4 wonderful women who have left an indelible mark on the world


The stories behind successful women remind us that there isn’t much that stands between us and our goals. By Afia R Fitriati.

Dr Hawa Abdi

Photo: Pieter Hugo
Photo: Pieter Hugo

Mama Hawa, as her patients fondly call her, is an extraordinary Somali doctor. In 1983 she set up a small clinic on her family’s property near Mogadishu. Since the start of the ongoing civil war in 1991, she has expanded the clinic into a 400-bed hospital and uses the surrounding land to provide free healthcare, food, water, shelter and education to tens of thousands of people – regardless of their clan.

In 2010, an extremist militia seized control of her hospital and camp, killing two of her employees and causing widespread damage. Dr Hawa confronted them, refused their demands and insisted they apologise. Under enormous pressure from the Somali people and the media, the militants eventually relented. They left her camp and gave her the written apology that she’d asked for.

But that didn’t mark the end of her struggle. Her camp was again raided in early 2012, this time by a second group of insurgents who ‘arrested’ Dr Hawa and some of her staff. The men looted and destroyed the area housing refugees, seized part of the land and effectively shut down the hospital and school. After government troops expelled the insurgents, Dr Hawa began the process of rebuilding. New additions to the camp include a children’s library, science lab and women’s education centre. Working alongside her two daughters (both doctors) and the rest of her team, she is appealing for donations to continue helping those in need. April will see the release of her memoir, Keeping Hope Alive. Learn more or make a donation at the Dr Hawa Abdi Foundation website.

Lesson learnt: Don’t be afraid to stand up for what you believe in. Remember that there is always an untapped source of strength inside us.

Read our interview with Dr Hawa Abdi.

Mother Teresa

Photo: Tekee Tanwar/AFP
Photo: Tekee Tanwar/AFP

Few individuals – male or female – commanded greater admiration and respect in the 20th century than Mother Teresa. The Albanian-born Roman Catholic nun is remembered most for her selfless humanitarian efforts in Calcutta (Kolkata), however she brought her work to countries across the globe – including a Middle East warzone. During the Israeli Siege of Beirut in 1982, she brokered a temporary ceasefire in order to help evacuate 37 children from a hospital caught in the crossfire.

Her love of God and humanity was sufficient to keep her content in her very simple life. When she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, she declined to attend the ceremonial banquet and asked that the prize money of $192,000 be donated to the poor in India.

Though we may find it difficult to achieve such a state of selflessness as Mother Teresa, she believed that we all have a role to play. When aspiring volunteers would ask to join her cause in India, she directed them instead to the destitute living in their midst.

Stay where you are. Find your own Calcutta. Find the sick, the suffering, and the lonely right there where you are – in your own homes and in your own families, in your workplaces and in your schools. You can find Calcutta all over the world, if you have the eyes to see. Everywhere, wherever you go, you find people who are unwanted, unloved, uncared for, just rejected by society – completely forgotten, completely left alone.

Lesson learnt: Instead of asking, ‘How can it benefit me?’, ask, ‘How can I serve others?’ As for your own needs, trust that God will take care of them.

Waris Dirie

Photo: Marcel van Hoorn/AFP
Photo: Marcel van Hoorn/AFP

Popularity goes hand in hand with being famous and comes with multiple facets. Many people commonly exploit their fame for personal glory. There are some, however, who redirect it towards the greater good. Waris Dirie, a former supermodel, uses fame as a powerful tool to lead a cause that improves the lives of countless women.

Living in Somalia at the age of five, Waris was subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM), a life-endangering practice that aims to control a woman’s libido. When the tides of life turned in her favour, Waris knew exactly what she needed to do.

‘When I became a successful model, I had the means and the audience to change something, and I knew that I just had to take that chance and do it,’ Waris told Aquila Style in a 2011 interview. ‘There are many topics that are much better suited to “get the dollars rolling in”,’ she said. ‘FGM is something that most people and most NGOs still prefer to ignore.’

In 2002 she launched the Desert Flower Foundation; along the way her hard work has progressively paid off. In November 2012, for example, the United Nations at last passed a resolution condemning FGM and outlined widespread measures for member countries to combat the practice.

Lesson learnt: Don’t be buoyed by fame and riches. They are merely tools lent by God to serve His purpose. Do good with them.

Jane Goodall

Photo: Bertrand Guay/AFP
Photo: Bertrand Guay/AFP

A 78-year-old British scientist and UN Messenger of Peace, Jane is renowned for her trailblazing studies of primates. She’s been passionate about animals since childhood, having spent almost half her life among chimpanzees.

When she began her research in 1960 in Tanzania’s Gombe Stream National Park, Jane lacked a university degree and had limited experience in conducting research. She was accompanied only by her mother and a cook. Her first attempts to closely observe a group of chimpanzees failed when they fled before she got within even a half kilometre of them.

Despite her initial failures, Jane persevered. She found a more suitable group to follow and developed an effective pattern of observation to carefully approach her subjects. It took two long years, but the chimps eventually came to see Jane as a non-threatening visitor and would often approach her for bananas. To this day, Jane remains the only human ever accepted into a chimpanzee society.

As a tireless advocate of environmental conservation, Jane believes that the goal of treating animals more compassionately begins with education. Her award-winning children’s book, The Chimpanzee Family Book, teaches youngsters about the importance of the ethical treatment of wildlife. Jane used the prize money she received to have the book translated into Swahili and distributed in Africa, especially in places highly populated by chimpanzees.

Lesson learnt: Don’t let your lack of experience or qualifications get you down. With resilience and hard work, you can find other ways to reach your goals.


This article originally appeared in the March 2013 Empower issue of Aquila Style magazine. For a superior and interactive reading experience, you can get the entire issue, free of charge, on your iPad or iPhone at the Apple Newsstand, or on your Android tablet or smartphone at Google Play

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