LYNDONVILLE, Vermont – Called the ‘Muslim Mother Theresa’ and Somaliland’s most prominent woman, Edna Adan is a legend among Somaliland’s four million people. Her work in the fields of healthcare, women’s rights and education have earned her the French Legion of Honor and international recognition. Most notably, though, her work, especially her personal sacrifice to build a maternity hospital, has saved thousands of lives and turned life around for the women and children of Somaliland.
The daughter of a prominent doctor, Adan had dreamed since the age of 11 of opening her own hospital; one, she said, “my dad would have wanted to work in.”
Although she was born into a wealthy, educated family, Adan faced a number of obstacles in achieving her goal. For one, there were no schools for girls in Somaliland when she was a child. Fortunately, her parents allowed her to study her brother’s lessons and when she excelled at it, permitted her to attend school in the French colony of Djibouti. A girls’ school opened up in Somililand when Adan was 15 so she followed up her studies in Djibouti by student teaching there. She ultimately won a coveted British scholarship to study in London where she stayed for seven years, pursuing nursing, midwifery and hospital management.
She returned to Somaliland in 1961 as the first qualified nurse-midwife in the country. Six years later, her husband would become prime minister of Somalia. As first lady, Adan led a glamorous life, dining with presidents and even keeping a pet cheetah at home in Mogadishu. But in 1969, a coup brought dictator Mohamed Siad Barre to power and civil war engulfed the country.
During this time, Adan began working for the World Health Organization, training nurses and midwives throughout the Middle East. She later spent a number of years working for the UN.
While Adan was working abroad, Somaliland declared its independence from war-torn Somalia in 1991. Though it is not officially considered a country, Somaliland is internationally recognized as an autonomous region of Somalia with its own governing body.
The war, though, had devastating consequences for its population’s health. Much of the region’s infrastructure was destroyed. Further, healthcare staff had fled or been killed in the civil war. According to Adan, “those midwives, and nurses, who had been trained in Somaliland or Somalia before the war had either fled the country or died.” Thus Adan’s hospital dream had never been more difficult to realize — or more desperately needed.
In order to make it a reality, Adan sold all of her possessions and contributed the entirety of her life savings toward the hospital. She even persuaded her ex-husband, then the president of ‘independent’ Somaliland, to donate the land in the capital city of Hargeisa for the project. She began construction on her maternity hospital on a garbage dump in 1997.
With assistance from local merchants and other donors, Adan completed construction on the Edna Adan Maternity Hospital in 2002, which has already shown an astounding impact on the region.
Patients travel from as far away as Mogadishu and Ethiopia, upwards of 500 miles away, to receive treatment in the best-equipped hospital in the region. More than 140,000 patients have been treated and 14,000 babies delivered. What’s most notable, however, is its work in saving the lives of mothers.
Somalia’s civil war earns it some of the highest infant and maternal mortality rates in the world-one in eight babies die before the age of five and about one in 12 women die during childbirth. But Somaliland is different.
Edna has played a crucial role in cutting Somaliland’s maternal mortality rate. In her own words: “I’m proud to say that we have cut maternal mortality to a quarter of the national average, largely through training of midwives, improved prenatal care, early referral, and immediate response to obstetrical emergencies. If we can do it here, with our limited resources, it can be done anywhere.”
Nothing has deterred Adan from her goal of bring high class health care to Africa’s mothers-not even being appointed Somaliland’s foreign minister in 2002. She simply converted a section of the hospital into her ministry and continued her work running the hospital. She lives in a modest apartment on site with staff.
Adan has already trained 300 midwives and aims to train 1,000 more, saying: “What I want to leave behind for my people is not only a building, not only four walls and bricks and beds. I want to leave people who are trained, who are compassionate and who are as passionate about what they are doing as I am,” she said.
– Kelley Calkins