Abdi: ‘There will be peace. If I die, no problem’


Dr. Hawa Abdi and her daughter, Dr. Deqo Mohamed, are interviewed by Kati Marton during the 10:45 presentation Thursday in the Amphitheater. Photos by Ellie Haugsby.

Nick Glunt | Staff Writer

When journalist Kati Marton went to Africa with her U.N. ambassador husband, Richard Holbrooke, the two of them found themselves thinking the same idea. In each of the 11 countries they visited, they agreed that it would be the women to save Africa — if anything could.

Women were the ones fighting corruption, trying to build civil society and battling AIDS and HIV, Marton said.

Among these women is Hawa Abdi, one of the first female gynecologists in Somalia. Abdi founded a one-room hospital, which expanded into a community of 100,000 over the years. This community provides free food, water, land, shelter, medical care and education — all with no government aid.

Marton interviewed Abdi onstage during the 10:45 a.m. lecture Thursday in the Amphitheater. Abdi spoke about the village, explaining that the reason it’s grown so much is because of the push for peace within.

Marton and Abdi’s conversation was the fourth presentation in Week Five’s topic on “21st Century Women: The Road to Social and Economic Growth.” Abdi’s daughter Deqo Mohamed, another gynecologist, joined them onstage.

Founding a village

Abdi earned a medical degree with the help of a Soviet scholarship. She returned to Somalia, where she earned a law degree and became an assistant professor of medicine.

She then opened a small clinic on land that had been passed down from her ancestors. When civil war erupted in Somalia in 1991, she took in and cared for her employees. Eventually, her employees’ families came to live there, then family friends and so on. Today, it is a thriving village.

Marton asked Abdi how she cares for almost 100,000 people. Abdi said she’s not alone. There are other doctors and nurses too, as well as village elders.

However, she said it’s still a family affair.

“My two daughters and me, we help each other,” Abdi said, “so we’re doing a very good job.”

Inside the village, children who were brainwashed into soldiers are taken as nursing assistants to give them a sense of importance. People are taught to fish and to farm so they can take care of themselves. Education is offered to people of all ages. Every person is granted opportunity and equality in this civil society, Abdi said.

Dealing with conflict

In the middle of conflict, Abdi’s village once was surrounded by militant extremists. They came to her to convince her into handing over leadership.

“You are a lady, woman,” they said to her, then said to her daughters, “You all are, also. You are not supposed to lead this society. We are young; we are men. Please, hand over to us this job.”

“No,” Abdi said simply. “This is my property, and people come to me, not to you. If you want the people to come, please do something like this place.”

Abdi, Marton and Mohamed agreed the village is a rare sight in Somalia. Marton went so far as to call Abdi “a unique personality” because of her nontraditional views on Somalian society.

Like any society, Abdi and her daughters set forth a few rules to separate the village from the outside. While most of the warring Somali peoples are fighting by clan, there is no clan division in Abdi’s village. Secondly, men are not allowed to beat their wives, as that is what Mohamed called the first sign of civil unrest.

If any person breaks these rules, Abdi said, they are either put into a small prison or are exiled from the village.

“People become friendly, friendly, friendly helping each other,” Abdi said. “The society became a unit.”

Still, however, war rages outside the village.

What can be done

Abdi and Mohamed said the conflict in Somalia can be solved with aid from the U.S., but ultimately it’s up to Somalis to help themselves. Education, to Abdi, is the key. As such, the village focuses heavily on education.

Marton questioned why the Somali government allows the village to continue operation. After all, she said, Abdi’s village essentially is autonomous, providing “all the things a government should provide.”

Mohamed said the reason is that the government has a very small area that it actually controls. Protecting itself from rebellions is more important to the Somali government than shutting down an “autonomous” community, she said.

Even when her village is threatened, Abdi will not bear arms. She said she gives life; she doesn’t take it away. In order to replicate the village in other war-torn nations, Mohamed said those nations need determined people like her mother.

Abdi disagreed. She said she believes “the world is one.” If something springs up in one part of the world, she said, it spreads. Every person has the ability to set that in motion, to create a better world for future generations.

Marton asked if Abdi ever thinks about escaping the conflict in Somalia by moving away.

