Friday, October 31, 2014

Stability and sustainability: Interview with Dr Hawa Abdi

It is a calm and cool afternoon in Nairobi, Kenya, when I catch up with Dr Hawa Abdi over Skype. After working hard in Mogadishu’s difficult circumstances with her two physician daughters Deqo and Amina Mohamed, she sometimes comes to Nairobi to rest and relax. Speaking over a passable internet connection, our conversation is peppered with silences, as our words travel between Kenya and Singapore.

68 year-old Dr Abdi, affectionately known by Somalis as Mama Hawa, is more than Somalia’s first gynaecologist. From 1964 to 1971, Dr Abdi specialised in obstetrics and gynaecology in Kiev, and later came back to work in one of the biggest hospitals in Somalia. It was during this period that she saw to many women from prison, who were handcuffed or chained to the hospital beds as they waited for treatment. This sight spurred her to continue her education in Somalia, this time earning a law degree in 1979.
"And I feel that for these women, I feel that there is no justice."
To help provide maternal care to rural women, Dr Abdi started a free rural clinic in 1983 on some family-owned land, which quickly grew into a 400-bed two-storey hospital. When Somalia broke out into civil war in 1991, her hospital started to take in refugees. The surrounding land quickly expanded into a refugee camp that housed 90,000 internally displaced people. This haven however, became the target for several attacks by militants over the last few years.

Today, the camp houses 5,000 internally displaced people in six sections, each with their own committee, water tank and farmland. The camp’s primary school, Waqaf-Dhiblawe, teaches an equal ratio of boys and girls. As of 2012, the hospital has a capacity of 400 beds, maternal mortality rates of 1 per cent, and infant mortality rates of 4.3 per cent, well below national averages.

Sya Taha: Why did you choose to study medicine and then law?
Dr Hawa Abdi: I chose medicine because my mother died in a delivery complication when I was still young. I have seen how she was suffering and could not help her. After the death of my mother, I felt such deep pain, which I want to avoid for other people. Many children of my age at that time also had mothers who died from delivery complications. I decided to become a doctor and specialise in obstetrics and gynaecology.

I spent seven years in the [former] Soviet Union until 1971. When I came back I was working in one of biggest hospitals in Somalia at that time and saw many women from jail coming to the hospital. They were chained with some kind of iron to the bed.


Because they were from prison. The policeman did not want them to escape! And I feel that for these women, I feel that there is no justice. So after I finished my [medical] studies in 1971, I began my law studies from 1972 to 1979.

What does your average day in Mogadishu look like?

There are so many things to do! Now my daughter came to Mogadishu just on Friday, and she was seeing 100 women and children – this is the most vulnerable group. Different people are coming every day, some are coming because they are hungry, some are facing different diseases. You have to talk to them and give them whatever you have.

You give nutrition lessons in your camp. What are these lessons like?

In our country Somalia, and in [many parts of] Africa, children are dying because of malnutrition. We also have many cases of malaria. Economic development cannot avoid [the issue of] children’s food. But we have no possibility to give children the food they need because our country is now 23 years with no government, no jobs, and no stability. Because of the destruction and killing, people have no stability to farm or rear animals.

So our children are dying now, the 18% child mortality rate [for children under 5] is one of the highest in the world. This is mostly due to malnutrition and some curable diseases like malaria and anaemia, some of which are also based in malnutrition.

So even though there are nutrition plans, families cannot afford to feed their children?

[International organisations] give us nutrition lessons, and we try to feed the children. When they come to us, we admit them to the hospital and feed them. Within a week, the child recovers. But you have to send him home because you cannot care for all the children in hospital. Afterwards, he will come back with even worse malnutrition because the family has nothing to give him.

This problem is economic as the society is not developed. Without peace we can do nothing. We cannot grow anything, we cannot educate children, we cannot give nutritious food.

What is your philosophy towards maternal care?

Families need to be economically sufficient. Most of the maternal mortality is due to anaemia. There is also a need to develop healthcare in our country. Not all women have the possibility to reach health centres because of transportation or because they live in faraway rural areas. We need moving doctors – there are some but not enough.

