In conversation with the pioneer who has been fighting to improve the health of mothers and children in Somaliland for four decades


The first time I meet Edna Adan, founder of Somaliland's first maternity hospital and former foreign minister of Somaliland, she asks me how much a tank costs. We’re at the NY Africa Forum in Gabon, where she is about to give a formidable talk about her life’s work. The first qualified midwife in Somaliland, the first woman in Somaliland to study in the UK and the former First Lady of Somalia, while at the WHO in the 1980s she was also one of the first women leaders to publicly call for an end to female genital mutilation. A couple of decades later, the Edna Adan Maternity Hospital opened (in 2002), on the site of a former rubbish dump in Hargesya.

Gracious but imposing, Adan is not a woman to be messed with, so I dutifully Google ‘How much does a tank cost?’ on my mobile. It is only afterwards it occurs to me that for an Eritrean and a Somalilander to be discussing the prices of tanks might raise more than an eyebrow in some circles. But MI6 can relax because Adan, who was given a Legion of Honour by President Nicholas Sarkozy in 2010, only wishes to illustrate how many midwives she could train for the price of one killing machine. Later she tells me that while she once used to measure her worth in handbags and frocks, now she thinks of everything in terms of bedpans and syringes. She sold her Mercedes, her jewellery and cashed in her WHO pension to fund the hospital. And that’s just the beginning. Read on...

Do you think we can end FGM in one generation? 

I wish we could. I’m 76 years old and 40 years ago, when we started the fight I thought with the energy that we put into it, we would. But of the women who come into the pre-natal clinic in my hospital 98% of them have had some form of FGM. I have no doubt that it will end one day. I hope your generation will end it and if not, your children must carry that message forward: it has no place.   

What are your views on prosecutions for FGM?

It’s a campaign that’s long overdue. The resources being deployed right now are welcome, but more of the campaign needs to be undertaken on the ground in the countries where the problem is prevalent. It needs to go to villages, to grandmothers, to fathers and to families. It’s not legislation or more resolution that will end it. We’ve had several resolutions in the past, we fought for those resolutions and I’m glad we got them. But we have not done enough on the ground in developing countries where the practice is taking place. Legislation is also vital. Particularly if this crime is committed by a health care professional, if those who have been trained to protect life engage in activities that are damaging, then they should have to pay the price for it. 

You’ve been campaigning for women’s rights for over 40 years, do you ever feel exhausted?

No, gosh! I’m delighted and energised by the progress we’ve made, by the achievements we’ve been able to make against many odds. I’m grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to achieve this for my people and I hope others learn from it. If an old, retired woman can do it, anybody can do it. I still teach, I still deliver babies, I attend conferences and I still make my voice heard, because I want to empower the next generation. Nobody will come from the moon to solve African’s problems, we, as Africans must take our responsibilities to solve our problems. I do not have the financial resources I had before I built the hospital, but I am much richer today, because of the people I have trained and the thousands of people the hospital has helped. We have delivered 15,000 babies since the hospital opened and we have lost, sadly, 51 mothers. Those 51 mothers died of causes we could have prevented if they had been brought to us sooner, if they had had pre-natal care from a professional. I have committed myself to training 1,000 midwives for Somaliland, but we need to train 1million midwives for Africa. That will respond to the millennium development goals for Africa. 

Do you identify with the label of feminism? 

I identify with what is good for both men and women. I don’t discriminate against the welfare of men any more than I discriminate against the welfare of women. Women have rights to education, women have rights to job opportunities, women have rights to decision making in their own lives, and in the lives of their family and community. And if that is termed feminism, then so be it. 

Why do you think there aren’t more African women leaders in politics?

Back in the 1950s when I first went to England, very often I was a lone ranger. I would be in a class where I’d be the only black face. I’d be in a job situation where I’d be the only non-white person among the team. Education was what was keeping us back in those days. But as more women are becoming educated, more powerful women are appearing on the scene of the world. I see them in the World Bank, I see them in academia, I see them in institutions of learning and power that have in the past been reserved only for men. Times have changed.

Hannah Pool is curator of talks and debates for the Africa Utopia and WOW festivals at the South Bank Centre, London. This year’s Africa Utopia is 10-14 September.

Photography Liba Taylor
Words Hannah Pool