarkable life as she steers through her work, family and hope for her country. I had the honour and privilege to meet Dr.Abdi in her humble abode in the heart of Nairobi. We talked about her book and her life as she continues to burn the peace candle ‘Keeping Hope Alive’ for Somalia and the people of her continent.
In a country that for over 20 years sunk into an abyss of unrelenting violence, famine, murder, rape, ubiquitous practice of female genital mutilation, sickness and mass deaths, it is surprising that this lawyer and philanthropist, Mama Hawa as she is fondly called by her people, has made Hawa Abdi village, a small law-abiding state in the midst of chaos. The harmony in her life, her work and her strong faith in a country that is difficult to love or believe in attracted me to this remarkable patriot.
You are a very beautiful woman especially dressed in all your Nigerian style attires.
Dr. Abdi: I like Nigerian attires and their movies too; I start the day watching Nigerian movies. As for beauty, now, beauty is gone (Laugh).
Your beauty is not gone; there is a beauty for every age. If I am right, you are a beautiful 67yrs young woman, a Gynaecologist, a Lawyer, a benefactor to thousands of Somalia, a mother to two exceptional daughters and a 2012 Nobel Peace Prize Nominee.
Dr. Abdi: Yes I am a Nobel Peace Prize nominee, I didn’t win the award. I had four children; I lost a daughter and then the last child Ahmed too. He died young, I was indeed shocked.
You wrote about him in your book.
Dr. Abdi: Yes he was a 24yrs old medical student at the time. He was quite matured, he had interest in studying about the African continent right from the period of colonialism. He left so young, he did not wait to see me retire. We as Muslims trust the men to lead and protect, but Ahmed could not wait to protect me. He was not married. I was very sorry when they told me ‘sorry, your son died by car accident today’. I was waiting for his call; he called me on Thursday, he promised he will call again, but Friday, I got the call that my boy died that morning by car accident. I was shocked, really shocked. I had told him to come to me, but he said he wanted to go to his father. I did not believe that he died by car accident because I was thinking there was some blackmailing to say he had died in an accident. Things in Somalia are very bad. You have seen the first chapter of my book, the story about the woman who killed her 22yr old daughter with a bullet in her brain and another in her heart because she was from a wrong clan. That is very bad, it is not our culture, our culture was very good, very nice culture. Somalia had very good culture but it is lost to clan politics and killing. Somalia was very lucky; her land was the best place. Our capital Mogadishu was the prettiest city in the world, hosting different people from different places. Yet we all came from one origin, one father with his sons. They have all produced children; we the Somalia children. We were one family, one father, one religion, one language, but still we are fighting. This is not so good.
I agree with you. I am sure that through this unrest, you have done a lot for your people in Somalia. Do you feel fulfilled? Are you happy with all you have achieved?
Dr.Abdi: Yes, this year makes it 22years I have given my community my soul and my heart. Am happy. All my life, I’ve been helping the people who needed my help. When they happily tell me thank you, I also am happy; much more than them. To have money and get elected in politics is not happiness.The best happiness is when I help people that are suffering. If I can help them pass that suffering, when they are sick; to treat, when they are hungry; to fill their stomach and offer them where to sleep, when they are thirsty; to give them clean water. This is all we do at the DHAF. Now I have many many young people, boys and girls who have grown up in Hawa Abdi Camp that hosts 90,000. 30% of the occupants were young children, now we have children who grew up here that are now 20yrs of age and above, they are becoming married and having children too.
So now you have a lot of grand children raised fully in Hawa Abdi village; how beautiful?
Dr. Abdi: Yes, and they all call me Mama.
Somalia has been experiencing a lot of conflict and violence. Do you still have faith in the government to restore peace?
Dr. Abdi: I thought by now, the presidents would call for reconciliation of the Somalia tribes and perhaps offer compensation to those people who were killed and people who fled from their homes. But after three presidents have come, no one has tried to make reconciliation of the inter-tribes. Since they have not responded this way, I think that Somalia is still not a peaceful place.
So have you lost faith in Somalia being a peaceful place again?
Dr. Abdi: Somalia is a beautiful place and I like it, I cannot exchange any place with Somalia. In antiquity it used to be a major player in regional commercial trade. I will remember Somalia as the most beautiful place and Mogadishu as the prettiest city in the world. I cannot forget this. I want to see another time when Somalia and its capital Mogadishu will return to what it was before. I am waiting, and I hope that it will become.
I join my hope with yours and pray it happens.
Dr.Abdi: I pray honestly, I want to see that Somalia back.
‘Keeping Hope Alive’ is a beautiful book you co-authored with Sarah Robbins. It is all about your story.
Dr.Abdi: Yes, even the title is something I like so much.
Why did you write this book?
