Development economists’ debate if institutions or infrastructure are more important for a nation’s development. Edna Adan Ismail, the retired Somali politician, has done both.
It is thus not surprising this year that Ismail received the Templeton Prize that comes with an award of $1.3 million. It is believed to be the largest monetary prize ever won by an African woman.
“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,” said Heather Templeton Dill, president of the John Templeton Foundation, in a press release. “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.”
Ismail sold her car and poured her life savings into turning a former landfill into one of the better hospitals in rural Somalia that has a fraction of the mortality rates elsewhere in the country.
Her Templeton Prize is the latest chapter for one of the most remarkable women on the planet. Ismail is a former nurse, diplomat and foreign minister of Somaliland who retired to launch the Edna Adan Hospital in Hargeisa to provide competent medical care for those living in the region.
Born the daughter of a Somali doctor, she was afforded opportunities that many of the other residents of British Somaliland were not. She didn’t hesitate in seizing them, becoming the first woman to get a driver’s license and later the first Somali woman to study abroad. After completing her studies at Borough Polytechnic, now London South Bank University, she became her country’s first nurse.
She married the first prime minister of Somalia, and as the country’s first lady, she met many world leaders. An image on the wall behind the desk in her modest office shows a meeting between the heads of both the United States and Somalia. In the photo, she is seen standing next to then-U.S. President Lyndon B Johnson and the first lady at a White House event.
Yet, her life took a turn for the worse when Siad Biarre, a Somali military officer, seized the country and soon imposed a cruel form of communism.
“I was arrested several times. Thrown in jail and spent some 6 months under house arrest subject to random interrogations, because I wasn’t a communist” she said in a 2013 interview. “I was called an antirevolutionary, a capitalist pig, an imperialist stooge, and a foreign agent — and they punished me. So when I got my passport back in 1975, I fled.”
Her first marriage collapsed, and she married twice more, though never having children. With her medical training and language skills, she worked at the World Health Organization and pretty soon had a career in the World Health Organization focusing on Africa, the Eastern Mediterranean, and Afghanistan. She also lived briefly in Libya under King Idris.
She long dreamed of building a hospital in Mogadishu and slowly put away funds for the project, but before it was finished in the early 1980s, a civil war broke out.
“I have deeds and documents, of course, but it means little when someone uses force. I haven’t been back to Mogadishu to see it, but I heard that when the Americans were there for “Operation: Restore Hope,” the hospital site was rented to the Marines as a container storage depot.”
The failed venture cost her over $100,000 that could have helped her hospital.
After retirement and a stint in Somaliland politics, she briefly parlayed her experience as a WHO bureaucrat to become foreign minister of Somalia’s breakaway northern region. Somaliland is an unrecognized state that has been nominally independent since the early 1990s. She was the first woman in its cabinet. She has had to fund some of the operations of the ministry herself.
Her religious convictions and medical skills told her that health, not politics, was her calling. Upon returning to Somaliland, she sold her car and began planning for the Edna Ismail Maternity Hospital and University, which opened in 2002.
“[My] plan was always a maternity hospital, but the reality has dictated that there is much more needed than a maternity hospital,” she said. “It is now a general hospital: There are very often more male patients than female patients.”
She also opened a small university on the higher floors of her hospital to train Somaliland’s next generation of medical staff and started a modest medical school.
“We had 150 students in our first year and 180 in the second year,” she said. She also puts a premium on making sure that instruction is given in English, “the international language of medicine,” she said at the time. Despite her age, she frequently checked up on the classes to make sure the level of instruction was held high.
As the Templeton Prize recognizes these achievements and her committed fight to end female genital mutilation, of which she herself was a victim. Like most, she argues that the practice is cultural and not religious — pointing out that Islam widely condemns mutilation. The experience may be one of the reasons she says she was never able to have children.