Think Sophia Loren meets Miriam Makeba, then think Nelson Mandela meets Malcolm X, and you have the exquisitely beautiful countenance of the most formidable, effective, "won't-take-no-for-an-answer" woman in Somaliland today. Her name is Edna Adan and she is fighting for the health rights and well-being of Somalilander women.
As we first arrived in Hargeisa, the capitol of Somaliland, I felt like we were driving through a dusty powder blue thorn bush sanctuary, their branches having successfully impaled thousands of wind-blown garbage bags.
Later I was to discover that the same slim and sleek 2 inch thorns are used as stitching material, in the absence of needles and thread.
In a village outside of Hargeisa, Edna fingered the thorns, pressing the hard needle sharpness to her fingers. She looked at us and, at me, I felt, in particular. "You see these? This is what they use to sew up what's left of the girl's vagina when they perform SUNA on her. They hold the thorns in place with twine or leather string, whatever they have, for at least a week, maybe longer. The girl must be very still. But still she must urinate. Defecate. Imagine how painful. Imagine." She shakes her head and walks away, then smiles as she leans to pet a new-born goat, floundering on spindly legs.
Her mission is urgent, but her life carries with it a balance of laughter and tears like any other. In Hargeisa she not only trains mid-wives so they can return to their rural environment and provide pre-natal and birthing support, but also teaches these young women to carry with them the message that genital mutilation of any girl or woman does not serve them. But as I could hear from one young 23-year-old midwife, relaying that message, youth to elder, is difficult. Edna says to her before graduation, "What will you tell me, a grandmother, who wants to cut her little granddaughter?"
"I will tell her that it's bad and not healthy."
Edna role played the elder woman.
"But we have all had this done! I am here. I survived. What is so wrong with it?"
The young mid-wife stuttered. "It will make the birth more difficult. Infection can happen."
Edna throws her arms up in the air. "It's our custom. It must be done. My daughter is not pure otherwise. Convince me!"
"She could die from infection even before the child is born." Edna waves her hands. "I didn't die. Your mother did not die. But OK. Tell me more." Edna concedes, not wanting her student to spiral into a zero confidence zone.
Edna puts her hands on her shoulders, as her mentor and friend. She tells her that she must convince the elder to perform the least harmful type of circumcision. That it's the best they can hope for, for now.
The shooting is over and I reach into her pocket to retrieve my audio transmitter. Edna sings her usual jolly song, to the tune of "Dear Liza": "There's a hole in my pocket, dear Brenda, dear Brenda."
And I respond, "There's a hole in your pocket, dear Edna, my dear." We laugh and give each other a hug. Tomorrow we will sing it again.
To support Edna's work, donate to her RaiseforWomen fundraiser here.