Somali Women Defy Chaos, Create Jobs for Destitute Internal Refugees


In a shaded Mogadishu garden, 30 nimble-fingered Somali women sit weaving patterned baskets from palm leaves. They are virtually penniless. All are smiling.

The women are internal refugees--victims of Somalia’s long agony of civil war, famine and gun rule.

Unlike many of the country’s displaced thousands, they are working, not just waiting for the next food handout in the squalid huts of twig and plastic sheeting that dot the capital.

These women have lost none of the weaving skills they learned before hunger and clan violence drove them from their homes.


But it was a Somali women’s group named Ida that enabled them to harness those talents--and dent the insidious dependence into which some displaced people have slipped.

“We want to create jobs for women and schools for orphaned, handicapped and abandoned children,” said Ida program officer Zahra Mohamed Nor. “We want to help the poorest of the poor.”

“You won’t see skeletons in the camps in Mogadishu, so we are putting the emphasis on getting people back to their homes so that they don’t become spoon-fed in the camps,” she added.

For the weaving project, which now involves 120 women, Ida uses small donations from church-based charities Caritas and Diakonie to buy palm fronds, needles and dye.


Ida distributes the materials to the women and then buys back the finished baskets, of their own design, at prices up to four times what they would fetch in the open market.

“I’m happy to work here,” said Mariam Marin Suburu, 30, neatly plaiting a shallow basket. “Even before the war, I was the breadwinner. I used to sell grain, but the war stopped trading and we ended up having to eat my own stocks.”

Suburu, left with nine children after tetanus killed her husband four years ago, was resettled in the Juba valley in southern Somalia after drought hit her home region of Muduug 18 years ago, but poverty drove her to Mogadishu eight years ago.

Now she said she would like to return to the land, but would need help with resettlement and, above all else, security.

The Ida organizers, like the women they are employing, come from different clans and regions, but have somehow avoided the disastrous clan rivalries that have plunged Somalia into chaos.

Ida runs similar income-generating schemes to make school desks and benches, mats, cooking pots and other utensils, which can be included in resettlement kits for the displaced.

The organizers, a dozen well-educated and highly motivated Somali women, plan to donate some of the produce to an orphanage run by the U.S. relief agency World Vision in the town of Burhakaba, 100 miles northwest of Mogadishu.

They have no means to deliver it, so they have asked the American special envoy to Somalia, Robert B. Oakley, if U.S. Marines here as part of Operation Restore Hope could help.


Oakley, who visited Ida’s head office in mid-January, advised the group to link up with foreign aid agencies who cooperate daily with the task force on escorting relief convoys.

The U.S. mission, developing ties with groups independent of clan militias, has given Ida $5,000 for a school, and Oakley said U.S. military engineers could help with building work.

“I think the work of Ida is very impressive in itself and sets a very good example for Somali women,” he said.

“It’s going to bring about changes in Somali society because it’s the women and children who have suffered the most here. We need to pay more attention to them in the future,” he said.

Nor said the group is non-governmental and nonpolitical with 12 founders, 30 members and about 400 adherents.

But she believes it could eventually exert political influence as its social and economic activities expand.

Nor and her colleagues founded Ida in 1988, but former president Maj. Gen. Mohamed Siad Barre banned it for fear that it might rival his own clan-based Somali Women’s Democratic Assn.

Oakley, to the women’s glee, tells how he had asked why no women were present at a meeting aimed at reconciling Mogadishu’s main rival warlords Mohammed Farah Aidid and Ali Mahdi Mohamed.


“I told them that women have worked harder for peace than anyone else in Somalia,” said Oakley. “They looked embarrassed and said ‘Yes, we know.’ I told them, ‘You are not very smart politicians if you are ignoring the women.’ ”

The Ida women are indignant at the harsh treatment that can be meted out to Somali women in their lawless country.

A few days after the U.S.-led task force arrived Dec. 9, they went to the help of a Somali woman who had been thrown in jail after being beaten and stripped by a mob for what turned out to be false charges that she had slept with French soldiers.

Now they are furious with Islamic militants who lynched and stoned to death five women accused of adultery in the northern city of Hargeisa. A sixth woman was lashed.

“What happened to these women was against Islam and unjust,” one Ida activist complained to Oakley. “We need protection.”