Dr. Abdi: I wrote it to share with young Somalians the history of the country I remember; telling them what was happening in Somalia, about the beautiful cultures that existed and more-so, how it changed. I want them to know and return to search the beautiful cultures of peace we had before and bring it back.
What are your achievements so far with your book ‘Keeping Hope Alive’?
Dr.Abdi: Recently, this book won awards as I was told by the publishers. It won the Hachette Audio 2014 Audie Awards in the inspirational non-fiction categories. It is a non-fiction book, it is my real stories and many people from diverse culture can now read it.
Dr. Abdi: Thank You.
Some new projects like the Desmund Tutu forgiveness project are promoting forgiveness as a way forward from violence. In the closing chapters of your book, you also wrote about forgiveness. You have known pain; day by day, more people are experiencing undeserved pain with the many incidence of violence in our world today. Is Forgiveness the solution?
Dr. Abdi: In our culture in Somalia, we do not go to the court when offended. Culturally, we select wise elderly people to sit and decide over disputes. To the offender, they punish and to the offended, they say please forgive. Sometimes the punishment of the offender is the price of Camels or Cows. This way, people whose rights are violated become happy. We never hold on to grudge, we forgive each other immediately because we were the children of one father. This was Somali culture; this is why I crave for the return of that culture. We can stop these court cases and proceedings that require appeals upon appeals and corruption. Now they divide by clan, clans are no solution; the solution is one society where we have understanding of oneness with no clan division and where no man is allowed to beat his wife or another person.
Tell me about Somalia as you know it.
Dr.Abdi: Somalia was a very strong country, my favourite African country. They developed really fast then and Mogadishu was the prettiest city in the world before everything collapsed. All who fought for independence and showed patriotism were greeted with shock at its fall. In our time, we were trying to hold on the clans but the men just want to be angry, to fight and to kill. Clan mentality was destructive but our people didn’t listen or understand this, and then we lost a lot. People of importance have fled the land, and some died. Some became sick with stroke and are now living daily on their beds. These things have changed Mogadishu. In later years, with the formation of a new government, Somalia’s in Diaspora came back with big hope after waiting for years. Expectations were high, but not much has happened there. One day I hope we will pass this situation and go to the peace side.
Africa the continent hosting Somalia continues to grapple with a lot of development issues. What are your thoughts on African leadership?
Dr. Abdi: My African role-model is Kwame Nkrumah. In 1963, about the time most African countries were getting their independence, he made a speech in Adis-Ababa, he said that the African continent was very rich but should not consider them self as independent nation state until they become economically independent. But this was not to be yet as most African countries like Somalia began to kill in the name of differences. We were given a virgin land, good health and we could work hard and be self-sufficient economically. Now we are overwhelmed with thoughts of tribe division and selfish leaders who amass wealth, denying the people of basic necessities. Freedom goes beyond just achieving independence. According to Nkrumah, leaders needed to feed and make happy the poor people before securing their position. You can never be a successful leader if all you do is to grab everything and forget the poor people. Yet African presidents have remained incompetent and corrupt. Our economic incompetence is really bad. If you don’t have money, you cannot achieve much.
Dependably, Africa continues to receive development aid from other continents. Do you think Africa really lacks financial resources?
Dr. Abdi: No, Africa is not poor. Africa remains a very rich continent that can fund and support their development. Consider agriculture for example, European countries only harvest once a year and we in Africa can harvest two or more times a year. Nature has indeed blessed us, we have rivers, we have good weather, and we have everything including education. Most people are now well educated and are patriotic but Africa remains challenged with the difficulty of administration, this is not right.
How is work going on in the Hawa Abdi village?
Dr. Abdi: We still work there. I have young people that support us to create jobs and manage families. My young people are not torn apart by tribalism; they do not fight by tribes, they are not part of violence, rape or destruction in Somalia. For 22years, we have been educating our young in all honesty and hard work. They are very proud of their Hawa Abdi root, when you ask them what tribe they come from, they proudly say ‘I am from the people of Hawa Abdi’. Most of them ran from their clan and came to us. We offered to give them water, shelter, healthcare and education for free only if they stay away from clan politics. Today, their background is solid and I hope they will remain the honest people of Somali land. Some of the youths raised by us are located in different parts of the globe now developing their self. I am hopeful that in the future, some of them will become leaders in Somalia.
Despite our differences, the world has become smaller as globalization is sweeping us together. What are your views on globalization?
Dr.Abdi: The world is now very challenged but it is also becoming one village. Globalization is good in the sense that for example, if something happens in Somaliland, it spreads not only to the African continent but all over the world. Our challenges are also becoming similar. In the time I was doing my book tour, I learnt of an explosion that happened in Somalia while still in America. Not long after, there was also an explosion in America killing people too. When a bad thing happens in one corner of the world, it seems to vibrate all over as no part of the world is in isolation anymore. Hence we have to work together to eliminate evil, otherwise it may come to us next.
