Ahmed Afi used to herd camels on Kayaney Mountains in Southern Somalia. He traveled to Kansas State University in Manhattan City of Kansas State to participate in Mandela Washington Fellowship, which is a flagship program of the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) that empowers young people through academic coursework, leadership training, and networking. This was neither a miracle nor serendipity but Ahmed went through a tormenting journey to reach there.
Ahmed was born in the mountainous semi-arid land of Gedo region in Somalia to a nomadic family in 1985. His family was a pastoralist who moved around with their livestock to wherever they might find pastures and water. His father, who was among the respected elders in the community and relatively wealthy, had one dream which he prayed and endeavoured for Ahmed: to see Ahmed taking over the responsibility of looking after family’s camels one day.
Camel ownership is an indication of competence and success for nomadic people in Somalia. It is considered as a sign of wealth and richness. The more heads of camels you own the better position you are in the community. In addition to the economic security that camel provides, it is what leads you to popularity and leadership in the nomadic communities. Therefore Ahmed's father did not want his son to miss this honour and privilege.
To train for his future job and prepare for the harsh life ahead, Ahmed, who was still at his tender age, was sent with vagrant camels. Camel herders, who usually are in their early twenties, give the biggest tasks to the youngest so that they will get used to the harsh situation of camel herding. Thus, Ahmed, who was just seven years of age, had to please his trainers by obeying all their orders from observing the camels when they are playing ‘shah’ (a game that played by Somalis and similar to Nine Men's Morris), to carrying out all the services they needed such as making tea or milking camels for them. Ahmed coped with the vagrant lifestyle quickly and proved competent in the assigned duties.
However, Ahmed had a different dream in his heart; a dream that his father would never agree and allow him to pursue. That dream was to learn the Holly Qur'an which was so dear to him. Those who learned the Qur'an and other religious figures in the community were respected and given special treatment. They did fewer jobs as their main duties were teaching, blessing and praying for the prosperity of the families and livestock; a job that Ahmed wished for and that was main reason why he wanted to learn the Qur’an. But he knew that his father would never agree with him on pursuing that dream. The only option left for him was to sneak out and run away to a town where two of his uncles lived.
Ahmed had never been to urban areas and had no idea of how life in towns or cities would look like. The only thing he knew about towns was that food and clothes were used to be brought from them. He also thought that life in towns was easier as there was no livestock to look after. One morning, Ahmed decided to run away and headed to a direction he thought would lead him to Burdhubo village where his uncles lived.
After a long journey of full of fear, hunger and thirsty, he reached his destination and found his uncles Hajji Islam Afi and Abdi Afi who received him with warm welcome. After a discussion about his situation and aspirations, the two uncles took him to their custody where he stayed for the next three years. In these few years, Ahmed went to both Qur'anic school where he memorized the whole Qur'an within a short time and primary school. Joining the primary school was a new exciting experience for Ahmed and opened a new window of knowledge for him, as he did not know before that there were other things to learn except the Qur'an.
Unfortunately, the civil war, which was raging across the country, had finally stretched to Burdhubo and displaced his uncles with whom he lived, thus forcing Ahmed to go back to savannah. Once again he found himself herding camels on the beak of Kayaney Mountain wearing old sandals and shabby patched-up gowns under the scorching sun; life he left behind three years ago and thought that he would never return to it. At that time, most of the Somali youth at his age, had either joined the worrying armed, clan militias or displaced out of the country. Instead, Ahmed chose another option; to live peace in the push.
Nevertheless, he was far away from being happy. When other camel herders were singing boastfully for their camels and enjoying with what they had, Ahmed was deeply unsettled and worried about his future. In addition to the relative comfort and luxury that he found in Burdhubo, Ahmed missed his learning and schooling. How long would you live in this life? Where could you go in search of education and knowledge? He could not even understand why people chose to live in this way. These questions and many others haunted him day and night without having anyone who he confided in or shared with his grief.
Ahmed started to listen attentively to his parents and other elders conversing and sharing information about the situation of the country, the progress of the civil war and if anything new happened nearby areas. One day, he heard that a well-known Somali sheik (Islamic scholar)named Sheikh Hussein Ibrahim Ahmed, who fled from Mogadishu, arrived in El-adde a nearby town where Ahmed lived and offered religious lessons. Ahmed entreated his father to allow him to join that Sheik and the father finally accepted.
Ahmed became one of the first students of Sheikh Hussein and stayed with him for the following five years. Soonest Ahmed joined, the Sheik and his students, including Ahmed, had relocated to Garbaharey, the capital city of Gedo region about 60km from El-adde due to some unforeseen reasons.