Security and stability is also very important. Sometimes when women are in labour, transportation can be difficult. Sometimes when there is fighting on the roads and no one can use the road, a woman can die because she cannot get help.

I believe the world is one because we are all human beings. All our needs are one.

How do the fishing and agricultural projects in your camp interact with the work of your hospital?

We are fighting poverty, malnutrition, and illiteracy. Fishing is very important to fight protein deficiency. We also grow some maize, beans, vegetables and fruits. We also try to rear some sheep, goats and cows.

In 2013, at least we have a government, even though it is still very weak, but it wants to begin [the ] process of development and not merely relief – we were surviving on relief for 22 years. But we have our farm and our tractors. Now we want to stand on our own two feet and we are searching for investment.

I hope that we can find people who will work with us, people who can invest and help us. Then we will go [ahead] by ourselves. I welcome private investors. We have a large farming area of 400 hectares where we can grow anything. Just before the civil war, we grew bananas and exported them. We have the big Indian ocean for fishing and tourism. If we have investors, we can create so many jobs.

Does religion in general play a special role in your camp?

We have simple rules. Before, there was fighting and people were killing each other because of tribal divisions. We made a simple rule: whoever enters this camp, we will give free land, water, healthcare and food, but that person or family cannot identify [by] their tribes. If they do that they have to go out. We hosted 90,000 people here before from different tribes and we succeeded in making them one Somalia.

After collapse of the government, domestic violence went up. A man would begin to beat his wife because he was desperate. Children cry because their mother was beaten. So another rule is if you want to stay, no man can beat his wife.

What do you think will be the future of Somalia?

We still have to suffer, there was no justice in 21 years under the Siad Barre regime, then we had the civil war for 22 years. Some of our community were protected, some other people were destroyed. Now there are also other groups who take and destroy what they want, raping women, without law and order. This means a total of 43 years without law and order.

Poor, honest, hardworking people need justice and help. They need protection, but it will be very difficult. There are extremist people now still inside the government. They are generals and they are doing whatever they want. In the short term we will still suffer without a big helping hand from the international community.

In the long term, those who grew up in my camp will be Somalia’s future because they did not learn any bad things. 30 percent of our camp are youth who will never participate in fighting or killing by tribes. They are honest, we have taught them to help each other, to love each other and to defend each other. Peace itself will come. Many young people who are studying in universities in Arab countries, in Somalia, they are the future leaders of Somalia. My only hope are those who grow in my camp.

What is your message to our readers?

I want the international community to know that we are in a dangerous situation now. We need food which we can grow ourselves, but we need help. I am appealing to you to support us to be sustainable. We need fishing tools, farming tools, health instruments for the hospital, medicine, equipment. Whatever the international community can give us, to save thousands of lives from suffering.

I believe the world is one because we are all human beings. All our needs are one.

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This post was originally published at Aquila Style

Monday, October 27, 2014

One Muslim's furry initiative gets Malaysian religious authorities hot under the collar

A few days ago, the Dutchman killed a small mouse which had been living in our kitchen for some time (possibly a year, if it's the same one). He meant to trap it and release it but in a moment of panic he killed it (while apologising to it and that's why I married this dude). After the trauma of having experienced the senseless killing of an innocent animal, I lay in bed thinking about why I had such an irrational reaction to seeing the mouse crawl up and down my sofa (and coming so close to my baby!).

The only other time I do this is when I see a gecko. (Ugh, just saying the name makes me squirm). Not just any kind, but the house lizards that are found in Southeast Asia. I have such a phobia of them that I don't even want to elaborate anymore. Suffice to say, seeing one a few metres away is enough to get me hyperventilating and getting my ass out of the room, super fast.

I don't have the same reaction anything else. Insects like cockroaches, silverfish and ants? No problemo.

Right before I dropped off to sleep, I concluded that it was probably because I had had no close interactions with mice before. I didn't grow up with pet mice, or ever handle one. (I did handle hamsters though.) Plus, seeing mice in the context of a pest (going after noodles, pasta, oatmeal and paper in my house) instead of a pet has sure changed my previously neutral opinion of it.

