By Tori Marlan

At a dinner for the Somali community last week Edna Adan Ismail–an official guest of the city–implored Chicago’s Somali population to leave town, at least for a while. It was time for the diaspora to return, she said. Somaliland needs Somalis more than Chicago does.

About 50 expats were gathered in the Beirut Istanbul Restaurant in Albany Park to welcome Ismail and Somali poet Hadrawi to Chicago. A Somaliland flag, pinned to the wall behind the guests’ table, stuck out among the decorations left from previous celebrations–colorful Christmas lights and a dangling white crepe-paper dove and wedding bell.

Ismail stood before the group in a royal blue African boubou embroidered at the neck and sleeves. But unlike most of the women in the room, she wore beaded jewelry rather than gold and nothing to cover her hair.

“Come back,” she said. “We need you. We need your skills. We need your experience. You need to share with us, the people back home, the good fortune that you’ve had.”

Just a couple of weeks earlier someone calling on behalf of Mayor Daley had reached Ismail, out of the blue, halfway across the world, in the dusty city of Hargeisa, Somaliland’s capital, where telephone service is unreliable and mail service nonexistent. The caller extended an invitation so wildly extravagant and random that Ismail mistook it at first for a practical joke by a niece or nephew. The city of Chicago, she was informed, wanted to fly her in for its New Year’s celebration, together with hundreds of people from all over the world.

Ismail, though, is far from ordinary. She’s spent her life blazing trails for women and working to improve the quality of health care in an impoverished and turbulent Islamic country. In her 62 years she’s seen Somalia go from being separate British and Italian colonies to an uncomfortably unified country utterly destroyed by civil war to struggling divided “nations”–the officially recognized Somalia and the unrecognized northern republic of Somaliland.

Born in the northern region when it was a British colony, Ismail received the first scholarship offered to Somali girls to study in the United Kingdom. She returned in 1961 to a newly united Somalia as its first Western-trained nurse-midwife. She made history yet again the following year as the first woman to obtain a driver’s license, and the year after that when she helped develop the first training courses for nurses and midwives in Hargeisa.

Ismail also spoke her mind, refused to wear a head covering when she didn’t feel like it, and stood up to men–sometimes at her peril. At a hospital one day in 1961, during the first bloody skirmish after unification, several soldiers burst into an operating room where she was tending to a man who’d been shot in the leg. She ordered the “lunatics with guns” out of the hospital, which “didn’t go down well,” she says. Even after getting clocked with the butt of a gun, Ismail waved bloody bandages at the soldiers until they turned around and left.

Ismail married Mohamed Haji Ibrahim Egal, who became Somalia’s prime minister in 1967, but she continued to work, teaching and delivering babies. In 1969 General Mohamed Siad Barre overthrew her husband’s government and imposed dictatorial rule. Siad Barre’s forces placed Ismail under six months’ house arrest, and years of harassment followed–random middle-of-the-night searches and short-term imprisonments on trumped-up charges. Eventually, though, Siad Barre’s government recognized Ismail’s skills and experience and hired her to direct a department of the ministry of health. She once used her position to speak to Somalis about the medical complications of female circumcision–a common procedure but an unmentionable subject in the mid-70s, when simply uttering the phrase shocked people. In 1984 Ismail conceived and supervised the construction of the first private hospital in Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital. But like most of the country’s health-care facilities–indeed, like most of the country’s infrastructure–the Edna Adan Maternity Hospital was destroyed during the civil war.

Ismail escaped the worst of the fighting. She had a long-standing relationship with the United Nations’ World Health Organization and worked in its Alexandria office during the war. Her mother and sister fled to England. The war ended in 1991 with the secession of Somaliland and the defeat of Siad Barre’s government. The world has yet to recognize Somaliland, but Ismail–who moved back in 1997, after retiring–believes official nationhood is merely a matter of time. It’s the only part of Somalia that has peace, a growing economy, open ports, an airport that receives international flights, and a functioning government, led by Ismail’s ex-husband.

Though Ismail’s family members in England are now pressuring her to join them there, she’s embarked instead on a mission to rebuild her homeland. With money from her UN pension and other personal sources, she’s started to construct another maternity hospital, this time in Hargeisa.

The Hargeisa government donated 9,600 square meters of land no one else would touch. Previously the site had served as a military training area and an execution ground. When Ismail got it, it was a rubbish dump. After some initial squeamishness, she decided that having “hope and life” spring from the land was its only appropriate use. And the site was in the poorest section of the city, a place that had never had a hospital and desperately needed one. Construction began in 1998.