“Always my mom tells us, ‘I had two choices (when the war began): to leave my country and to enjoy somewhere else or to stay and create a society within a society, creating peace and staying in my own country,’” Mohamed said.

“When I saw those poor people (displaced by the war),” Abdi said of those choices, “I decided to stay with them and to die with them because one day, I will have to die… One day, there will be peace. If I die, no problem.”

Q: (Babcock) I’d like to start with another fact that you don’t know about Dr. Hawa (Abdi) and her family. She has a second daughter, who is also a physician, and she’s in Somalia right now running the hospital in their absence. But (Abdi’s daughter) also has a son, who is a preschooler. I’d like to ask how he’s going to be raised that will be different, so that he won’t end up in a dysfunctional society.

A: (Abdi) He will be raised differently than Somali children have been raised. I hope that he will be a very strong, intelligent man.

A: (Mohamed) … And will respect women. I think he will, because three women are raising him.

A: (Abdi) And there are others, men who respect us: they are our fathers, our sons, our husbands. We like them. Without them, we cannot do anything. What is very important is to respect each other and to be united.

Q: (Babcock) There are a couple more questions about your family. They want to know if there are men who are helping you.

A: (Abdi) We have this young boy — a young, handsome man — who is three years old. And others from society — honest people, honest men, honest women, honest young people.

Q: (Marton) Do you want to add to that? About the role that … We don’t want to give the impression here that all men are crazy.

A: (Abdi) No, no, they are very critical.

A: (Mohamed) My sister’s husband is helping us. He’s a wonderful man, and he is supporting us with everything he can, security-wise. My father is not with us — he’s on the other side of the country, but he still keeps in touch with us and supports us. We have a lot of family members, and the majority of them help our work. We are very appreciated, and we get their support.

Q: (Babcock) Kati (Marton), someone wants to know what Richard (Holbrooke) would think about this program, and how that might interact with diplomacy.

A: (Marton) You know, as we were talking, I was thinking, Damn, if Richard were here, he’d have so many bright ideas. His brand of diplomacy was “one human being at a time.” Although when we went to those 11 African countries, we did not go to Somalia, but he, on his own, did go to Somalia. There was never a country or a tribe that Richard didn’t connect to in some way, that he didn’t find fascinating. I do think that he would’ve had some good ideas. I am really sorry that you didn’t meet him.

A: (Abdi) We are sorry for your loss.

A: (Marton) I can’t channel him well enough to know what, specifically, he would do, but he certainly didn’t believe in military solutions to problems, except as a very last resort, which is what the situation called for.

Q: (Babcock) We have a couple of questions about the land: Who owns it, how much is there and how much do individuals get to farm?

A: (Mohamed) My mother owns all of it. She got it from her ancestors. We have two parts: about 1,300 acres are living area and 400 acres are farming area. Everybody is welcome to farm, but we cannot find people to farm because of the aid. Because of the aid, they get used to receiving handouts. They don’t want to work.

A: (Abdi) A five-kilometer society.

Q: (Babcock) A question about gynecology: We are familiar with the female genital mutilation issue, and this questioner wants to know, given its prevalence in Somalia, does combating this practice play a role in your work, and what recommendations might you have to deal with this question?

A: (Abdi) My daughter will answer, but I want to say that before, when we had a government, we had a relationship with a hospital and university to campaign on female genital mutilation. But after the government collapsed … She will tell you how we are fighting with that.

A: (Mohamed) I’m a gynecologist, too. Of course it affects our work, 100 percent, because of the extent of practice in Somalia. When women deliver, when they get married, when they have children — all of that will affect them, because of what happened to them. We opened this school we call Women’s Educational Center. The problem is society cannot stand outside and say, “You cannot do this,” what they have been doing for centuries. So we came up with a creative school where we showed them the side effects. We bring the mothers and the women from the older generation, and we call a health class — we teach all that stuff. Then, we have a tour for them, to show, “This is what happens if you do this. Wouldn’t you think it’s better not to do it?” Let them think and reflect. We are showing the result of female genital mutilation. That’s the only way we try to fight against it for the future.

Q: (Babcock) Kati, I’m thinking you might have something to say about that, too, from your work with Human Rights Watch and the International Women’s Health Coalition.