Source: Facebook
And then it totally made sense why Muslims in my social media feeds were freaking out over an event where - duly summarised - a bunch of Muslims petted a bunch of dogs, took selfies, and washed their hands afterwards. (Most of the photos are of hijabis, because don't you know that Muslim women are the representatives of Islam?)

This event "I Want to Touch a Dog" happened in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on 19 October. From what I could read online, it was meant as a friendly introduction to mankind's best friend in a friendly and safe setting with many other dog-friendly Muslims around - a rare opportunity in a community whose Islam is mostly based on the Sunni Shafi'i school of thought. 
"I have seen cases of people running away at the sight of a dog, or throw stones at it. It broke my heart… How do people feel when they see an animal ill-treated, abused or knocked over?” [Source: A Big Message]
Did you notice I said "friendly" three times? It's because I believe that is the intention of the organiser Syed Azmi Alhabshi. Dogs carry a great deal of stigma in our Shafi'i Muslim community (I include Singapore, Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia in this category); a stigma that extends to any Muslim that handles or owns a dog (see for example, dog trainer Maznah Yusof). Syed Azmi did well: he gave a heads up to the Selangor Mufti Department, invited an ustaz, Mohd Iqbal Parjin from UTM’s Centre for Advanced Studies on Islam, Science and Civilisation (Casis) to speak about the ruling on dogs and how participants could do sertu or ritually cleanse themselves, and provided facilities for washing. All bases covered, you'd hope.

This niqabi agrees. Source: Facebook
Alas, there was so much negative reaction to the event. People went berserk on Facebook, commenting under the images of hijabis carrying different kinds of cute puppies. Add to the mix a smattering of suspicion that the event is just part of a larger conspiracy to promote "liberalism" and "pluralism" in Muslim circles.
I organised this event because of Allah, not to deviate the people's faiths, try to change the Islamic rules of law, poke fun at the ulama or encourage pluralism." [Source: The Star]
Meanwhile, the evening news in Brunei broadcasted a press statement from the ministry of religious affairs that "even though Islam has the provision of sertu to cleanse after touching najis mughallazah [major impurity], this is not an excuse to touch such things on purpose. Doing so is akin to someone who commits a sin with the excuse that one can repent for it afterwards."

The response from religious authorities in Malaysia were a little more mixed. Here's a great summary about the official response from Zurairi AR for The Malay Mail:
"...the religious authorities were at a loss to deal with the younger set of Muslims who chafe at the way they are being “managed” and not allowed to question how their creed is practised here.
The authorities reacted the only way they know how. They insisted that within the country’s borders, not only is the Sunni denomination and the Shafi’i school of jurisprudence the only right way to practise Islam, but Muslims must also accept only Jakim’s interpretation of the religion.
...younger Malaysian Muslims with access to a wider pool of information on Islam today are finding they have less in common with the country’s muftis and ulamas. As such, the Islamic religious authorities are fast losing their relevance, and with it, their iron grip on the lives of Muslims nationwide."
I'll be the first to admit that I do have an inner Shafi'i when it comes to dogs. (Yes, I know that there is a variety of opinions in the different jurisprudential schools of thought, but I'm not going there in this post.) Since I don't know if a bark is friendly or snappy, my first tendency is to jump to the other side of the sidewalk when a dog starts getting too close to me me.

I react like this despite the fact that I know the Qur'an speaks positively about dogs: an animal caught by a hunting dog is halal (5:4) and in the story of the persecuted youth hiding in a cave, a dog is stretching its forelegs at the entrance (18:18). I react like this even though I have been surprised by a farmer's dog that followed me out into a field and hung around a few metres away as if to keep guard on me as I peed. 

I am well aware that my instinctive fearful reaction to dogs and mice comes from a fear of the unknown - I'm simply not used to these animals like I am to say, cats. For that, I'm grateful and happy that there was such an event to change the attitudes, at least in this group of a few hundred Muslims in Malaysia.

Dogfies! Source: Facebook


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