The hospital would have been up and running by now if Ismail had stuck to her original plan. But it kept evolving. Early on she realized that there weren’t enough qualified people to staff the hospital. The nursing program she’d started in the city in the 60s no longer existed. Doctors and nurses, like so many others, had fled the country or been killed. So she added to her plans a school, complete with classrooms, a library, and student accommodations. And to serve patients at affordable rates, she designed a row of shops at ground level whose rents would help pay staff salaries.

Ismail financed the construction by selling her jewelry and her Mercedes, liquidating some of her savings, and using rents she collected from family property: her total contributions came to about $300,000. When she finally went broke, she began accepting and soliciting donations. Her former colleagues at the World Health Organization held a fund-raiser, as did Somalis in Canada and London. Her brother, who builds roads in Oman, donated a brick-making machine, a pickup truck, and a concrete mixer. Merchants contributed steel and bags of cement. Laborers sometimes worked for free.

The new Edna Adan Maternity Hospital is finally coming together but in piecemeal fashion. The three-story skeleton is up, but there are holes in the walls instead of doors and windows, and Ismail still needs to purchase medical equipment. Each day she meets with the project foreman to discuss what they can afford to do the following day. She figures another $150,000 would enable her to finish the hospital by June.

The project has completely changed Ismail’s relationship to money. On her first day in Chicago she chided herself for buying a $12 sweater from a thrift store, thinking, “That’s two bags of cement.”

So at the Beirut Istanbul Restaurant she wasn’t about to pass up the opportunity to solicit help, both with building her hospital and with rebuilding the country. She passed out brochures and played a video about the hospital. She didn’t bother with an introduction to her subject. She didn’t need to explain to this group of Somalis that the life expectancy of women, though slightly higher than that of men, is only 47 years; that Somalia is a terrifying place to be pregnant; that women there don’t expect prenatal care, properly trained hospital staff, sterilized medical equipment, or emergency life-support systems; that the country has one of the highest rates of infant and maternal mortality in the world (one in eight infants dies in Somalia, compared to about six per thousand in the United States); and that if you need a cesarean section, good luck and God bless–there’s a good chance you’ll end up dead.

“Women who are going to deliver normally can deliver under any bush,” she’d explained earlier to the few non-Somalis in the room. “It’s those women with complications who need surgical intervention, these are the ones who die.” Pregnancy, she said, is “a very risky, scary thing” to women in her country. “They have all heard of neighbors and friends and relatives who’ve died during childbirth. They know of a woman who’s died of high blood pressure, or they know of someone who’s died of a hemorrhage after giving birth, or they’ve heard of someone whose baby couldn’t come out because of a narrow pelvis.”

On the video Ismail gives a tour of the hospital while workers pound away in the background. She stops in each room, beginning in the reception area and moving to prenatal care, the nurse’s duty station, and what she calls “the reason for my madness”: the labor and delivery rooms and the “surgical operating theater” for women with complications. “This kind of facility does not exist anywhere in the country,” she says. She moves on to the recovery room and then to the school, “the second reason for my madness.” Near the end of the tour she stops in a small empty room and says, “This will be my bedroom, because I can’t afford to pay rent anymore.”

When the screen went blue, Ismail rose to applause and took the microphone. She looked out at the audience–people who had fled the war, who had come for higher education, who had come to join their families–and promised them that Somaliland was peaceful now, that a lot had changed since they left. She felt safe without a gun, she said. And she was happy to announce that food intended to aid Ethiopians now arrived at the port of Berbera and traveled through the country without military escort. It was time for Somalis to return.

“Our country needs you,” she said. “You have been away from us for too long. Come back. Spend a little holiday with us. Come back. Fix your grandfather’s house. Give your grandmother a little help. Pay for a little child to go to school. Help fix a dispensary somewhere. These are the collective energies that would make our country a country again.” Afterward a young woman in Western dress approached Ismail at the guests-of-honor table. Leaning over it to embrace Ismail, she said she was studying nursing and that she wanted to come to Somaliland and work at the hospital when she graduated.

Breaking the Ramadan fast, the Somalis helped themselves to hearty portions of a Middle Eastern buffet. Ismail ate quickly and then continued with her mission, working the room, stopping to talk at every table. There wasn’t a minute to waste. At one table she urged a woman to send donations: computers, books, anything and everything she didn’t need. “I can take something which is old or cracked or used,” Ismail said. “We have nothing.”

Then she reminded the woman of an old Somali saying: “When you’re marching, it’s not he with the ugly shoes who suffers. It’s he who has no shoes at all.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.