18 May 2017

Recipient of the Stuttgart Peace Prize, lawyer, women’s rights activist and peace ambassador, founder of Hodi and streetfootballworld network board member – Fatuma Abdulkadir Adan has a breath-taking CV. In all her work, the native Kenyan is  driven by a passion for football.


Before she had even heard that a global football for good movement was underway, Fatuma Abdulkadir Adan used the power of the game to affect change in conflict-torn rural Kenya.


We meet Fatuma in New York shortly after International Women’s Day and on another day worthy of celebration. She emerges from the United Nations Headquarters with an even broader smile than usual: Fatuma has just been nominated to become part of the SDG5 Dream Team of the Global Goals World Cup, catching her completely unawares. She was attending the 61st session of the Commission on the Status of Women from 13th to 24th March and wasn’t even informed that a nomination ceremony was on the agenda. When her picture suddenly appeared on the big screen, she could not contain her surprise. She collected herself to talk on stage about her work in the defence of girls in her home country Kenya : “We play football to break silence. Through football we created a forum for girls to talk about FGM.” The nomination to become one of the team players for the SGD5 is recognition of a life dedicated to others.


We sit down with her to learn more about her hopes for her country, the network, football for good and how she got where she is today. This is her remarkable story.


Fatuma Abdulkadir Adan is founder and executive director of the “Horn of Africa Development Initiative” (HODI) based in Marsabit, northern Kenya. Her tireless efforts to bring peace to her home community, advocate for education and equal opportunities for girls and young women have earned her numerous awards like the Stuttgart Peace Prize in 2011 and invitations to speak at world renowned institutions like the United Nations.


She joined the streetfootballworld network with HODI in 2011. But that wasn’t enough for the hard-headed and ambitious woman whose energy knows no bounds. Four years later she became the first African woman to be elected as a member of the streetfootballworld Network Board. She has just embarked on her second term for another two years on the board.


Fatuma Abdulkadir Adan didn’t kick a football until she was 25 years old. In Marsabit, a dusty outpost engulfed by the vast desert of northern Kenya, girls just didn’t play football. One day, the beautiful game would help her to kick start social change.   


“My Kenya is a Kenya with no tarmac road, no proper schools, the hospitals are not well equipped…This year we finally got the tarmac. But did we have to wait 54 years is the question I always ask”, Fatuma says and laughs. It is also a Kenya where the rate of female genital mutilation still ranks at 100%. Fatuma’s Kenya is a far cry from the bustling concrete jungle that is Nairobi. She grew up at the epicentre of a tribal war between Borana, Gabra and Rendille ethnic groups. As the daughter of a Gabra woman and a Borana man, Fatuma was caught between conflicting sides, unable to see “the other” as an enemy. When a massacre erupted in 2005 killing members of all groups and almost 100 children at a school, Fatuma was working as a lawyer in the country’s capital. Having battled adversity herself to succeed, the horrific event lead her to rethink her goals: “I felt like the legal practice is good but it was empty in itself. It wasn’t solving the big problems. It was one-on-one cases and we had these tribes fighting and it was more of gun violence more of people being killed every day and arranged cases.”


It was time to make the arduous three-day journey back to her home town of Marsabit. Beyond the courts and the killing fields, village elders “arranged” cases by ordering the payment of 100 cows to compensate the family of a killed man: "half the price if it’s a woman”, says Fatuma shaking her head, “so it makes it cheaper to kill more women!” After failing to be heard at an elders’ meeting, the young lawyer decided to rally the women. This proved no easier feat: “What I didn’t know was that the women were not ready. They were the ones who were actually pushing for the fighting, they were the ones cooking for the men who are out in the bush with the guns, they were the ones who sing for them,” Fatuma remembers. Instead of talking, the women were shouting. Abuse was hurled, so were shoes and chairs. Disheartened but not ready to give up, Fatuma arranged a second meeting. This time with a slightly different approach: “I took a chair, I sat in the middle and I said ‘Don’t talk to each other, just talk to me.’” After listening to their combined stories of suffering through conflict, Fatuma asked them: “What can we do together, one common thing?” When the only response was deathly silence, she suggested performing a traditional massage: “So sitting across from each other a Borana woman was massaging a Gabra woman, a Rendille woman was massaging a Borana woman and they all broke down. That sealed it for them and they said: ‘Oh we’re ready now, we will make a joint statement.’” They marched to the District Commissioner’s Office waving a memo opposing the war and refuting their right to be avenged.


It was a large step in the direction of change, but not the end of the road. Marionettes to the elders, young boys were still fighting, shedding their blood in village raids. Fatuma’s work was only just beginning. And this time, football would come into play.  


