Alas the gravity and magnitude of Ismail’s career is lost in simply detailing her achievements. It’s important to remember that Edna Adan, as a young girl growing up in Somaliland, was not expected to go to school or acquire any qualifications. “Britain used to select boys from secondary schools to study in England and in 1952 or 53. The very first school for girls was opened in Somaliland and I was a pupil-teacher at the time,” she remembers.
It was a year of waiting before she and another girl were finally sent off to study nursing. “We were the only two [Somali] girls in London at the time. It was very challenging; it was a great opportunity to study something that I certainly felt very passionate about. I loved learning, I loved studying and to be given this opportunity was a great gift, and I loved every minute of it.”
However, on returning to her homeland, she found her dreams of making a Florence Nightingale debut were squashed by the newly independent Somaliland government. “I was the only woman, the only qualified female nurse running all the female section of the hospital,” she explains. “So that was challenging, and of course there were very few doctors and many of the emergencies and the medical care that was needed was beyond the training of a nurse. Very often I just had to substitute for what a doctor would have done, because there would be no doctors. So, very often you just had to do what you had to do.”
It took the government nearly two years to finally concede defeat. “I refused to quit,” she declares. “I just worked for 22 months without a salary. I just stuck to my guns and eventually, they had to give in. I was appointed to the civil service. So, to me, that was a victory because that opened the door to women to be appointed to the senior civil service.”
While working for both the World Health Organisation and the United Nations, Edna Adan had made several attempts to set up a hospital of her own. However, efforts were often thwarted by the political climate. The civil war with Somalia had left Somaliland completely ravaged. Medical professionals had either fled the country during the conflict or been killed by enemy forces. Hospitals had been destroyed in the fighting, leaving the country with one of the highest maternal and infancy mortality rates in the world. “I just recycled my whole life,” she explains. “I just turned everything I could dispose of into cold cash and started to build a hospital.”
Edna Adan’s credentials as a nurse, a midwife and a health advisor, made her one of the most qualified people to set up a medical centre. But, according to Ismail herself, it was the memories of her father that truly stirred her to establish the Edna Adan University Hospital.
“My father was someone who was known as the father of healthcare in Somaliland,” she recalls. “As a teenager I would be home for the holidays, from school in Djibouti, and I would be hanging around the hospital, giving him a hand. And I would often hear him complaining about a piece of equipment, and I just made a kind of mental, subconscious promise that one day I would build the kind of hospital my father would have liked to work in.”
The Edna Adan University Hospital started life as a maternity hospital. After four years building on what used to be a garbage dump, the hospital was opened in 2002. For over a decade, the hospital has taken in literally thousands of patients and, to this day, continues to expand. Despite her position as both the founder and director of this monumental institution, Ismail remains humble about her contribution. “I’m doing less and less legwork,” she notes.
But Ismail is kept busy by the cascade of political issues that still flood the hospital. Gender politics still lie at the heart of what she does in Somaliland. The hospital, along with educating women to become nurses and midwifes, is using its influence to try and stop female genital mutilation – a tradition still practised in parts of Somaliland. “The more we do, the more we see that more needs to be done,” she admits. “What we’ve done now is a drop in the ocean.”
However it’s not just within the walls of the hospital that women are treated unequally. Ismail remains as passionate about gender equality as she was as a little girl. It’s important to note that when she was young, only boys were educated in Somaliland. “At that time, education was considered undesirable for a girl,” she explains. “Friends and relatives would come and say ‘God has given you one daughter and you are teaching her to read and write? What good will come of it? She will disgrace you!’ I grew up with that and I was always trying to prove to them that education was good.”
When she sat in Cabinet in the new millennia, she was the only female minister around the table. Even now there are only two women elected to Parliament and just one female in the Senate. “This is what I’ve had to fight all my life and we continue to fight because it needs to be fought. Somebody’s got to speak for these voiceless women. Somebody’s got to stand their grounds. If I had that opportunity to do that then I must do it. It’s a responsibility that I must accept.”
There’s no doubt that progress has been made. Once upon a time women were not even allowed to drive cars, and Ismail agrees that the changes that have occurred have made her optimistic about the future for women in Somaliland. “I would like the change to be bigger and I would like more women to keep that pressure going,” she says. “The world needs both men and women. Because it’s not a question of men or women, it’s a question of both men and women doing a job together to make the world a better place for humankind. That’s all.”
Throughout her life, education has been at the core of everything she’s accomplished. Her thirst for learning has fuelled her career and now she intends to impart her wisdom onto others in hopes that they will continue her mission. “My real gift that I wish to leave for my people is the gift of knowledge; for them to love knowledge – to encourage them to seek more knowledge.”
As always Ismail practices what she preaches and has dedicated her later life to encouraging young women to join the profession. She notes that it is still hard to persuade Somali families to let their daughters study but over time Ismail has persuaded masses of girls to take the opportunity to become a nurse or midwife. “These are exciting years,” she exclaims. “I am proud that the first lady of Somaliland today was one of those young students, young women who we talked into taking up nursing in those days.
There’s still a mountain ahead for Edna Adan Ismail, but she’s still enthused by the belief that people need change and its these young women who are able to deliver it them. “I want to be a role model, to show them that anyone can do it and so can you,” she explains.
Her love for what she does and her ability to convey such a wealth of knowledge onto others is what has made Edna Adan such an influential and compelling teacher. “I feel blessed at 74 that I can still do that. An old woman following her lifelong passion. And loving every minute of it.”
The preceding profile was written by Joanne Butcher, BA Politics, University of Sheffield, and published here: Edna Adan Ismail: a Somali Inspiration