Tradition and culture may have been strong factors to the challenges women faced in your time in Somalia. What do you think are the challenges of young African women today?
Dr.Abdi: To tell you the truth of what I have seen, I have never seen the tradition and culture being an insurmountable challenge even in our days. For example, I went abroad in 1964, at that time, Somalia was very conservative. Most people discouraged my father from sending me abroad ‘You want to send your daughter abroad, you want to spoil her? Stop! What are you doing?’ My father did not accept that, he still sent me abroad because he was more advanced and had better foresight than those men his age. The Somalian women of my age did not see much as challenge since they accepted their social roles. Young women of today have much more opportunity now because you are open to the whole world. In our time, we were isolated in some little villages. Being that we were obliged by our culture to support, respect our parents and any elderly person around, I notice that as a major difference for young women today. Young women are lacking respect for families and elders too.
What then will be your advice to young African women of today?
Dr. Abdi: They should not forget our culture of respect for parents and elders. They must be honest and work very hard knowing that they can do everything; they can change this world. You all have to change your children and grandchildren’s life. In my years of working in the Hawa Abdi village and serving my people, I am realising that women are sometimes not helping as much as they can. Though they are doing their best in carrying their children on their back and their families on their hands, they can do more. African women have a special place in the continent; they can help the men broker peace and make reconciliations if they want. The woman is a powerful being. In the past twenty two years in Somalia, the men have been either fighting or talking, but our women are still working and saving their families. Women have to be very strong to protect their society, to help stop all these fighting. I advise all the young people too, they have to come together, working in respect, harmony and fraternity to change this world in a better way and eliminate everything evil.
As an identity, you are a mother and formerly a wife. You wrote extensively about your marriages. Has marriage empowered you and do you think marriage empowers women?
Dr.Abdi: Yes I think so; marriage is good for women and also for men. When you share with your partner, you are empowered by their support and things are easier than when you are alone. Human beings cannot survive in isolation. We see this also in governance. Different national governments have to relate to other governments to survive and succeed. For example, the United Nations is able to achieve more because it embodies the unity of many governments. Hence no one person should stay or succeed alone.
You were sometime in the recent past detained by the militant Hizbul Islam/Al-shabaab.
Dr. Abdi: Yes I was detained for days in February 2010. I was detained with my staff. My daughters and I have suffered the impact of violence too; sometimes they find no way out as most amenities like transportation are broken down during these attacks. At a time, we had 90,000 displaced people living on our camp. But after Al-shabaab came to that side, fighting ensued between the military and Al-shabaab and most of the camp occupants fled and went back to Mogadishu. But with expensive rents, education and healthcare in Mogadishu, more people have returned back.
Do you hope that more people will return back to the Hawa Abdi camp?
Dr.Abdi: I don’t hope for that, I hope that the government of Somalia will sit up and be strong to create a new life for the people.
I learnt of the incidence where Al-shabaab took away about 700 school children from Hawa Abdi village in the early months of 2012.
They took away school children from the camp in buses and people could not fight them. Somehow, we were in panic for the children. At the end of the day, they returned the children. They had only taken them to support their rally for al Qaeda.
Having experienced and survived all this in Somalia, what words do you have for the kidnapped Nigerian school girls?
Dr.Abdi: I am sorry for what has happened to them, I learnt about it from the media. I know they are honest and good people and if allowed, they have potentials of doing great things for their country. They must resist evil and keep alive their hope. One day, they will succeed, they will be freed.
Do you believe the girls will be released?
Dr.Abdi: Yes I do, they will be released. I pray God remains with them and us as God is always with the right people and not the wrong people. Those girls are on the right side, but those who kidnapped them will be punished by God.
Dr. Hawa Abdi concluded our conversatiOn sharing her will as she retires. ‘I like you young women. You have good hearts. I am leaving you with my daughters and together, you must all work to get Africa out of crisis and poverty. Remember you must not fail’. The Dr. Hawa Abdi Foundation continues to support the displaced people of Somalia. This foundation remains open to contributions and support from individuals and organisations. To support Dr. Abdi in continuously creating access to human right for the Somali people, kindly forward contributions directly to her organisation through their website www.dhaf.org
This interview was conducted in Nairobi, Kenya by Ms. Adaobi Nkeokelonye, with amazing support from Ms. Victoria Nwogu, the gender advisor for UNDP Somalia. Ms. Nkeokelonye is a social-development researcher. As an avocation, she currently explores linkages between literary fiction/non-fiction novels and International Development issues on her site http://fictioningdevelopment.org. Twitter:@adankeokelonye