Women in World

Somalia’s Mother Teresa Fights Famine

Children in a safe haven in Somalia are starving as droughts make conditions in the war-torn area worse. Eliza Griswold speaks to the women who run the camp.

06.26.11 2:30 AM ET

Last March, at The Daily Beast's Women in the World summit, the heroic and courageous Dr. Hawa Abdi explained how she managed to take 1,300 acres in the middle of violence-plagued Somalia and run a peaceful community for tens of thousands who receive medical care and food. Now, those efforts are threatened and dozens are dying, with untold lives still at risk. Read about the forces devastating the community, and find out how you can help.

The 100,000 people who are squatting on Dr. Hawa Abdi’s farm in Somalia, which she has turned into one of the world’s most innovative camps for displaced people, are today under assault by both weather and war.

At the camp, the nearby river has dwindled to a trickle. This year, the rains hardly arrived before they’re ending.

“People are starting to eat grass,” Hawa said. “All the animals are dead, now it is the humans.”

The children in these photos are now inside the camp, where 15,000 kids under her care are at risk of famine. In fact, seven children die every day. Forty-nine died this past week. Seventy-seven are already in similar condition. Outside the camp, the situation is even worse. At least 2.4 million people—or three out of 10 Somalis—are suffering from famine, according to Refugees International.

“Dr. Hawa works miracles every day under the toughest conditions imaginable,” said Melanne Verveer, U.S. ambassador at large for Global Women's Issues. “It is a dire situation that she confronts. I greatly admire her work and dedication. Hers is an innovative approach—an excellent 'best practice' for harboring those displaced by conflict.”

Despite all of her experience though, Hawa, like so many Somalis who refuse to leave their country to the chaos of being the world’s longest-running failed state, is caught in a worsening cycle. More than 20 years ago, she started a one-room hospital for women, which is now home to the sprawling camp. Mama Hawa, as she’s called by the thousands who depend on her, allows people to live around the hospital for free. This is highly unusual in the war culture of Mogadishu, where survival of the fittest means profit however you can.

She and her two daughters, Amina and Deqo Mohamed, who are both medical doctors, are helping to quietly promote a social revolution, where men are accountable for the treatment of their wives and families. The one requirement for shelter: No one is allowed to discuss the divisive issue of family, or clan. Hawa also supports women to have an active voice by including them in community councils.

She and her daughters are starting a day care center that will educate children and provide at least one balanced meal a day. Education, they believe, is as essential as food to survival. In much of war-torn Somalia, there is no education of which to speak. Some parents who never went to school are now raising children in a new generation where school doesn’t exist.

Ordinarily, even when things are bad, Hawa is no fan of hand outs: She believes food aid can be a destructive force that makes people dependent, rather than work to help themselves. To that end, she has set up farming and fishing collectives so that people can feed their families on their own.

Right now, however, the camp and the country have reached a new level of crisis. Hawa needs help—a lot of it. She is receiving no food aid—none—from any international organization. In the past, the International Red Cross and World Food Program have helped supply food when things get bad. Doctors Without Borders, and others, have run a clinic and supplied basic medicine.

Every international aid organization has now abandoned her, in part because of the political challenges of reaching the camp, which is located in an area under the control of the militant forces of the al-Qaeda inspired group, al-Shabaab. However, for the most part, since Hawa successfully defended the camp from their attack in May 2010,  the militants have left her largely alone.

Hawa’s work is not political. It’s entirely humanitarian, and even the militants seem to get that. Or perhaps they’re a bit scared of this 64-year-old lawyer, doctor, survivor of brain cancer: a force of nature who buried more than 10,000 people during the famine of the 1990s.

Back then, she says, they had international help. Now, she’s on her own. “We’re on the road to 1992,” she said. 

She, like 17 million other people in the Horn of Africa, is watching the drought intensify across East Africa. This drought seems to be linked to a larger pattern of worsening weather patterns that effect Africa more than any other continent. 

Take water, for instance. 

Of the six water wells Hawa has managed to build—she supplies clean water at no cost, another first in Somalia—only one is working. “It runs 24/7,” her daughter Mohamed said. The others need new motors, which have burnt out from use, at a cost of $18,000 a pop.

With the help of experts, Hawa has also pioneered a type of protein-rich porridge she can make with foods readily available in the market to buy the ingredients: beans, rice, and sesame. “We’ve seen children recover quickly with this combination,” her Mohamed said. 

To donate to Dr. Hawa Adbi’s foundation, click here