The next time you feel despair for the state of the world, think of Mama Hawa, a woman fighting famine and disease on a daily basis with enough spirit to maintain an entire community.
Just outside Mogadishu, Somalia, deemed one of the most dangerous countries on earth, one woman is fighting against the status quo with a level of courage that has been compared to that of Mother Theresa.
Dr. Hawa Abdi, known as Mama Hawa, runs a hospital, school, and clinic on a refugee camp that supports nearly 100,000 people. Most of those who benefit are refugees who fled the fighting and poverty that has plagued Somalia for decades.
Eliza Griswold, who wrote about the compound in her book The Tenth Parallel, said, “Mostly out of sheer moxie, Dr. Hawa and her daughters have built a city of healing within the war’s brutal chaos.”
A Broad Picture
Somalia is a country that is constantly on the brink of a full-blown famine. It has been rife with civl war for 20 years. Very little infrastructure remains. There is no healthcare, very few hospitals, and a government with control of just a few city blocks. Warlords swept across the country when the government collapsed and brought with them an Islamic insurgency that continues to contribute to and maintain Somalia’s tragic state. For a more detailed summary, click here.
May 5, 2010
“Why are you running this hospital?” the gunman demanded. “You are old. And you are a woman!”
Just after sunrise on May 5th, 750 militants surrounded Dr. Hawa’s hospital, holding her captive at gunpoint and under house arrest for five days. They completely shut down her operations, causing 24 children to die after their families fled in fear. While the commanders held Dr. Hawa hostage, the soldiers, mostly 15 and 16-year-old boys, ransacked the premises, shooting machines, tearing up records, and smashing windows.
The gunmen reportedly belonged to one of Somalia’s most notorious militant Islamist organizations, known for cutting off hands and stoning adulterers.
But these gunmen were met with an unexpected force. Hundreds of women from the refugee camp garnered the courage to protest against these militants and, along with condemnation from Somalis abroad, forced them to back down.
These warlords did not simply “back down,” however. At the request of Mama Hawa, they apologized in writing for shutting down the hospital and holding her hostage. Though they did so grudgingly, they did it nonetheless.
And Mama Hawa took the opportunity to challenge the gunmens’ contribution to society. “I told the gunmen, ‘I’m not leaving my hospital … If I die,’ I told them, ‘I will die with my people and my dignity. You are young and you are a man, but what have you done for your society?’ ”
A Haven of Healing
Dr. Hawa started a one-room woman’s clinic in 1983, with the permission of the country’s president at the time (who also happened to be the last president with central governmental control). She encouraged women to have their babies delivered with her.
“I used to think and dream that one day I, myself, could save lives so no other mother would die helpless,” she said.
This one-room clinic has grown exponentially and today has 400 beds, three operating rooms, six doctors (her two daughters included), 43 nurses, and 800 students who are learning how to cook nutritious meals and make clothes.
Dr. Hawa herself has delivered babies with Caesarean sections and also extracted bullet fragments. The daily challenges of Somalia are certainly not strangers to Dr. Hawa’s hospital. Diseases such as measles, malaria, diarrhea, epilepsy, tuberculosis and life-threatening malnutrition rear their heads in countless patients.
In this haven of healing, there are also some security guards and a few very important rules. Among them: no man may beat his wife.
On Their Own
Most Somalis have given up on their government helping them, Dr. Hawa included. When asked why she didn’t call on the government to help her on that fateful May 5th day, she simply laughed and replied, “they can’t do nothing. They are only in the state house and they can’t go out.”
When the militants were in control of Dr. Hawa’s compound, albiet briefly, they raised a black flag to symbolize their presence. “As soon as they left, we pulled it down and put up a white one,” says Dr. Hawa.
Never let it be said that this white flag means surrender. Quite to the contrary, Dr. Hawa and her hospital intend to persevere for decades to come. May we all take some courage from the tenacity of these incredibly brave and strong women.
In the Face of Danger
So much about this story is remarkable that simply telling the facts does not do it justice. In one of the poorest, war-ridden countries on the planet, one woman has changed the lives of thousands of people. Because she had the courage and sheer will to be a leader and deliver services that were so desperately needed. The government may be useless, but Dr. Hawa has created a haven of healing and relative safety in the face of danger that those in power cannot even dare to imagine. That is a true hero.