By Tirsit Yetbarek
A Thursday early in March 2020: Sihaam Mumin is at the Hargeysa Cultural Centre for what promises to be an exciting and meaningful day, for her and a certain group of her peers. For this day the Centre is the venue for the graduation ceremony for the “inspiring women” female empowerment sessions she has been leading for the past six months.
Today the training for this first group of young change-makers comes to an end. Naturally, Sihaam is excited for her trainees, or, as she calls them: “my babies.”
“Be Well Be You” is the title of the programme of six months of training, to empower young women through health, education and mentorship. Sihaam herself started the initiative, to assist women in healthy lifestyles, leadership, reproductive health, mental health and problem-solving skills through round-group open-discussion sessions guided by a curriculum she developed. She is well placed to make a change.
A young graduate of the University of Rochester, New York, she got there via Somaliland’s famous Abaarso School, which has produced many scholarship-winning students who after completing their studies in universities in the USA, return to serve their nation. After securing a ‘major’ in public health and ‘minor’ in psychology, she had many life-changing plans for young people. Be Well Be You is one of those plans put into action.
Be Well Be You
Be Well Be You is a grassroots initiative to promote reproductive health and empower youth through health education, advocacy, leadership and capacity building. The initiative aims to give youth, especially young women, in Somaliland a platform that provides them the opportunity to meet the challenges they face, influence local decisions to reflect their preferences and needs in health, education and leadership.
This first group is fourteen in number, a range of ages, the majority of university students, but some in their final year of high school, other graduates already out in the workplace. Hence, the Thursday afternoon timing of the sessions – the start of the weekend in Somaliland – fits the needs of them all. For Sihaam, the group is all the more special as she did not know most of the participants at the start. Instead, she used recommendations to bring the group together after initial interviews.
A programme based on female empowerment with such a structure is a rare thing in Somaliland, despite there being so many inspiring women of all ages, and with friendship groups and activity groups like a book- reading circles well established. The novelty is perhaps why some of this first group came to it with no great expectations, with a “may as well give it a try” attitude rather than with serious thoughts about empowerment, even regarding six months as too long.
Now, looking back at graduation, they see things differently. “I can’t believe it is already six months and I am not ready to leave,” says Awo Farah, one of the participants. Awo, a bold, ambitious business management student at Hargeysa University, has already co-founded Yididdiilo Initiative, an initiative to help homeless children in Hargeysa. “The sisterhood we built, the amount of openness and confidence in each other is not something I have experienced in my life.” “I wish it doesn’t end but I know we all are here and will be connected for life.”
Amal, another team member, like the others here today, starts her expression of gratitude at the ceremony by thanking Sihaam for the change she has brought about in her. Amal now has her own group for basketball training sessions, where she is using the leadership capacity she gained from the workshop. “I see myself differently now, I believe we all can make a change if we take what we got from the workshop and I am determined to make that happen through my sports support team.”
The Cultural Centre makes an ideal venue, offering so much to young people with ambition and drive: a library (with free WiFi) well used by students, several reading and study spaces, even a garden with fountain ideal for alfresco study and debate, a sense of freedom and possibility for groups and individuals wanting to be themselves.
At the graduation ceremony, Dr Jama Muse Jama, the Centre’s director and founder, speaks warmly of Sihaam’s vision: her work, he says “makes him proud every day… Nooloow Adeero” (an expression used to convey high appreciation and best wishes). Sihaam returns the compliment by praising the Centre: its informal setting was integral to the success, giving an atmosphere so different from a workshop in a formal
classroom. “I barely took 20 minutes in each session to talk; it was mainly the voice of these different inspiring souls taking the time… Some were shy at the beginning and not taking the space equally, but by the end everyone was making sure they shared the space, voicing their issues and thought for practical action.”
On this graduation day, Sihaam stood in front of those she had inspired, thanking them and those invitees who made it all possible: Dr Jama of course, also Abdirashid Ibrahim, the Director-General of the Ministry of Social Affairs and Youth Employment (which has established a female empowerment unit sharing Be Well Be You’s mission), and families and friends of the participants. Mr Abdirashid expressed admiration, as did Yasmin Omer Hadrawi, editor of Xawa, the first magazine in Somaliland aimed specifically at women. Yasmin (whose own daughter and niece were among the graduates) had, she said, seen a real change in these young women. “’ Women empowering women’ is the way to adjust the imbalance in gender equality in Somaliland and such initiatives are the best way to do it”.
And now, after the success of this first cohort, Be Well Be You goes on. Unfortunately, the COVID pandemic that happened just after the graduation of this first batch has delayed the planned next stage. Still, an
online alternative platform has been swiftly established, with more than 90 applicants for the next programme, with three groups of fourteen scheduled to start in the first week of July.
Final words are best left to Sihaam herself: “An empowering education transformed my life. I wanted to give back… I particularly targeted young women because I saw an opportunity to foster mentorship, leadership and being each others’ biggest cheerleaders and support system. I saw a great increase in self-understanding, confidence and power in myself, and it was so contagious I wanted it for others too. And when I see that same self- understanding, love and confidence, it gives me the drive to continue my work.”
Tirsit Yetbarek is a researcher based in Hargeysa and the coordinator for The Academic Dialogue in Hargeisa (ADIH) at the Cultural Centre. She is currently hosting the Post Covid-19 Africa 40&40 webinar Series to address the impact of the COVID crisis (https://www.facebook.com/ XaruntaDhaqankaHargeysa). Her past articles for the Anglo
-Somali Society Journal includes reports on the Hargeysa Book Fair (Issue 64), and on the Saryaan Museum in Hargeysa (Issue 63). She was the sole female participant on the inaugural Galxiddigaale Walk from Laasgeel to Bullahar (see article elsewhere in this Issue of the Journal). She tweets at @Yetbarekt1.