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Edna Adan Ismail, Somali nurse-midwife, awarded 2023 Templeton Prize

16 May 2023


Edna Adan Ismail

Edna Adan Ismail

THE winner of this year’s Templeton Prize is Edna Adan Ismail, the first black African woman to receive the honour.

A nurse-midwife who founded both a hospital and university in her home city of Hargeisa, Somaliland, Edna Adan has spent more than 40 years championing women’s health in East Africa, including campaigning for an end to the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM).

Edna Adan had “used the teachings of her faith, the influence of her family, and her education in science to improve the health and opportunities of some of the world’s most vulnerable women and girls,” Heather Templeton Dill, president of the John Templeton Foundation, said on Tuesday.

“Driven by a passionate belief in women’s innate dignity and divine-given potential, she has enacted a transformation of female health in her native land. Drawing on the doctrines of the Muslim faith, she has employed her positions of authority to argue passionately that, despite what some have believed, female circumcision is against the teachings of Islam, and deeply harmful to women.”

The £1.1-million prize, established by the late global investor and philanthropist Sir John Templeton, honours those who “harness the power of the sciences to explore the deepest questions of the universe and humankind’s place and purpose within it.” The prize was first given 50 years ago to Mother Teresa. Other winners have included Archbishop Desmond Tutu (2013) and Dame Cicely Saunders (1981).

Edna Adan said that she would use the money to support and expand the work of the Edna Adan Hospital. This would include funding for medical equipment, hiring educators, and training “the next generation of healthcare workers that East Africa so desperately needs”.

Edna Adan was born in 1937 in Hargeisa, the capital of what was then British Somaliland. Her father was a prominent doctor, often described as the father of medical care in the country, and her mother was the daughter of the postmaster general. It was a mixed marriage: her father was Muslim and her mother Roman Catholic.

Education for girls was not the norm, and Edna Adan was covertly tutored alongside her brother until she was 15, before going to school in Djibouti. A scholarship normally reserved for boys enabled her to study in the United Kingdom — the first Somali girl to do so. She studied nursing and midwifery at the Borough Polytechnic, now South Bank University, where she was often the only black woman in the room, and trained at hospitals in Hammersmith and Lewisham.

It was her father who encouraged her to pursue midwifery, where the need was greatest. One of his favourite expressions, she has recalled, was: “If you cannot do it with your heart, your hands will never do it.”

In an interview on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs, in 2017, she recalled her father’s compassion. Holding a bowl under the jaw of an elderly patient while her father lanced an abscess, she had been unable to hide her distaste. Her father had later told her: “Don’t you ever dare show such an ugly face to my patients. That old man was even more precious than his firstborn.”

She returned to Somaliland in 1961 as its first professionally trained nurse-midwife. Nursing was seen as “below the dignity of the daughter of a doctor”, she told the BBC. Friends of her mother asked: “Who will ever want to marry her?” Today, families told her that they wanted their daughters to follow in her footsteps, she said.

She was also the first woman to gain a driving licence in the country, having learned in the UK, and the first to be appointed to a position of political authority as director of the Ministry of Health. She was for a time the First Lady of Somalia, as the wife of Mohamed Haji Ibrahim Egal, Prime Minister of a united Somalia in the late 1960s. During this time, she continued to work as a nurse.

She was placed under house arrest for six months after a military coup in 1969 and the assassination of the President. She was able to leave after a public request for all healthcare professionals to come to hospital to treat wounded people.

After the outbreak of civil war in Somalia in the 1980s, she joined the World Health Organization (WHO) as an adviser on maternal and child health, and, from 1991 until 1997, she served as WHO representative to Djibouti. She left this career to realise a childhood dream to build a brand-new hospital in her homeland. A quarter of a million people had been killed in the conflict, and much of Hargeisa had been destroyed.

After Somaliland declared independence in 1991 (it remains unrecognised by the international community), the new government offered her land that had previously been used as an execution ground and rubbish dump, near to the slums where her potential patients lived. What was once, in her words, “an ulcer in the centre of town”, went on to become a place of healing.

