Reviewed by: Mousse Abdi

This article was written by Mohamoud Ahmed Ali’s friend Mr. Tyree, the director of the Institute of Education at New York University. Mr. Tyree collaborated with Mohamoud Ahmed Ali on a number of educational projects in Somali republic.

Mohamoud Ahmed Ali appeared destined to live the nomadic life of a herdsman, as do the majority of Somalis today, having been born in the region of Africa formerly known as British Somaliland. His early years as a boy were spent caring for sheep and goats while he waited impatiently for the opportunity to prove his mettle as a geeljiri. He spent little time at school.

The proud Somalis, who have a great religion and a culture admirably adapted to a land overly blessed with sun and sand, were very wary of attempts by Western Christians to colonize their nation and educate their children in those days. In the early decades of the twenty-first century, it was nearly universally regarded as sacrilege to speak favorably of secular education. Despite popular belief, Mohamoud Ahmed Ali did complete his education. He had to leave his home country in order to do this, first studying in the Sudan and then in Britain. Mohamoud returned to Somaliland after spending seven years in the Sudan and started working in government.

He organized classes and volunteered his teaching services to government employees and others out of his aspirations for the Somali people. While some British officials dissuaded him from this activity, others encouraged him. But when he repeatedly petitioned the British Colonial Office to set up a school for boys, all he got in return was the discouraging sound of silence. When permission was given to open the school in 1936, the silence was at last broken.

Mohamoud Ahmed Ali and a few of his supporters were pleased with the decision, but the religious authorities were adamantly opposed to it. The use of the Somali language as a teaching and communication medium was a major point of contention. The religious authorities would accept nothing but Arabic. When the new Somali Education Department did, however, accept English, new opposition arose on the grounds that secular education, even if delivered in Arabic, could not be approved by Islam if the instructors were non-Muslims.

He was viciously attacked, and the parents who supported his cause had their sons’ marriages ruled invalid. The opening of the school in Berbera, a sea port on the Gulf of Aden, was postponed until 1938 due to strongly expressed public sentiment. Due to the Italian invasion of British Somaliland in 1940, it then had a brief existence. Mohamoud fled to the Colony of Aden to pursue his dream after the military occupation thwarted his attempts to provide secular education to the Somali people. Mohamoud Ahmed redoubled his educational efforts after the British took back Somaliland.

In response to a letter sent to the British East African headquarters in Nairobi, 19 pounds ($53.20) were designated for Somali education in 1944. A hut that housed 16 boys in a classroom once again served as Berbera’s school. There was only one reading text in each of Arabic and English. However, 21,000 pounds were allocated for education the following year. More suitable housing was constructed, and an increase in educational facilities at the rate of one elementary school per year was promised.

The expansion program’s implementation was not without issues. For instance, a meeting with the Burao town elders was held to talk about starting a school. The plan was approved by the elders, but the majority of the populace and the religious authorities opposed it. Mohamoud Ahmed and the British director of education were observed leaving the meeting and entering a Koranic school. Mohamoud Ahmed and his British companion were stoned during the ensuing riot. Before order could be restored, police opened fire on the rioters, killing two men. Mohamoud Ahmed was excommunicated from Islam in this same town by the religious authorities, which once more caused problems in his marriage and the marriages of the parents of those students.

When faced with such challenges, a man of lesser stature would have given up on his goal of bringing secular education to Somaliland. However, Mohamoud Ahmed persisted in fighting, and he was not fighting by himself. His spirits were lifted by the encouragement of men like Haji Bahnan, who was among the first parents to enroll his son in school, and Haji Farrah, whose daughter later enrolled in the first class for girls. Today, these respected elders speak highly of Mohamoud Ahmed’s courage as well as his justice, impartiality, and capacity for forgiveness toward those who gave him violently harsh rewards for his efforts.

Abdi Said worked as a staff member at Sheikh’s first intermediate school. He describes Mohamoud Ahmed’s efforts to impart these qualities to the teachers who were subjected to public criticism, as well as how he started his workday at four in the morning to not only get himself ready for the day’s tasks but also to assist less experienced teachers with their lesson plans.

Additionally, they discuss the humiliations they endured for taking part in this unpopular venture as well as some of the humiliations they themselves engineered, some of which were directed at the man they now revere. Because of his vision and commitment, all of them—including architects, businesspeople, engineers, government officials, lawyers, doctors, teachers, and citizens—have become what they are today. Perhaps they are better able to tell the story of Mohamoud Ahmed’s work than they realize. They voluntarily admit this. A modest educational system had grown out of the seed Mohamoud Ahmed had planted and nurtured by the time Somaliland attained independence in June 1960.

His former students were able to assume control of the government after the British withdrew, and secondary school graduates were pursuing higher education abroad. Mohamoud Ahmed was named the new country’s director-general of education shortly after Somaliland and what had been Italian Somalia merged to form the Somali Republic. He held that position for two years and applied the same enthusiasm, long hours, and dedication that distinguished his earlier career to the educational challenges present in a newly independent country. Bringing 45 US Peace Corps teachers to the Somali Republic was one of his final official acts before his retirement in 1962.

They met and liked Mohamoud Ahmed there. As they learned about his contributions, they saw the greatness that he possessed. When he was denied promotion for 14 years in the British colonial civil service but later received an honorary membership in the Civil Division of the Order of the British Empire and a medal at Queen Elizabeth’s 1953 coronation, this man, who had worked so hard and successfully to establish a system of education for his country, who stood between his fellow countrymen and their British “protectors” and was rewarded by suspicion from both sides, saw retirement as an opportunity. He spent all of his time caring for animals. But his retirement was quickly cut short by the needs of his country. He was asked to represent his country in discussions about the Kenyan Northern Frontier District and at conferences held abroad. He currently works as a part-time consultant for the Department of Education despite his desire to be with his animals and live a fully traditional Somali life.