A: (Marton) It’s a terrible problem. It makes me upset just to think about it. The problem is that it’s culturally rooted so deeply, and those are the most intractable problems to reverse. Women are doing it to women, because it was done to them. I think that what Dr. Mohamed just said about education is the key here, too. You can’t just tell people, “You have to stop doing this,” because they will say, “Well, my great-grandmother did it and it was done to her,” and so on. You just have to let them see the consequences, which are very, very dire and have very real health … We struggled on this issue at the International Women’s Health Coalition. I saw that my colleague, Adrienne Germain, was here earlier this week. This was one of our big issues. When you’re dealing with culturally sensitive subjects, it’s really tough to get people to change their ways. But we must, because not all traditions are good ones. Some of them are very destructive. Genital mutilation, I think, is among the most disturbing and destructive traditions.

A: (Abdi) Yes. Children die, sometimes, because of bleeding. Without any anesthesia, they are cutting their bodies.

A: (Marton) And it’s women who are doing it. Yes, I think it all makes us feel a little uneasy.

Q: (Babcock) Deqo (Mohamed) said that her mother is different in the camp. This questioner wants to know what a typical day looks like for the two of you in the camp.

A: (Mohamed) She is the president of the camp. By 5 a.m., she has a meeting with the committees as me, my sister and the two doctors, we have go to the clinic. First, we see — from 5 a.m. to 7 a.m. — the in-patients. We have two hours to finish 400 patients. After that, we go see the out-patients, which are up to 300. We finish the out-patients, then we take any other emergency that comes. During all of these rounds, you have surgery, you have cesareans to run, you have this, that. We need her help sometimes when we need to do surgery. We call her and we tell her, “Cover this part of the patient.” But most of the time, she runs the camp. She talks to the people, she talks to security. If somebody comes and asks, “Where is Dr. Hawa? We want this-and-that,” she is the diplomat and the president, and she is presenting. I do not want to deal with them — believe me.

Q: (Babcock) Are you going to return to Somalia when you finish all of your advanced medical training here?

A: (Mohamed) Yes, I will.

Q: (Babcock) We have a lot of questions about the U.N., the U.S. and the policies, asking: What really would help from agencies, either of our government or of our work through the U.N.?

A: (Abdi) I think that the first mistake was done after our government collapsed, because immediately, there was inter-clan fighting. They divided our government into 4.5 representative groups. We don’t know how they divided it, except by clan. What I believe is: Somalia must be one. It’s one nation. They have to help each other. The international community accepted that — to divide the nation into 4.5 groups. If your society is divided, some of them will be privileged; others will be ignored. There will be different interests. So the society will never keep quiet — they will fight. Everyone will fight for their rights. This would take more: They each want different things. The societies of the U.N. and the U.S. have to recognize one government, one nation.

A: (Mohamed) It is very sad and very diplomatic, and I’m not a diplomat, but from my view and in my personal opinion: The U.N. and U.S. are supporting a dysfunctional government, a government that divided people into 4.5 representative groups. Four are held by the strongest clans, and the half is held by the minority clans. We are from a minority clan, so I am half. The U.N. are supporting the government that divided people by class, and that’s not right. The U.N. should support the government that unites people equally, not putting people, “Yeah, you are a strong clan, you get four. And you’re a minority, the rest of you get half.” It’s very sad. Something should be done. I think the U.S. and the U.N. had the opportunity to fix this over the last 20 years. Somalis are outside of the country. Almost a million Somalis are all over the world: educated, dedicated, capable of making a difference, understanding the West and can unite Africa to the West. I think they have to find allies who are capable of running the government and making equality for men, women and everyone. That’s what they have to look for — not for the warlords. They’re giving them money. The parliament, our government — 80 percent of them cannot write or read, and they’re running the government. They are the men who were, yesterday, fighting and killing, and they’re running the government. I don’t know how that happened.

Q: (Marton) Is the Somali diaspora, which is huge — are they supportive in any way? Could they be organized, somehow? One of the things that my husband was trying to do in Pakistan was to organize the Pakistani diaspora — in the U.S., Britain and elsewhere — to support reform and civil society and all of the things that you want. Could that be done for Somalis outside? Could somebody organize them in some way?

A: (Abdi) Yes. They organized, last year. They sent a prime minister. He was living in Virginia somewhere, and he took over. He has done a good job whipping out the young people who were starving the nation. He cleaned all Mogadishu, which is the capital. Then some international community came and said, “You have to step down,” without any reason.

