‘The midwife who built a hospital and changed the world’ – Edna Adan Ismail

I write stories about amazing people who are making contributions and discoveries – large and small – that are taking us towards a fairer and more sustainable world. I spend a lot of time doing online research, to find them and then to tell their stories. But they are usually people I have never met, much as I would like to. 

So this is why today’s post is different. I have met Edna Adan Ismail, who is now in her 84th year, and had the privilege of staying at her hospital in Hargeisa more than a decade ago. I have heard her tell some of her stories in person, and I have sat at the dining table in her apartment sharing meals with some of the women who work at the hospital. She is one of my heroes, and in many ways, she encapsulates the history of Somaliland, which – unlike neighbouring Somalia – is now a peaceful, self-governing country that has truly been built by its people.

Used with permission from Emirates.

Edna has played many roles during its history but the one she is best known for these days is the hospital she built and runs in Hargeisa, Somaliland’s capital, and the university that is named after her. She is known worldwide for her commitment to Somaliland and the health of its people.

That is why she was in Salt Lake City, Utah, recently. She was there, as she so often is, to say thank you – this time, to the people who were responsible for creating the new Sanaag Specialty Hospital, which opened in July, and to tell them about the achievements, and continuing challenges, of Somaliland.

Why Utah, you might be asking. To answer that question, you need to know that one of Somaliland’s exports is frankincense, and the new hospital is located in the heart of Somaliland’s frankincense resin harvesting region. About one-third of Somaliland’s population lives in the remote Sanaag region, where more than 7,000 people rely on frankincense harvesting for their livelihood. dōTERRA International, a world leader in the global aromatherapy and essential oils market, gets frankincense from Sanaag (as well as Oman, and Ethiopia).

“The hospital ‘will be a powerful force for good in the lives of individuals and families living and working in the region for generations,’ says David Stirling, doTERRA founding executive and CEO. doTERRA Healing Hands Foundation worked with Somaliland’s ministries of health and planning, Response-Med, various NGOs, and local partners, Jibriil Foundation and Asli-Maydi, for four years to make it possible.

The Sanaag Specialty Hospital, located in Erigavo, had its grand opening on July 27, 2021 and provides the region’s more than 600,000 residents with a full range of medical and surgical services delivered by a staff of 100.

And as I read about it, I wondered if Edna, who as a young girl assisted her father, Adan Ismail, in his medical work, was remembering when she was 13 and worked with him in Erigavo during what people called the Year of Red Dust – the worst drought in years, when more than 70% of the livestock died and people were starving. It is a story she tells in her recent autobiography. As she watched him struggle to meet needs, with few resources and little help, a thought grew in her mind.

“I decided that one day I would build him a hospital.” she said. “It would be a perfect new medical centre that would do my father proud. In my head it had all the equipment, instruments and trained staff that he’d need. It was a place where he would be delighted to work. And where I would work happily alongside him.”

But in 1950, in a Muslim country, it seemed an unattainable dream. Schooling for girls was not allowed, and in any case, there was no school in British Somaliland. Her beloved father sent her to mission school in neighbouring French Somaliland (now Djibouti), and that made it possible for her to get the education that allowed her to train as a nurse and midwife in the UK – the first Somali woman to do so.

Her recent book, A Woman of Firsts: the true story of the midwife who built a hospital and changed the world, tells the story of how that childhood dream finally came to pass half a century later, and how she has helped to create a generation of Somali nurses and midwives and other medical personnel. It is a story so amazing that it is little wonder that the book took a decade to write.

“The Edna Adan Ismail Maternity Hospital took a lifetime to be born but that finally happened in March 2002, when it was officially opened and registered as a charity in perpetuity. I so often wondered if this day would come, but the gleaming white three-storey building bearing my father’s name looked exactly like the one I’d dreamed of when I was a child. It not only stood as a testament against all those who thought it never would happen, but it rose from a site of death and misery to become a place where new lives would be brought into the world.”

Edna Adam University Hospital

Since 2011, it’s been the Edna Adan University Hospital, and it trains doctors, pharmacists, laboratory technicians, and health educators as well as nurses and midwives for the entire region. Somaliland has the highest per capita number of trained midwives in Africa. 

Building a hospital is a challenging project anywhere, any time. But to build a hospital in a city that has been almost destroyed in war, even while helping to build a country, is an astounding feat. To get a sense of that you have to see, on video, how the forces of the Somali dictator Mohamed Siad Barre destroyed every building in Hargeisa. But where Siad Barre brought death, Edna’s hospital has brought life – at first to babies, and then to everyone.

After they took back their independence from Somalia in 1991, the people of Somaliland had to build from the ground up, and they did, led by their elders and with support from their diaspora. First they built peace among themselves, and then they built a government. Sadly, their achievements have not meant that their country is recognized internationally, although the UK, Turkey, Ethiopia, and United Arab Emirates have a presence there, and Taiwan and Kenya have established diplomatic delegations.

While she was building the hospital, Edna also helped build that country. She served in the Somaliland cabinet, using the top floor of the hospital as her office. Then she became Somaliland’s first foreign minister – “almost certainly the only foreign minister in the world to have delivered triplets while still in office.”

And she remains a strong advocate for her country. “I want this place to be a place where human life and human dignity is preserved and respected, showing the dignity and the compassion and the recognition Somaliland deserves,” she told the Financial Times recently.

She continues her 40 year fight against female circumcision, widely known as female genital mutilation, which still affects millions of young African girls although it is not a part of Islam. In 2018, the mufti, Somaliland’s top religious authority, pronounced a fatwa against the most extreme form – the first time this has happened in Africa. The World Health Organization has said the practice is a violation of human rights.

Like her father, Edna has put everything she has into the hospital. Her pension from the World Health Organization helped fund its operations from the start, and she sold her jewellery to buy the first wash basins and toilets. The book is dotted with the stories of how people gave her help in hard times because of the love they had for her father, who gave his time and his money to care for Somalilanders.

 “It may look like a miracle that in 2021 there is a state without recognition that, at the same time, functions properly as if it were a recognised state,” says Saad Ali Shire, Somaliland’s finance minister. Somaliland’s 5.7 million people have their own elected bicameral parliament — including the Guurti, which is a Senate of elders, its own police and army, its own currency and its own passports. This year, Somaliland held yet another round of democratic elections in May, even as neighbouring Somalia struggled to hold an election there.

I have never understood this lack of recognition. There are, to my mind, so many lessons the world can learn from how the country’s people built peaceful governance after the years of conflict. But nonetheless, Somalilanders continue working to build their society, educate their young people, and care for the health of their residents. And Edna Adan Ismail, like the force of nature that she is, is in the forefront.

‘In reality, women have come a long way in Somaliland,” she says. “Even though we also have male doctors and nurses, the stars somehow aligned and we now have a female senior surgeon, a female assistant surgeon, a female instrument nurse, a female anaesthetist, a female theatre supervisor, all operating on a male patient in a hospital owned by a female. To me, this is living proof of our progress.”


Somaliland woman’s influence felt all across the world. KSL-TV, Sep. 25, 2021

Dr. Edna Adan Ismail in Utah, USA. blog post, Edna Adan University, Sep. 16, 2021

Somaliland battles for recognition after 30 years’ fending for itself. Todayuknews, Sep. 28 2021

Sanaag Specialty Hospital Opens Doors In Somaliland. doTerra, Jul. 27, 2021

Somaliland’s leading lady for women’s rights: ‘It is time for men to step up’. Guardian, Jun. 23, 2014


Prominent foe of female circumcision wins prestigious $1.4 million Templeton Prize. Associated Press, May 16, 2023