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Elman Peace of Somalia wins KBF Africa Prize for inspiring anti-violence and education work
A mercy mission to disarm child soldiers in war-ravaged Somalia ultimately cost Elman Ali Ahmed his life, but his legacy lives on through his remarkable family who have been recognised for their indomitable peace work.
Elman’s widow Fartuun Adan and daughter Ilwad Elman have been awarded the 2021 King Baudouin Foundation (KBF) Africa Prize 2020-2021 for the outstanding work of their foundation Elman Peace.
The biennial award was presented by KBF vice chair Yasmine Kherbache in the presence of King Philippe and Queen Mathilde at the Royal Palace in Brussels on 16 June. Members of the KBF Africa Prize committee recognised the foundation’s fight for social justice and anti-violence while empowering and educating countless women and children in Somalia.
Said Kherbache: “In striving to build peace amid Somalia’s long civil conflicts, Elman Peace has developed powerful tools that offer examples to us all. Fartuun and her daughter Ilwad have shown how by working with people and communities at the grass roots, we can build a better future.”
With 38 permanent staff and nearly 200 other colleagues based in Mogadishu and eight regional branches across Somalia, Elman Peace runs a range of programmes that work closely with local communities.
These include the rescue and shelter of child soldiers in Somalia, a country devastated by a civil war that began in 1991, as well as successive droughts. The project nurtures, educates and protects children, raising their own expectations for a better life. The inspiring mother and daughter also founded the first rape crisis centre in Somalia and campaigned to change archaic laws on rape and adoption.
Through their tireless pursuit for peace, Adan and Elman have saved thousands of young lives while risking their own to carry on the work started by Elman Ali Ahmed. In 1996, five years into the war in Somalia, shortly after Fartuun and her three young daughters fled to Canada for safety, Elman was murdered. Islamist militant soldiers were thought to have been responsible. A decade later, Adan returned to resume his work, followed by her daughters. Sadly, eldest daughter Almaas was also killed in 2019.
Ahmed coined the powerful slogan “Drop the gun, pick up the pen”, a humanitarian message still written on shattered walls in Somalia capital Mogadishu. It’s a mantra running through the work at Elman Peace with Adan committed to spreading the net wider to help other vulnerable youngsters throughout Africa.
After receiving her award, she said: “Peace is so much more than the absence of war, it is about community, it is enabling an environment where people can meet their true potential and have the opportunity to pursue the best versions of themselves and I believe this is within reach.”
Despite threats to their own lives - some from family members - physical violence and emotional torment - the two women have tirelessly continued their work in Mogadishu.
Adan admitted she faced insurmountable hurdles getting the peace centre off the ground. Women are still largely unseen in Somalia and mothers who do not bear sons suffer further gender constraints. Change is slowly coming and there has been relative peace in Somalia since 2012, albeit fragile. The election of new president Hassan Sheikh Mohamud has evoked cautious renewed optimism among the majority of the population.
Young Somali women like Elman are now finding their voice and are looking to the future, largely with the help of Elman Peace, which has extended its commitments to include a dedicated education programme for women. She returned to Somalia in 2010 and although she was very young when her father was assassinated, she felt she had a responsibility to remain in Africa with her mother whom she describes as “inspiring”. Despite waking up to a backdrop of mortar bombs and incessant sounds of heavy gunfire, Elman said her mother still set to work helping others on a daily basis.
The women’s unshakable quest will not be dimmed and that is down to their love and belief in the work started by Elman Ali Ahmed. He was abandoned as a child and had to survive on the streets of Mogadishu by polishing shoes. However, his luck changed before war broke out when he was selected for an educational scholarship to help children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Ahmed was invited to study in Italy after the country’s colonisation of Somalia and later went on to gain his masters in electrical engineering in Germany.
Returning to Somalia, he set up the first 24 hour garage service repair shop employing young vulnerable people. When war broke out in 1991, he shifted his focus to helping child soldiers. Many of them were abducted, tortured, raped and coerced into fighting and most were used as human shields in the conflict. His mission was to protect and campaign to secure human rights for child soldiers. Together with his new young wife – who described her childhood as happy in contrast to that of her husband – they were seen as “an incredible force” among locals.
Today, his name and the cause will forever live on. After receiving the award, Adan said she felt her husband was still with her every day and that he would have been pleased for the recognition of the work of Elman Peace. “Education is not a commodity and it is still 100% privatised in Somalia,” she said.
“Through the free education programmes we run, we have seen the transformational impact we can have. What we are trying to do is restore trust. Trust in systems, trust in governments, non-partisan trust between people who don’t have any connection to each other. We are trusting them by bringing them into our programmes and they are trusting us by going through the various initiatives we prescribe.”
For Adan, the trip to Belgium to accept the award at the Royal Palace with her daughter, was a brief respite from her busy life. In Somalia, she has nine adopted children under the age of four, but who can clearly look forward to a brighter future under her care.
Photos: (main image) Ilwad Elman © Elman Peace; Elman Peace organisation © Estevan Padilla; © Elman Peace