Q: (Marton) Who did this, the African Union?

A: (Abdi) The African Union and some U.N. representatives for Somalia.

A: (Mohamed) It might take a long time to organize a diaspora. It should come from their willingness and determination. You cannot force people to take their country back. I think the idea is just to find the right person for the right position. That’s what they have to look for, the U.N. and U.S. It’s not like every man who wants to be a president should be a president.

A: (Abdi) We are sorry for that prime minister, how they treated him. What a good job he did.

Q: (Babcock) You have not mentioned the coastal pirates. This questioner wants to know what effect they have on the stability of the government, what threat do they have to your camp, and how near your camp might be to the coastal pirates where they are operating?

A: (Mohamed) They are far away from us. When you look at a map of Somalia, they are in the very north-eastern part, and we are in the very southeast. So there are miles between us — for example, from maybe Florida to New York. They are even farther than New York, maybe. They are very far away, and they are not affecting us, but they are, of course, affecting the country and the nation by giving it a bad name. That’s exactly what my mom is trying to say: The world is one. If the international community tried to bring at least some kind of sense of peace to Somalia, this piracy would not happen. We let these boys become who they are today. In another 20 years, they might go to somewhere else. They are crossing our line and getting ships far away from our line.

A: (Marton) It’s part of the same problem, a dysfunctional state. We saw the global consequences of that in Afghanistan. 9/11 was the result of our allowing Afghanistan to deteriorate to the point where it was utterly dysfunctional. We just can’t walk away from countries like that because the world is too small.

Q: (Babcock) How do Somalis — and that’s a big term, I know, because you’ve already told us that there is not one Somali — but how do the different groups in Somalia view the United States?

A: (Mohamed) The sad thing is the society … Wherever I travel, the people are humble. If you talk about Americans, Swedes or Africans, they don’t care. The problem is the government and the politicians — the guys who want to have power and manipulate people — will say America is bad. The people who want to get some funds from the West will say America is good. When you talk to the normal person, he will say, “I don’t know America. I have to find my food. I don’t know what you’re talking about.” If you talk to the people here, in the South, they don’t even know where Somalia is located. So there are simple people who are trying to find their food. The majority of people are human beings, and they don’t hate each other. The people who hate and the people the media captures are the people who have some political view and agenda. We over-exaggerate one man and what he says, and we stigmatize that to the whole world.

Q: (Babcock) Someone noted that they read in the news today that extremists are trying to block food from reaching people in Somalia who are suffering from the drought because they don’t want to accept food from the West. Is that “West” us, or the “West” U.N.? How are you handling that when you need the food?

A: (Mohamed) They are militants. If you’re not giving money for the food, they will ban you. Their agenda … “the West” is in general, including the U.S., U.N. and all of Europe. Two years ago, the World Food Bank food, they were able to steal it by weapons. When they discovered that and they banned that, they banned all food. They said, “We’re not getting our interests met, we’re not getting money to buy weapons, so we ban it all.” I’m sure if the WFB tells them, “We’ll give you half, you can buy your weapons,” they would allow them to come. That’s the reason. That’s how they’re showing the people, “We don’t want the West,” when they don’t want … they want their interests. They have their interests.

Q: (Babcock) Does this fit into the dysfunctional state giving food?

A: (Mohamed) That will affect the people, of course. There are two million people starving. There was a draught. We do not have proper water. We cannot have the help we are asking because of what they banned. Of course it affects the people.

Q: (Babcock) Where do you get your medicine?

A: (Abdi) That is where we are suffering, really. We have nothing, no place to get this. The last medicine we got was small, from the African Union, but they did not … the Norwegian government gave the money, but through the African Union, we took it, and I’ve already finished it. Someone promised us, in New York, to give containers of medicine, but that was last November, and it has not reached us yet. Sometimes, my daughter in Nairobi … she worked in Nairobi for two months, and she collected money. She sent it to the camp to buy medicine. Medicine in Somalia is very expensive.

Q: (Marton) Dr. Abdi, if we fund you directly, are you able to purchase … ?

A: (Abdi) Yes, we can, we can purchase inside of Somalia. Even the food that we are feeding people now, we purchase inside Somalia, because these evil people are not permitting us to bring outside food.