It was Fatuma’s father who instilled the passion of football within her, traversing accepted gender roles and taking her to matches. She watched from the side lines, observing the players closely and learning by studying their moves. But she still hadn’t actually tried any of them out herself when she set off to lure the young warriors away from the battle fields and onto the pitch. “I didn’t even have a real soccer ball, so we just collected trash. One of my brothers helped me make a ball. He made a big ball because he said ‘You’re going to make the big boys play, so it can’t be like this small, tiny ball!” With it they strode off to the pitch and Fatuma boldly asked “Can we play a joint game?” After 30 minutes of arguing, the boys finally agreed: “We are going to teach her how to play.” It was the first time Fatuma kicked a ball. It may only have been a football made out of rubbish, but it was enough. For the time being. When, at the end of the match, the young men asked her: “Why are we here?” Fatuma responded: “Let’s shoot to score instead of shooting to kill.” The seed was sown for one of HODI’s later projects that aimed to “replace bullets with footballs”.


The Horn of Africa Development Initiative was established in 2003 to foster peace, but also to provide legal aid to the people of Marsabit who lacked the funds for a lawyer. Until the conflict subsided, the main focus of the organisation’s work was on the young warriors themselves. Only when it became safe enough to enter the villages and engage with the girls, did Fatuma and her staff address another issue close to her community and her heart: Gender Equality.


From her own school days, Fatuma remembers large numbers of girls dropping out to be married. “I was in a girls’ school and we had 56 girls in my class. I was in grade 7 and as I transitioned to grade 8 we were only 17 and for everyone else it’s ok and I was like: ‘It cannot be ok!’” Luckily, her own parents saw the importance of education for all of their children and her father promised not to force her into marriage. This supportive background allowed her to voice opinions others didn’t feel they had a voice to express. She proceeded to do so with a passion, prompting he father to throw caution to the wind: “You can win all your arguments, but that is not the reality out there, so you have to be prepared at times that something can belong to you and you know it’s yours by right, but someone else can take it away and then you have to learn how to stand up for yourself and defend it and fight back to get it back.” To do so, she felt that law was the right medium. 


At HODI, Fatuma began treading a different path: to tackle girls’ and womens’ issues before they made it to the courts. She and her colleagues began working with local schools, asking them to nominate girls to take part in a football programme. The simple act of having to shout for a team mate to pass the ball taught the girls to express themselves and stand up for their rights. But then the entire team was kidnapped for marriage.


It took Fatuma two years to build up the courage to start again. She thought: “Maybe just working with the schools alone was not enough, so engage the parents, bring the fathers on board, have sessions with the mothers, to engage the girls in a different way.” She also made the girls see that rights come with responsibilities:


“You can’t miss a class, you can’t miss a day of school even if you’re sick you go to hospital and go back to school, not back home. We’re able to monitor that through the class teachers and now it has become almost a culture in every school. I don’t want a single girl missing one lesson because one lesson is one too many.”


HODI has since established the “Breaking the silence” programme, which consists of four modules: “Be yourself, be healthy, be empowered and know something about money. So no one will cheat you a thousand shillings!” Fatuma laughs.  


When she recently visited one of the local schools to assess the direct impact of HODI’s projects, she asked the teachers if the work was worth continuing with. “Fatuma, for three years not a single girl has dropped out of the entire school,” came the response: “No one will allow you to stop it.”


Though the situation in Marsabit has already vastly improved, Fatuma states that there is still much left to do. Her responsibilities, however, have changed in recent years: “I have handed over the baton to the next generation to take it forward. So my role now is more networking and resource mobilisation and I don’t do the actual day to day work now. But, for me, that is also growth and letting the younger women take leadership.” Since being introduced to the world of football for good by fellow streetfootballworld network member Espérance (Rwanda) and a mutual contact at the German GIZ, she realised that she could use her expertise to affect change on a global scale.


Only a year after joining the streetfootballworld network with her own organisation, she took aim for her next goal: To become a member of the Network Board. Her first application failed. “I was carrying a baby who was six months old, breast feeding, going out to change diapers. I was in and out of the whole meeting. I didn’t feel bad, I was good,” she remembers. Two years later she reapplied and was accepted. “I was elected in Brazil and I even felt much better than on the day I was admitted to the bar which was just like I’m this lawyer but now I’m this champion who champions football for good. This accomplishment was way bigger,” Fatuma smiles. Her first term was dedicated to engaging the young people of the network: “I felt strongly it’s not enough that we say we work with two million young people and they don’t sit at the table and my push then was to have a youth council. A youth council that is elected by young leaders themselves and when we get to a meeting as board members then there should be the youth council meeting alongside the board of adults and that youth council should then inform and be the driving force for the network.”


For her second term, as part of the streetfootballworld Network Board, one of her main roles will be to focus on gender equality. “Literally ¾ of me is gender equality!” she says laughing. “Because I feel so strongly about it and I feel we haven’t done enough.” She intends to expand upon the groundwork already laid by streetfootballworld and translate the policies on gender equality into reality on the ground. When she spoke to FOOTBALL4GOOD Magazine just after International Women’s Day she was eager to start work and took stock of the current status of women’s rights: “Personally, I feel like every day should be International Women’s Day.” She feels there is a lot to already celebrate and wishes to send a message of hope to the young girls in the network: “Look at me! I’m just a normal girl from the bush and I’m sitting here, sitting in a board serving 125 organisations, reaching two million children. There is nothing impossible, you just have to believe in yourself and follow your heart and follow your dreams. It’s possible.”    



Read more in our FOOTBALL4GOOD quaterly magazine here

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