Edna Adan Ismail had wanted to build a hospital since she was 11 years old. Today, her facility in Hargeisa saves women’s lives every day—and has reduced the maternal mortality rate by one-fourth.

As an 11-year-old growing up in Somaliland, then a British protectorate, Edna Adan Ismail had a powerful dream. “I wanted to build a hospital,” she recalls. “One that my father would like.” Edna’s dad was a widely beloved but overworked doctor in a poorly equipped government hospital with little medicine, and she lent a hand when she could. “My playground was the hospital,” she says, “and my father was my hero. I’d cut up sheets for bandages, wash the forceps. I wished I knew more to be able to help him out.”

“I sold everything I had, recycled my whole life. I am just a crazy old lady!”

It took more than half a century, but her dream has come gloriously true. The Edna Adan University Hospital in Hargeisa has just celebrated its eighth birthday–a 50-bed facility that is the largest privately built hospital in Somaliland. And it wasn’t just Ismail’s money that made it happen. “Every brick that was laid, every nail that was pounded, I was there,” she says proudly. “I sold everything I had, recycled my whole life. I am just a crazy old lady!”

Hardly. Despite her own privileged circumstances, young Edna faced the same discrimination that kept the entire region’s women down: no schools for girls. “It wasn’t right to teach a girl,” she said, explaining the tradition. “They thought nothing good would come of it. Who would ever want to marry a girl who read and wrote?” So the child who was so taken with medicine—“I saw my first birth and my first death before I was a teen. I felt I’d been given a small peephole into what the world looked like”—was sent away to school, and ultimately became the first female in her country to win a scholarship to England. There she studied nursing and midwifery, and came back home in 1961 as the first qualified Somali nurse-midwife. That’s the first ever.
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Once again she had to confront centuries of bias against girls. “I would ask them to come help me register the patients, and I’d have to get permission from their fathers. They’d say, ‘I don’t want my girl to work in a hospital and catch diseases.’ Or, ‘Will she be working with men?’” Slowly, Ismail prevailed.

Even as her life expanded into the public realm—her husband became Somaliland’s prime minister–she continued to work in another hospital, proudly donning her uniform to teach and to deliver babies. “I was teaching the young women how to talk to patients, to pregnant women, to respect human rights and dignity.”

Revolution interrupted her work, and she spent several decades with the United Nations. By the time she returned to Somaliland in 1997 and started building the hospital, she was so well respected, she joined the new government, ultimately becoming Foreign Minister. Today, she says with confidence, “I am my own minister.” But she continues to work for her people, training, in addition to nurse-midwives, lab technicians and the first pharmacists in her country. “The government isn’t doing it,” she tells me. “The biggest gift I want to leave behind is not a building, but the skills I leave with the women. I want to train 1,000 midwives.”

Her progress so far is astounding. Since the hospital opened, they have delivered more than 9,500 women and lost only 39. “That’s 39 too many,” she laments, nonetheless delighted that they have reduced the maternal mortality rate by one-fourth. In 1988, the last time a study was done, there were 160 deaths per 10,000 births in Somaliland, making it the third worst in the world. “Women are dying of complications nobody is picking up,” she explains. “Because nobody is there to support them, care for them, or deliver them. They are getting infected, torn apart. No woman should die of childbirth, because modern obstetrics has ways to save them.” The challenge: “ignorance, poverty, and harmful traditions.”

Those are also the culprits in her other lifelong cause: ending the practice now called Female Genital Mutilation. When she started speaking out–to the embarrassment of her husband–it was simply Female Circumcision. “No one would talk about it then. I was the first Somali woman to pick up a microphone.” And despite all the publicity in recent years she says, “We have not cracked the surface of it. I am giving out a document at the conference showing a new survey of 4.000 women. Of them, 97 percent, shamefully, had been cut. After 34 years of campaigning. We’re nowhere near winning that battle.”

But Edna Adan Ismail takes comfort that now, “we have the whole world talking about it, it’s out of the closet.” And she’s working on a new project, a picture book in the Somali language to illustrate the pros and cons (with emphasis on the cons) of the practice.

