By Teri Whitcraft
Edna Adan has spent much of her life being first. The daughter of a prominent medical doctor in Somaliland, she was the first girl in her country to learn to read, the first Somali woman to drive, the first certified nurse-midwife, and the first lady of Somalia - her husband was Prime Minister Ibrahim Egal.
But this 75-year-old former UN diplomat who has rubbed shoulders with presidents and kings says her greatest achievement is her most recent: building the first maternity hospital in her country.
"It was something I'd always wanted to do - to build a hospital," Adan told ABC News. "I could have retired and lived somewhere else in the world, but I think I would have found it difficult to live with myself. I would have been spending a lot of time playing bridge or worrying about do I wear Gucci or some other fashion designer's scarf or watch or belt…."
Instead, in 1991. Adan cashed in her pension from the World Health Organization, sold all of her jewelry and belongings - including her favorite car, a Mercedes - and spent $300,000 of her own money to build a hospital.
"I do miss my car - yes," Adan says. "But what it has become gives me far more satisfaction. The forceps, the instruments, the construction material that it has helped to provide is far more exciting. …Besides, what would I do with a Mercedes in a country that has no paved roads?"
Building a Dream on a Garbage Dump
Somalia has one of the highest maternal and infant mortality rates in the world. Every year, one baby in eight dies in infancy while nearly 4,000 Somali women die in childbirth. Yet when Adan wanted to build the first maternity hospital in her country, the only available plot of land was a garbage dump in the slums of Hargeisa.
"It was a sore, an ulcer in the center of town," Adan says of the site. "[The government] carted away 32 truckloads of garbage from it. …Now I live in it. I wouldn't be anywhere else in the world. That's my home, my hospital, that's where hope to spend whatever days God gives me."
Today, the Edna Adan University Hospital has treated over 14,000 patients and delivered more than 12,000 babies.
"Edna is saving women's lives in childbirth in one of the most difficult, desolate countries in the world - Somaliland," says New York Times op-ed columnist Nick Kristof, who wrote about Adan in Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. "She is training midwives across the country, she has built a hospital that serves women, men, and children, she is fighting female genital mutilation, and she is doing all of this just by force of will….It's an incredible achievement."
1,000 Midwives… and Counting
But Edna Adan isn't about to stop now. On the eve of a 4-hour documentary special on PBS about Half the Sky, which features Edna's hospital among other stories, Adan is setting the bar even higher.
"My goal is to train 1,000 midwives so we will have trained midwives throughout the country." she says. "If the woman who delivers [the children] is one who has been given some training and who can prevent complications and who can understand risks…women will have a better chance of survival. And that's my hope, that's my goal. And if I leave before I do it, I leave that legacy to the world. It's got to be done."
"If she says 1,000 midwives, bet on 10,000," says Kristof, only half joking. His fondest hope, he says, is that Half the Sky will not only inform people about challenges facing women, but also help galvanize support in America so Adan can realize her dream.
"I think it's a privilege to be able to support her," he says. "I've seen some of these midwives she's trained, and they are little Ednas. She is replicating her drive, her talent, her knowledge and her enthusiasm and her ability to save lives."
And Adan's enthusiasm is contagious. "This little hospital - built on a garbage dump by a crazy old woman who should have retired a long time ago - has reduced maternal mortality rate of the women who come here to one-quarter of the national average," she says. "And if Somaliland can do it - a poor country that is not politically recognized, then any other country can do it, too."
Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide , a multi-part documentary series based on the bestselling book by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, will air on PBS October 1st & 2nd, 2012, at 9/8pm C.