By: Kate Grant
Who’s Edna Adan? The short answer: she’s a nurse-midwife, founder of a hospital bearing her name, who’s saving and changing the lives of tens of thousands of people in Somaliland — a place not even recognized as a country. She’s also a Muslim.
Edna is as tough as General Petraeus, as compassionate as the Pope, as tireless as Michael Phelps, as beautiful at 75 as Tina Turner, and has a ‘get-it-done-no-excuses” work ethic to rival Bill Gates. I would not want to be on Edna’s bad side.
I had the pleasure of spending a week with her last month in Somaliland. Here’s one reason I think she’s extraordinary. After retiring as a senior United Nations diplomat where she’d championed women’s and children’s health, she could have chosen to have a cushy life in London or Paris or New York. That’s what most people do. But not Edna. Far from it. Instead she cashed in her pension, sold her Mercedes, her jewelry and even her dishwasher — a true sacrifice, if you ask me — to build her dream: a hospital in her home town of Hargeisa to provide safe deliveries for women who were far too often dying in childbirth. Somaliland has one of the world’s highest birth rates per woman and the highest maternal mortality rates. It took her the better part of a decade, much of that time she lived in the building as it was slowly being built.
As I said, Somaliland is not a ‘real country,” meaning it’s not recognized by the UN or really much of anyone. It’s a breakaway region north of Somalia, that emerged from a vastly destructive civil war with Somalia of Black Hawk Down infamy, to become a growing, if not quite yet prosperous, republic.
But here’s the other thing, Hargeisa — particularly 10 years ago when Edna opened her hospital — was no Paris, not even Nairobi, not even close. You see Hargeisa was practically leveled house by house by the murderous Somali dictator Siad Barre and his mad henchman. Think Dresden 1945, but with no infrastructure to rebuild on.
When Edna said she wanted to build a hospital people thought she was nuts. Some said so to her face, others behind her back. But, she barreled forward. Today, her hospital is one of the largest buildings in Hargeisa. Its medical reputation is so stellar, it’s become the ‘go to’ facility for UN and other development workers. Edna runs training programs, not just for midwives and nurses, but also for lab techs and pharmacists and soon, anesthetists, creating the human resource capacity in health Somaliland needs. She has a loyal group of supporters – Friends of Edna — to provide wind beneath her powerful wings and help raise the funds she needs.
Edna was the victim at seven of FGM, outlived a physically abusive husband, faced down war-lords and lived through two disastrous wars – the second of which killed 250,000 people in a country of 3.5 million. That old expression – that which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger — could be Edna’s motto. She’s turned horrendous loss and adversity into power and resolve.
Our organization, The Fistula Foundation, funded a new operating theater and support her work to treat the devastating childbirth injury obstetric fistula. That is part of why I visited. But Edna’s Hospital does vastly more than treat fistula; her hospital has delivered over 12,000 babies in the last decade and treats a range of devastating problems from cleft palates to spina bifida.
You can see Edna at work by turning into the powerful documentary Half the Sky Monday and Tuesday, October 1 and 2 on PBS. She’ll be featured on the 2nd night. You’ll also see the courageous and brilliant journalist Nick Kristof and the actress Diane Lane. (You may may want to secretly hate Diane because she’s beautiful, fabulously talented and married to Josh Brolin, but you won’t be able to any more than I could because she’s got a tender heart that beams through the screen.)
Seeing Edna in action reinforces what I think most of us already know: no religion has a monopoly on compassion. Our organization supports hospitals regardless of faith and I see the same caring in the eyes of Muslims, as I do in Christians — tireless people doing what good people of every faith do — look after their brothers and sisters. I have a large photo above my PC as I type this; it’s of a dedicated Congolese Surgeon, who is Christian, in his white medical coat . He is smiling brightly with a big pin on his coat pocket from Jewish World Watch saying “Do Not Stand Idly By.” For me that shot captures the heart of ‘we’re all in it together’ compassion.
I don’t know any Norwegians on the Nobel Prize Committee, but if I did, I would humbly suggest they honor Edna, one of the finest human beings God has created, with their glorious Peace Prize. In doing so perhaps they’d also help more people see that the world is full of humanitarians of all faiths — even if there’s only one incomparable Edna Adan.