“It will be one more gun that we haven’t used before,” she announces with confidence.

Crazy old lady, indeed.

by Lynn Sherr

Lynn Sherr is a former ABC News correspondent, author of Failure Is Impossible: Susan B. Anthony in Her Own Words and Tall Blondes, a book about giraffes. She is also co-editor of Peter Jennings: A Reporter’s Life. Her most recent book, a memoir—Outside the Box: My Unscripted Life of Love, Loss and Television News—is out in paperback.

Source: The Daily Beast, 13th March 2010


  1. You can tell how Ignorant most American Media are when it comes to Somali Issues. Here is this famous writer Lynne Sheer, interviewing Adna Adan and still can't differatiate between Mogadishu and Hargiesa.
    I'm very sure Adna didnot say her Hospital is in Mogadishu, but the Interviewer is not paying attention to Interviewee.

  2. I am not surprised, most if not the majority of Americans are cluless, you talking about them having hard time differentiating Mogadishu and Hargeisa, but if you ask them is Africa a continent or a country, most of them will tell you its a country some where near Afghistan or Iraq (since their media talks a lot about these two places since the invasions).

    Only the elite have some clues and the rest is abused and taken advantage by bombarding them with propaganda messages through their "mass media" mainly controled by the Jews.

    Americans are very dumb people. They think the world is "America" and America has "everything" and everyone out side America is "dying and poor".

    • What kind of nonsense is that? I am an American. Sure, there are lots of "clueless" Americans. But, to classify "all Americans" as "dumb and clueless" isn't right. That is like me saying, "all Somalis are violent extremists." Is that true? Of course not. We need to stop this harsh dialogue, because it is poisonous for everyone.

  3. I swear I read this article on Hiiraan just a minute ago, and it said Hargeisa there. This must be an error made by Somalilandpress not the interviewer.
    You can check yourselves. It is Hiiraan.org

    This is very strange.

    • The error is from the original source and I guess Hiiraan Online corrected but actually that is not allowed or atleast its unprofessional from my personal opinion, you should not alter, add or edit other people's work.

      Take it as it is with all errors or leave it. The best thing to do is write to them and let them know that the mistake is there.

      Somalilandpress is right not to fix it.

  4. Dr. Sharmarke,

    Sorry, I disagree with you, I have read Hiiraan on-line too, it has the same mistake, it has nothing to do with Somalilandpress. Though, as informed reporters, they the Somalilandpress should have corrected it. I believe it's the Interviewer who made a mistake here.

    • I am not talking about the headline, I am talking about the boady of the artical. Read it yourself here http://www.hiiraan.com/news2/2010/Mar/somaliland_


      I haven't seen the original source of this, but if any of the sites, Hiiraan and Somalilandpress, had made individual alternation, then, it is unprofessional and unethical. You are right, the original source should correct the error not those who are using the information as secondary.

  5. Layla.
    I strong believe wrong information can mislead the readers, i always knew Edna Adan hospital was located in Hargeisa, but when the article put it Mogadishu i thought it is another Hospital which i was not aware of. i think whoever mistake it is should change as soon they realised it.

  6. Sort your self out somalilandpress and Hiiraan news arguments out side this plsss be professional,

  7. Great story about a Somali woman! I hope she has inspired many young girls to do something for their community. No one should give up on their land. Instead, they should offer the little they have to make it a better place.

  8. Wow, that is a great error, I read it through twice to see if I was reading this right. Mogadishu…I know Adna Hospital is Hargeisa, but oh well…this needs to be corrected though…

  9. Thanks to Adna Adan, for her strong inspiring work, yes she has done good thing helping the women , trained girls, thanks again. the one thing that I would advise to the gilrs is to use the education and opportunity in their country and not outside, the outside world do not need you, its your fellow women here that need you. if you are from rural area is the most important go there and trained your fellow women and give them what you have for them to help themselves.

    About the site of the hospital we all know it is in Hargeisa, so do not worry.

    Thanks again my dear sister Adna.