This relocation was sad news for Ahmed. He did not have immediate relatives in Garbaherey whom he might live with. Also, he did not have money or someone else to support him in the coming months and years. He faced hard-to-tolerate life where he slept in the mosque’s floor and relied irregularly on different families for food. Sometimes few days passed him without having food and tossed and turned in his bed because of hunger. Sometimes he reached to a point where he thought to return to his mother where at least he could fill his stomach. Nevertheless, all those hardships did not deter Ahmed from his learning because his desire for knowledge was greater than anything else. He knew that this suffering was short and temporary and that better life was ahead.
Apart from the informal Arabic grammar that the Sheikh offered and one primary school funded by an international NGO which provided up to class five of basic education in Somali language, there was no other education institution at all in the district. Therefore, Ahmed could not get a formal education despite his strong desire for it. Furthermore, Ahmed’s learning was severely restricted by the situation surrounded him. As Garbaharey was one of the worst conflict affected areas in the country, all the learning facilities were destroyed or severely damaged. Classrooms became homes for the displaced people or derelict and since the district had no library or bookshops, textbooks of any kind were hardly available.
The Shiekh, whom he was with, taught Arabic grammar, classics and etiquettes but the problem was that textbooks were hardly available so Ahmed and other students had to, painfully, copy the whole book when the Sheikh was reciting to them. This was so time-consuming that Ahmed and other students used to work late in nights using lamps or candles, as there was no electricity either. However, Ahmed accepted the reality. Instead of wishing for what he could not have, he worked with what he had and kept on his education until he mastered all the subjects that the sheikh taught.
In 2001, Ahmed came to me in a small room in which I taught English language about which I knew very little. Like Ahmed, I was one of those children who were deprived of education by the civil war and stayed in Garbaharey without going to school for many years. But I managed to travel to Nairobi of Kenya and stayed there for three years. Although I did not go to school in Nairobi, as English was the official language of Kenya and almost everyone in Nairobi spoke it, I managed to learn little English through self-study.
I came back to Garbaharey and started teaching the little English I knew voluntarily to those willing to learn it, as there was no other English school in the district. Here was where Ahmed came to me and asked me “do you think I can learn English”? Like many others of his age, Ahmed had never tried learning English before nor did he see anyone knew it thus learning English seemed to him almost impossible.
I told him that he could learn it and that I was ready to help him if he wanted to. Here was where our friendship began. Ahmed, who was about my age, joined my students and committed himself to learning the subject he yearned for many years. Unfortunately, few months later, I had to leave the town to Nairobi again and later to Europe where I live now. But, as the civil war subsided by then which reduced the risk of travelling, Ahmed pursued his learning and traveled to several places in the country where he thought he might get education and finally ended up to Mogadishu where he did his first degree in public and administration at SIMAD University. He also gained another degree in religious studies from University of Science and Technology in Yemen (distance learning).
Ahmed’s effort and patience finally paid off. Today, he holds dual degree: one in Islamic studies and one in public administration. He is the managing director of Gedo Women Development Organisation (GEWDO) a humanitarian organisation he founded to serve the vulnerable women and children in Somalia. He employed over 50 young people of both genders but mostly young women in his organisation. His organisation helped tens of thousands of people, increasing their access to nutrition, food and clean water and providing training, and capacity building for young people and empowering women.
In 2017, Ahmed won The Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders, a flagship program of the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) which is held annually and travelled to Kansas State University in the USA where he explored a lot and expanded his experience and skills. He received certifications and appreciation from K-sate University, the Mayor of Manhattan City and the Department of State of USA. In his Leadership Development Plan (LDP) for next ten years coming, Ahmed titled: “How can I realise Stable, United, Sovereign, Strong and Prosperous Somalia?” that indicates how visionary he is about the future of his country.
He has recently come back to his country to continue supporting his people in many fronts. Three of his Somali fellows disappeared in the US after graduation and sought asylum but Ahmed was true to his commitment and returned home in time.
In a video, widely circulated in the social media, General Myers, the president of K-state University, a retired four-star general in the United States Air Force and the former principal military adviser to the president, said that Ahmed Afi was a young African Leader in the present and he appreciated Ahmed’s work and vision. See the short video here: https://www.facebook.com/cnajiib.aar/videos/1128150720655494/
Ahmed’s story is inspiring and offers good lessons to African youths particularly Somalians who take precarious journey to reach Europe and the US in search for better life. This story teaches us that if we have the will, determination and patience we can materialise our goals without risking our lives even if the situation and the environment in which we live is not friendly and encouraging. It is also a lesson for those advantaged youth, although relatively poor, who were born and grew up in countries where their education, health care and whatever support they may need are made available for them but do not utilise it and sometimes choose to take dangerous and destructive route such as selling drugs to get better life.
Written by Ibrahim Aden Shire