Q: (Marton) Do you work with other non-governmental organizations?

A: (Abdi) Before, yes. After they attacked me, the NGOs stopped.

Q: (Marton) They left? Doctors Without Borders, they left? All of them?

A: (Abdi) No, in some places in north Somalia, they are still working, but in our place, they left.

Q: (Marton) And the Red Cross?

A: (Abdi) The Red Cross, twice they gave us food, but it was low-profile, not as heavy as before, what they gave us. Then immediately, what has happened? We don’t know, they stopped.

A: (Mohamed) I think in the last two years, we suffered. Before that, we had Doctors Without Borders supporting us, medically, for three years. After they banned aid, the militants killed two employees of DWB on the other side of the country, fortunately not in our hospital, but they killed one of the expatriates in Kismayo, which is 500 kilometers from us. So DWB fled from the country. They stopped their work, and it’s very sad.

Q: (Babcock) What are the opportunities for the children who grow up in your camp?

A: (Abdi) There are big opportunities. They have a school; they have health care. Now, we are already finishing a day care, because we want to eradicate severe malnutrition, which is now the leading killer of the children under five. We begin when they are still three years old, to give them one balanced meal per day. We give them fish once a week, so they do not have malnutrition of protein. The children in our camp, they have opportunity. They have a school, and education that begins when they are three years old. This lady is running the education. How many grades?

A: (Mohamed) We have a school up to sixth grade, but that’s better than nothing. We’re trying to, from the start, increase our school and grow in the future. We have 14-year-olds in first grade. We accept everyone. We have 7-year-olds and 15-year-olds and everyone in between — everybody is in the school.

Q: (Marton) Are you looking for teachers?

A: (Mohamed) We are looking for teachers for the school. Eliza (Griswold) was supporting the school when we started it. Eliza is the journalist who came to the hospital and found my mother.

A: (Abdi) She made me famous. She showed me to the world.

Q: (Marton) Another practical question: If, let’s say, one of us would volunteer to teach, for example … ?

A: (Mohamed) We would love to, but if they banned the food, I don’t think they would allow you to come, either. When we have peace and opportunity to come, we will have to have more teachers.

A: (Marton) Yes, because the security issues …

A: (Mohamed) Eliza will go first.

A: (Abdi) We will win. These people, they will be wiped from our side.

Q: (Babcock) We have some requests to repeat your website and the Vital Voices website again, and then we have a question that I would say is somewhat universal from the women in the audience. So if you’ll repeat your website, and then we’ll ask this one.

A: (Mohamed) Dr. Hawa Abdi Foundation. In short, it’s dhaf.org and vitalvoices.org.

Q: (Babcock) This question observes that this week’s focus is on 21st-century women. You are the face of the emergent, 21st-century woman. What challenge or call do you have for the women in this audience, the most privileged, wealthiest women in the world? What is our national or global role in this century?

A: (Abdi) Thank you. For the last 20 years, I’ve given my heart and my soul to my people. During my time on the frontline, I’ve realized that the women are the leaders of their societies. They are not weak and not helpless. They are very strong human beings. In Africa, we carry our children on our backs and our families in our hands. Society has many, many obstacles in Africa. Western women, they have more opportunity than us: study, life, economical empowerment. I think that women can change the world in a better way, now. But if they get self-confidence, and they know how they are powerful to do something, they can do it. I will share an example: One day, after they attacked me, I went to Uganda. I said, “I want to transfer my people to your country.” They said, “If you come, we will give you 15 miles of land.” But I have shelter, I have water, I have food, I have a school, I have an hospital for my people. I said, “I want these items.” They said, “We cannot. We are the government.” I said, “But you are a government, and I am one woman.” And they said, “No, these things can only come from the U.N. Many states united, they can do this.” And these things I have done alone, my whole life. I am one woman. They are stronger than me because they have opportunity. They have to change the world in a better way. They have to help us, really. Our children are very skinny, dying from starvation. Old people and the handicapped are dying of starvation. They may change our lives. They may change lives all over the world. The women of the 21st century are very powerful, and I appreciate them. I send them my greeting.

This transcript has been modified for clarity purposes.

– Transcribed by Lauren Hutchison