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The Mother Theresa of Africa; Dr. Hawa Abdi Provides Healthcare for Millions in Somalia

It’s #ImpactThursday…

When Hawa Abdi was just 12 years old her mother died due to complications associated with childbirth. Distraught and determined to understand why her mother had died, Hawa Abdi studied medicine and, in 1971, obtained a medical degree. The following year, in the wake of her grandmother’s death, Dr. Abdi learned that Somali laws prevented female relatives, even close ones, from inheriting land or other possessions. She promptly took up legal studies and, working as a physician during the day and studying law at night, obtained a law degree from Mogadishu’s Somali National University in 1979.

Dr. Hawa Abdi

After working in Mogadishu for a number of years Dr. Abdi decided to purchase a farm outside of the city. She quickly realized that many rural women found it challenging to travel to Mogadishu and that they desired a medical facility closer to where they lived. To meet their needs, Dr. Abdi opened a small clinic on her farm in August 1983. Due to civil unrest, Dr. Abdi found her clinic overwhelmed with patients within five years. By 1991, she was providing healthcare to some 800 displaced families, representing over 4,000 people that were camping out in makeshift homes neighboring her clinic and a nearby Red Cross feeding station.

By 1992, most people with the means to flee Somalia had done so, but Dr. Hawa Abdi had not, because so many were relying on her for their healthcare. Families continued to move onto the land surrounding Dr. Abdi’s clinic such that, by 2006, there were some 50,000 people. In 2007 Dr. Abdi was named ‘Person of the Year’ by a US-based Somali news agency in recognition of her work.

Source: BET
Source: BET

By 2009, around 90,000 people were being assisted by Dr. Abdi and more and more people outside of Somalia were becoming aware of her amazing work. Swiss associates inspired by Dr. Abdi established the Association Suisse Hawa Abdi that enabled Dr. Abdi to open a Women’s Education Center at her clinic. Nicholas Kristof wrote about Dr. Abdi’s efforts in the New York Times in 2010, and more donations flowed in. What began as a small clinic has grown into a 400-bed hospital, an accompanying school, and nutrition center. Approximately two million people have been assisted by Dr. Abdi’s facilities since 1983.


Dr. Abdi is aided in her work by her daughters Deqo and Amina, who are both physicians; in 2010 all three were named Glamour Magazine’s women of the year. In 2011 Dr. Abdi and Deqo gave a TED talk and in 2012 Dr. Abdi was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and recognized by the Women in the World Foundation. Dr. Abdi has been featured on Democracy Now and referred to as the “Mother Teresa of Somalia.” She is the subject of the documentary film Through the Fire which premiered in London on November 20, 2013 at the We the People’s Film Festival, debuted in Ottawa in April 2014 and received a Social Impact Media Award in June 2014. Dr. Hawa Abdi is also the author of the 2013 memoir Keeping Hope Alive, which I have assigned in more than one of my classes.

Based on the literature on international development and personal success, why has Dr. Hawa Abdi (and her hospital) been so successful?

Some key characteristics come to mind:

Dr. Abdi remained full of hope, faith, love, and optimism. She DID NOT ALLOW HERSELF TO BE CONSUMED BY FEAR OR NEGATIVE THOUGHTS, even though many in her situation would have been. She views Somalia as a paradise when it is peaceful and is willing to do whatever she can to turn Somalia’s troubles around.

Source: Somalia Opinion
Source: Somalia Opinion

Dr. Abdi did NOT ACCEPT WHATEVER LIFE THREW AT HER WITHOUT PROTEST OR PUTTING UP A FIGHT. She did not blame ‘bad luck’ or others for her troubles or take on work that did not have meaning for her. She USED ADVERSITY AS AN OPPORTUNITY TO LEARN and to do better.

Dr. Abdi always ENGAGED IN SOMETHING DEFINITE. She knew what she wanted from life, what needed to be done, and did it. She was and is a ‘GO-GETTER’ and a ‘GO-GIVER’—extending many favors to others while taking few. She is helping the reconstruction of a peaceful Somalia, thereby encouraging expatriates to return to the country.

By GIVING USEFUL SERVICE to so many people, Dr. Abdi has INSPIRED OTHERS. Outsiders and local Somali DO NOT “DO FOR” her out of pity but “DO WITH” her out of respect. You may wish to take a look at Robert Lupton’s book Toxic Charity (2011) to learn more about this seemingly simple, but often overlooked concept when it comes to development assistance.

Heidi G. Frontani
Heidi G. Frontani
Heidi G. Frontani, Ph.D is a Professor of Geography. She writes from North Carolina in the USA. Her focus is on the African continent and she has lived in Kenya and taken study groups to Ghana. She blogs at and can be reached at

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