Edna Adan sold all her assets, including her dishwasher and microwave, to fund the hospital, and raised more funding from around the world after a profile was published in The New York Times. She lived on site during the hospital’s construction, and continues to call it home.

The jewellery that she sold had been a “burden” she told the BBC. “Today I am free, I am liberated. I use my jewellery every day because I spent that money to put in toilets, and the washtaps and the washbasins . . . and so do several hundred people in the hospital.”

Opened in 2002, the Edna Adan Maternity Hospital now treats patients from all over Somaliland, and from neighbouring countries. It was established, Edna Adan told the BBC, “for that poor woman who has nothing, who is bleeding, who is dying, and who has nowhere else to go”. The maternal mortality rate in Somaliland has been reduced by up to 75 per cent.

The hospital’s education programme for nurses expanded to become the Edna Adan University in 2010. To date, it has trained more than 4000 healthcare professionals, including doctors and nurses who have gone on to serve throughout East Africa. More than 30,000 babies have been safely delivered at the hospital, at which 80 per cent of the staff are female. The chief surgeon is a woman.

Edna Adan has held positions in the Somaliland government: as the first and only female cabinet member in 2002 as Minister of Social Affairs, and as the Minister of Foreign Affairs from 2003 to 2006.

Edna Adan’s mother subjected her to FGM at the age of eight, without her father’s knowledge. She described in an interview with the Berkley Center at Georgetown University how his angry reaction “planted the seeds of my sense of injustice”. She has recalled “pain, pain that I have never known the same since”. Her wound was sutured with acacia thorns.

As a midwife in Somaliland, she observed the effects of FGM on childbirth, an experience that caused her to recall her own pain. She began to campaign against FGM after a conference in Sudan, in 1976, at which male and female medical professionals from Muslim countries were “rebelling against it”. She argues that education is more important than legislation, which can force the practice underground.

When she had first started speaking out about FGM, very few would listen, she told the BBC. “They would think it was rude, impolite, and shameful to be talking about reproductive parts of the woman’s body.” But progress has been made. Her ongoing campaign includes the provision of Somali-language materials to reach the local population and religious leaders. She hopes that members of the diaspora will help to change the minds of families in their home countries.

“It is contrary to all the known religions of the world,” she says, in a short biographical film, Different For a Good Cause, produced for the Templeton Foundation. “Islam does not accept, Islam forbids female circumcision. . . It is a moral issue, a moral obligation. It is a responsibility. God has shown me this.”

In a Q&A with the foundation, Edna Adan said: “At the beginning of my activism against FGM, I consulted with religious scholars, who told me that female circumcision is not supported by Islam but is forbidden by it. Still this cruel practice persists. It is my belief that religious leaders need to take a stronger, more vocal position against the cutting of little girls.

“It is important to note that the majority of Muslim countries do not subject their daughters to the old traditional practice of FGM, which remains to be practised in just a few countries in the Equatorial belt in Africa and by an ever fewer number of groups in Asia.”

Asked which religious practices gave her strength, she replied: “I draw strength from the pillars of Islam, which include kindness and charity. In my work, I see God in the birth of a baby, in the healing of sickness, and in the beauty of nature.”

In the Berkley Center interview, she said: “For me, religion is not only about rituals, but also about how you live your religion. It is about kindness and charity, leaving a clean and honest life. I live my religion through my acts, through the way I work with poor people, students, patients, and colleagues. . . It is doing unto others what you would have them do unto you. It is about going that extra mile to help others and to love them.”

She has not had her own children, and told the BBC that, while praying for “just one or two children, I think that God had four million more for me”.

Her many awards and recognitions include: Officier de la Légion d’Honneur; an honorary doctorate from London South Bank University; and an honorary fellowship from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. She will deliver the Templeton Prize lecture later this year in London.

“Childbirth is that moment when, particularly when you follow that pregnancy from nothing for months and you hear that heartbeat, you hear a life inside another human being, and to hear it cry and breathe, that is when you feel the power of God,” she said in Different For a Good Cause.

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