But Why You, Edna? Review of Edna Adan Ismail’s A Woman of Firsts

At a time when the Somali society held tenaciously to the beliefs that a good woman’s place was in her home and that she had no business engaging in public life or seeking education; as either path would only soil the honour of such a woman’s family; ‘crazy’ Edna was born into the prestigious household of Doctor Adan Ismail and she was determined to change the narrative; not only for herself but for every Somali female child. The story in her memoir, A Woman of First, is a testament to this very fact.

From a very young age, Edna was quite conscious of the fact that she was different from other girls, for example, she sought the company of boys, participated in their games, attended classes with them, and joined her father on his daily rounds as the first Somali medical doctor. Her father’s love for his profession, devotion to treating the sick among his people, and the awful experience of losing two siblings at infancy would inspire Edna’s life-long dreams: to pursue a medical career and build a world-standard hospital with her father’s name on it. She did achieve her dreams, but the road to their manifestations was perilous indeed.

At the behest of her father, teenage Edna returned home to take up the role of a midwife in a newly independent Somaliland. It would be the first time a Somali woman had ever held such a position and the men who operated the government at the centre neither knew what to make of her nor how much she would have to earn, so they left her without salaries for almost two years. Against all hope that she would abandon her duty post and dash back to the UK, Edna knew that her place was with her people and remained to weather the storm.

Following the painful exit of her father, she became the wife of a prominent Somali politician (Mohamed Egal) and maintained the status quo when her husband was appointed Prime Minister. However, Edna was not cut out for the soft life of the emerging African political elite and her loyalty to her profession of tending to the sick and infirm would cost her not one husband, but three husbands. Further, her father’s prominence and her affiliation with the elite political class would earn her confinement by the military junta led by Siad Barre, an ambitious despot who emerged president after leading a coup that saw the assassination of the president. Her husband, Egal, was also imprisoned then and on another occasion, after he had been freed. How Edna survived all these turmoils is nothing short of a miracle that you would need to find out by reading the memoir.

Another aspect of Edna’s life foregrounded in her memoir is her campaign against female genital mutilation, also known as FGM, and applied as some sort of chastity belt on women. Edna first came in contact with female circumcision in her formative years and came to understand that it was a taboo topic that everyone avoided. She would live with the pain and scar of the bodily mutilation for the rest of her life. Armed with the knowledge of the psychological cum medical trauma of female genital mutilation, its having no basis in Islam, and its paganistic etymology; attached to the worship of the Nile; Edna took on the challenge of broaching the topic to women in her society and lead a worldwide campaign against the dire practice. Although the practice still persists, her advocacy has yielded positive results and led to a reduction in victims, particularly in Somali communities.

The most interesting parts of the book for me were the terminal chapters. Siad Barre’s high-handedness and attacks cum assassinations of perceived oppositions from members of other clans had led to a Civil War mainly targeting members of the Ishaq clan. This ultimately led to the fall of his regime and the secession of Somaliland from the union with the Federal Government of Somalia. I was greatly inspired by Edna Adan’s insistence on fulfilling her dream of building ‘a tall white hospital’ as she would often describe it. With very limited resources and with only her zeal for the manifestation of her dream, she would raise a magnificent structure on a land that had hitherto been designated for killing and for other sordid business of the crumbled military regime. It is perhaps best to admit that the world saw a woman prepared to rescue the women of her country from the dangers of childbirth and built her a hospital and univeristy.

Edna Adan’s story is such an inspiration to many young Somalis, especially young girls. She turned a profession believed to be inappropriate for girls into an enviable and respected one. Following her footsteps, many Somali girls now aspire to become medical professionals and Edna is still very much active in helping to train them all to attain their dreams. She has demonstrated that will-power and altruism do have huge rewards for those who value them and abide by their codes. This woman who was subjected to political persecution and as a result lived a fragmented life gave equal medical attention to both friend and foe. This woman who never had one of her own helped bring many into this world and is now regarded a mother of all. Huffington Post describes Edna as ‘The Muslim Mother Teresa’ but I consider such an appellation a faux pas and make bold to proclaim that Edna is not and has never been a copy of anyone anywhere in the world for she has always marked herself as unique. Hence, there can only be one Edna Adan Ismail, the Edna Adan Ismail of the Somali people, and of the world.

Edna’s memoir is a remarkable read, one that should have a special and overt place on every bookshelf, and should be read to the hearing of every young Somali so they draw the milk of inspiration from its udders. I would like to see subtitles of each chapter (rather than timeline of events) in the next edition of the book as each chapter represents an important stage in Edna’s life. This would also help readers and researchers alike navigate the book more easily. The fact that royalties from the book will be donated to the Edna Adan Hospital should also reflect in its preliminary pages to boost sales and contribute to saving more women during childbirth.

In conclusion, Edna Adan remains the true daughter of her father. She embodies his lifestyle and principles of dedication to one’s people. Where both father and daughter might differ a bit is perhaps in the aspect of self-will for while Adan Ismail would almost always try to make do with what was available, Edna was some sort of rebel and would never be content till she had things her way. She was a tigress who never let her prey escape once she had it in her fangs. It is impossible to say where Edna got such courage to brave things out from as both of her parents never exhibited defiance (perhaps from a younger Adan who went against his family wish in the choice of a wife, but later aged to be compliant). You would not be far from the truth if you think of Edna as crazy as many were wont to believe whenever she professed her dreams. Indeed, she is crazy! But it is her kind of craze that everyone in the world needs to bring dreams to fruition. We should all be crazy like Edna. And if like Edna’s mother, you ask ‘But why you,’ (Edna?), my answer would be it could not have been anybody else other than the daughter of the great Doctor Adan Ismail. Her tenacity produced the first professional Somali midwife, the first Somali to hold an exalted position in the UN, the first open campaign against FGM in Somalia, the first individual-run hospital, and now this memoir, A Woman of Firsts.

© Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy 2023