A HIDDEN HISTORY:
African Women and the
British Health Service
Edna Adan Ismail
Edna was the first Somali woman to study in the UK, and the first to work as a qualified nurse. She is also Somaliland’s first female politician, and has built her own teaching hospital and university, with the aim of raising standards of healthcare and education in her homeland.
Edna Adan Ismail was born in Hargeisa, British Somaliland, on 8 September 1937. She is the daughter of a prominent Somali medical doctor, Adan Ismail. She was one of five children. During this period, girls weren't commonly educated in Somaliland, but her father hired a tutor for some local boys and she learned to read and write with them. Later, she went to a school in Djibouti where her aunt was a teacher.
In October 1954, aged 17 and having been selected for a scholarship by the Colonial Office, Edna was one of two women among many of her male counterparts to travel to the United Kingdom for her studies, and setted with a family in Balham, London. The scholarship provided two years of preparatory study, where she completed secondary school and a pre nursing programme at the Borough Polytechnic, now London South Bank University. She was the only black person in her class, and was used additionally as a model for art students to practice pigmentation and skin tones. While studying, Edna had also acquired part time work with the BBC to broadcast programmes in her language about life in the UK. After the two years, she went to nursing school at West London Hospital in Hammersmith for a three year course. She tells of her surprise in being required to undergo a medical examination before starting the course, and was almost not admitted when she refused to provide a urine sample as a result of her FGM. Nonetheless, she graduated from basic nursing training in November 1959, as the first Somali woman to become a state registered nurse (SRN) in the UK. Eager to find a specialism that would be most useful upon her return to Somaliland, and with some encouragement from her father, in January 1960 Edna began to study midwifery at Hammersmith and later at Lewisham Hospital, graduating the following year. Despite completing her studies, and Somaliland gaining independence from the British on 1 January 1961, Edna looked to gain an extension of her training in the UK, with the intention of gaining more experience in hospital management. She was able to remain in England for six more months, before returning to her now independent country to draw on her training and help the people at home.
Edna married Mohamed Ibrahim Egal, who would later go on to become Prime Minister of Somali, on 12 April 1863 in Hargeisa. At the age of 28, Edna became an accredited international civil servant, working for World Health Organisation (WHO); the first Somali to ever hold an international position within the United Nations. She relocated to Tripoli, Libya, starting the training of midwives and introducing a new curriculum, moving from Nurse Midwife Educator to Nursing Services Administrator in the two and a half years she remained there.
She opened the Mother and Child Pharmacy in the Maka Mukarama district of Mogadishu, which became known as the Edna Pharmacy. She retired from WHO in September 1997, returning to Hargeisa and began constructing a hospital there. The Edna Adan Ismail Maternity Hospital was founded in March 2002.
Excerpts from her autobiography about her time in the UK:
“Later when I was nursing, old ladies seemed especially fascinated by me, but were still always polite. They’d rub my hand with their white sheets to see if the colour came off, or ask questions about life in Africa. One pensioner thanked me for helping her with something before asking, ‘Tell me dear, do you people have houses in Africa?’ I masked my surprise and told her that, yes, we did. It was a question I was asked very often, and I eventually came up with an answer that tended to prevent further enquiries: ‘Why would we have houses when we have trees to hang from?’ Perhaps the strangest question of all was, ‘Is it true that Africans have a tail?’ I was so taken aback that I replied, ‘Yes, but I had mine cut off.’ Seeing a Nigerian nurse working on the other side of the ward, I suggested, ‘Why don’t you ask if she still has hers?’ [pg. 62–3]
“The happiest years of my youth were spent as a student nurse. From as far back as I could remember I’d dreamed of putting on a uniform and a peaked cap and becoming the efficient, medically trained assistant that Dad so desperately needed, in a hospital that was worthy of him. The first part of my dream was finally coming true.”
On the emergency delivery of her first baby as a student nurse: “There was a split second when I thought to myself, ‘What am I doing in this profession? Is this what I will have to deal with every day? Did I choose the right thing?’ Everyone else thought my experience amusing, but I was terrified and so shocked by this stinky baby that covered my beautiful uniform with gunk. It was a little boy and, to add insult to injury, it peed all over me. It was truly a baptism of fire.” [pg. 92]
“Throughout my time in the UK, I am proud to say that no mother or baby died in my care, and I must have delivered a couple hundred in that eighteen month period, many of them in the mother’s own home.” [pg. 95]
“There were probably about a hundred Somalis studying or training in the UK during my time there, quite apart from the older communities of sailors and labourers who’d settled there after two world wars.” [pg. 103–4]