Edna saw first-hand how poor healthcare, lack of education and ancient superstitions had devastating effects on Somaliland’s people, especially its women. When she suffered the trauma of FGM herself as a young girl at the bidding of her mother, Edna’s determination was set.
The first midwife to practise in Somaliland, Edna became a formidable teacher and campaigner for women’s health. As her country was swept up in its bloody fight for independence, Edna rose to become its First Lady and first female cabinet minister.
She built her own hospital, brick by brick, training future generations in what has been hailed as one of the Horn of Africa’s finest university hospitals
This book ‘A Woman of Firsts’ is Edna’s truly remarkable story.
Mogadishu, Somalia, 1975
‘Come with me,’ I told the military director of Medina Hospital, seconds after bursting into his office unannounced. ‘I need you to shoot a baby.’
The colonel, sitting at his desk in uniform with gold braid and pips on his epaulettes, looked up at me aghast. ‘What?’
Spotting a weapon lying on his desk, I grabbed it and waved it at him. ‘Is this your pistol? I presume it’s loaded?’
‘Y-yes, Edna,’ he faltered, as his lieutenant drew his own gun and stepped forward protectively. ‘B-but…’
‘Then bring it with you, follow me back to the maternity ward, and shoot a premature baby,’ I repeated. ‘Isn’t that what you carry a gun for – to kill people?’
‘I don’t understand,’ he pleaded, palms turned to the ceiling.
Leaning across his desk and staring straight into his eyes, I told him, ‘Then let me explain. I haven’t slept for the last three days. I’ve been caring for a premature baby in the only incubator I possess, a generous gift from a patient. I’ve been feeding this tiny infant through a pipette. She’s a fighter and she’s trying to stay alive but the oxygen level on the incubator is running out. I sent a nurse to you twice this morning to ask for a replacement cylinder. Half an hour ago it was returned unfilled with the message that we’re using too much oxygen and putting your hospital in the red.’
I paused to watch him squirming in his seat. ‘When the oxygen runs out in less than an hour,’ I continued, ‘that little baby weighing less than a kilo will gasp painfully for her final breath as I watch helplessly with her mother. If you’re really planning to murder this baby then I must insist you come with me now and end it quickly. Then you can show the whole world how brave you really are.’
The colonel’s face froze. He didn’t move or speak. Seething, I grabbed the document he’d been reading, flipped it over and scribbled on the back the following promise: ‘If I don’t receive oxygen within the next fifteen minutes and – without question – every time that I ask for it thereafter, I, Edna Adan Ismail, herewith declare that I will take no more responsibility for the patients in my care at this hospital.’ I signed and dated my declaration and, before anyone could stop me, I picked up a bottle of Superglue, squirted it generously over the back of the piece of paper, and stuck it with force to the door on my way out.
Still fuming, I drove back as fast as I could in my little Fiat to the maternity ward that was at the far end of the vast hospital grounds. The facility had been built by the Italians when my husband, Mohamed Egal, was Prime Minister. I’d attended its grand opening and visited as First Lady.
There were still photos of me hanging on the walls. Since 1972, I’d been a mere employee – the head of the maternity department until today, when I looked set to quit for the sake of a premature baby.
I didn’t much care about the consequences at that point. I was far too weary to worry. I’d empty my desk and walk away. After all, what more could the regime do to me? They’d already taken my home and my belongings; they’d broken up my marriage; they’d imprisoned, harassed and interrogated both my husband and me. They’d even shot my beloved cheetah. My only concern was for the three-day-old girl fighting for her life in an incubator.
I hurried to the ward where the baby’s mother was waiting anxiously for news. Her hands in supplication, she asked, ‘Will they send more oxygen?’
I shrugged. ‘I don’t honestly know, but let’s prepare to take your baby to the Martini Hospital just in case. The doctors there won’t let your daughter die.’
Before we could unplug the machine and wrap the baby in a blanket with a portable oxygen mask, a breathless soldier appeared carrying the cylinder I’d requested. ‘The director sent me,’ he said, wiping the sweat from his brow as he put down the heavy canister.
‘About time,’ I said, pointing to where I needed it to be rolled so that I could connect it to the machine. ‘You can tell him from me that he must never, ever refuse me anything like this again. This oxygen isn’t for me, it is for a sick little baby and I never want to fight about this again.’
The soldier agreed to carry my message but then stood around sheepishly.
‘The director says to tell you one last thing,’ he added, looking ready to make a run for it. ‘He asks that next time you promise not to use Superglue.’
Turning away to hide my smile, I nodded and waved him away.
‘The Muslim Mother Teresa’–The Huffington Post
‘As tough as General Petraeus, as compassionate as the Pope, as tireless as Michael Phelps, as beautiful as Tina Turner, and with a work ethic to rival Bill Gates.’–Kirsty Young, Desert Island Discs
About the author
Edna Adan Ismail was Foreign Minister of Somaliland from 2003 to 2006, and had previously served as Somaliland’s Minister of Family Welfare and Social Development.She is the director and founder of the Edna Adan Maternity Hospital in Hargeisa and an activist and pioneer in the struggle for the abolition of female genital mutilation. She is also President of the Organization for Victims of Torture.She was married to Mohamed Haji Ibrahim Egal who was Head of Government in British Somaliland five days prior to Somalia’s independence and later the Prime Minister of Somalia (1967–69) and President of Somaliland.
Read: A Woman of Firsts