Fatima Jibrell is a Somalian environmentalist whose love and dedication for her country have led her to help her people use what little resources they have to reduce the process of environmental degradation and desertification of Somalia. She is the co-founder and Executive Director of The Horn of Africa Relief and Development Organization, now called ADESO. She is also the co-founder of Sunfire Cooking and was instrumental to the creation of the Woman’s Coalition for Peace. She was the recipient of the 2002 Goldman Environmental Prize and the 2008 National Geographic Society/ Buffet Foundation Award for Leadership in Conservation. Fatima wrote and co-produced Charcoal Traffic, a film on the charcoal crisis in Somalia.
|1. Give us an idea about your background.
I am now 65 years old, but I have always been some kind of activist. In my country I went to school during the British time and it was by shear chance and the struggles of my mother that I was lucky enough to go to school at a time when girls did not go to school. And you can imagine when I started to work, there were no women working among men. So sometimes in my age today people will tell me I come out harsh, but it is my life experiences and my struggles that have toughened me up. The first 20 years of my work I was training younger men and they would eventually become my bosses because woman were not supposed to be working at all, nevertheless advancing in their positions. This still exists somewhat in most environments today in Somalia and it is communicated through body language and in accent.
So I got into activism not because I chose it, it was just my life. As a Muslim I used to feel the rahma (mercy) of looking at those less fortunate than you. Being one of the only educated women at that time I felt the burden and guilt of helping other women and I have been that way my whole life. Poverty makes education opportunities very limited. I had to figure out how to become a humanitarian. I had to choose between what was a priority for my community. I came from a pastoral community herding goats sheep and camel and I understand because of my age how much Somalia has changed. The only production that Somalia gets is from its livestock; that is the main livelihood. Even the people in the city get affected if livestock is not taken care of. At the same time, we have a coast but we don’t have the knowledge or equipment to use our resources and they are all being taken by NATO and other foreign organizations. So, the work called for me.
Well, America didn’t need my help-my people needed my help. My husband and I were activists even in the America, where we had set up a lobby for Somalia. During the war, we lobbied for the Americans to come to Somalia and collect the guns from the people causing the war. We were very hopeful and they got an opportunity but that failed. So, my family moved back because we wanted to do something from the ground. The lack of education and poverty meant people were still divided and being ruled by different ideologies and foreign agencies which makes our work more of a struggle. However, we are happy working from the ground. Like today, I am in a compound that my family built when we started our NGO in Badhan which is in an area called Sanag. The international community called this the contested area because you don’t see people carrying guns like you do in the rest of Somalia. It has grown almost into a city. We now we have internet, electricity, wind and solar generator in this compound. From here, we are going to very remote areas like the Black Mountains, which are close to 3000 feet high. There we will help the people with agriculture, livestock and water as well as supporting literacy and education.
|3. How did you start the Horn of Africa Relief and Development Organization (now called ADESA)?
We created our lobby in the US in 1991, and when that didn’t work we brought it home. My husband and I started the organization in 1994 in Somalia. We started with schools and water pumps. We also did work in sanitation, nutrition, and health, which is important since there are still no hospitals. We educate people on health because prevention is key in an area with limited medical help. We also brought children from drought communities and helped them go to school.
|4. How did your drive toward solar cooking start and why do you feel that this is needed?
The idea came about because the whole of Somalian society is cooking with charcoal, which comes from acacia trees. The acacia trees do not just provide us with coal- their leaves are food for our camels, we use the gum from their sap, they provide shade and many other uses. They are very important to our pastoral livelihood. Especially because Somalia has the largest number of camels in the world and they are our main milk and meat source and the acacia trees provide their food. When the communities are in an area, the trees are safe. However, when they move to another grazing area, the charcoal burners come foreign organizations and they cut down the trees and export the charcoal and there is no government to stop them. As a result, we are the fastest growing desert. Our organization has been successful with stopping the export in areas that we are active in. However, because we are losing the acacia trees at an incredible rate and yet every family is still needs to cook with charcoal everyday, we came up with the idea for the solar cookers. We brought many different ones from the around the world. Of the solar cookers we brought, the Chinese one butterfly design has been the fastest. It can boil 1 liter of water in 8 minutes. The only problem with it is that it is quite bulky and hard for poor households to make it go through the door and to keep it safe from burning their clothes and the line. So just yesterday actually, we were successful in redesigning it by cutting it into pieces to make it close and changing the tires from metal to rubber. We did lose a minute in boiling time but we don’t mind it. We are in the early stages of trying to bring a solar internet café that utilizes solar cooking and we want it to be run by women who can use it for their income. We have not been as successful as we want to be yet because of cultural setbacks and the lack of support from the international community, but we will continue to work toward it.
|5. Tell us about the rock dam initiative
The Rock dam initiative is a way to help manage rainwater and reduce water wastage using stone piles where there are cleared trees. They help bring more grass and grow more acacia treas although before they mature most of it is taken down. We are playing cat and mouse-it is not zero progress because if we are not working the percent of desertification would be faster
|6. When all others back down are not taking initiative, what pushes you to act?
I get motivated by the little progress I see and when I see that livestock is basically surviving because of our activities. The pastoral communities are working with us and they are happy with what they are doing.
|7. As a covered Muslim woman who is in such a position of strength and influence, honor and respect, how do you want to be perceived by the world?
Well, I want to be seen as who I am. I am a Muslim, I am a woman, I am an African and do what I think is my best ability for my people. My people are part of humanity and the globe and Mother Earth and whoever wants to support our initiative, we are grateful. Those who want to put me in a box- that is their problem because I will not fit.
Check out the website for Fatima’s organization here.
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