2/2014
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Young people want to change the world

Rather than sending remittances, younger generation prefers personal engagement and mobilization of their networks.

Second generation, the children of migrant parents, are often believed to be less engaged in the country of their parents, for example in terms of sending remittances. A story of Sahra Ibrahim Malin, a young woman of Somali descent in Europe, gives another picture of the involvement of young Somalis in the diaspora.

Sahra started recently a project called Beat Thirst, which aims at building a water well providing clean water in Jazeera, a small village of approximately 300 households on the outskirts of Mogadishu. In Somalia, less than 30 per cent of the population has access to clean water, which reduces access to adequate sanitation and hygiene facilities and increases the risk for waterborne diseases as well as tensions among people over access to clean water.

For Sahra, the decision to drill a well results from awareness of what is going on in Somalia as she has heard stories from relatives who visited Somalia. In addition, it is a personal decision to make an impact in the world, a personal challenge as Sahra explains: 

"When I was 20 I made a list of things I want to do before I am 30, one of them was to provide people with access to clean water. However, I became more skeptic of my ability to really make a difference. When I lost my father a couple of months ago, I was reminded of how little time we have and how much our good deeds matter. Amongst many things my father was very invested in Somalia’s development, especially in terms of education. He is the inspiration for me to try the best I can to also play my role in rebuilding Somalia”.

Sahra and her relationship to Jazeera

The role of Sahra’s family in engaging in such a project has been decisive. Sahra was born in Somalia in 1989. Like many Somalis who fled the violence of the conflict in the early 90s, she migrated with her family in 1993 in the Netherlands. Arriving there at the age of four, she was able to go to school straight away and start her education.

Growing up in the Netherlands was not always easy. As the only black family in the neighborhood, she and her family would stand out and be recognizable as foreigners. She developed early on a passion for reading, and this was fostered by her father and family. Gradually things started to improve as she and other kids grew up, she remembers. 

Sahra with her parents in the Netherlands.

Engaging socially in Somalia is one of the legacies of her recently deceased father. Jazeera is the place where the roots of Sahra´s family are, where her father came from and is now buried. The father, Ibrahim Malin Mursal was an important figure in Sahra’s life and he always encouraged her to study and be ambitious. Moreover, he was active in Somalia himself, and engaged over the last years in the re-establishment of peace in the capital, with a particular focus on Jazeera:

“To me he is a role model when it comes to the project but also in general when it comes to making a social impact. He instilled in me the confidence that I can do something like this and that I can do it well and justly.”

Ibrahim Malin Mursal was involved in reconciliation processes in Somalia.

Against stereotypes of Africa

Sahra did her master degree in law at the University of Maastricht. The choice of the studies in law was a way to prepare herself for an international career path, especially for work in Africa.

“I have always heard negative things about Africa, sometimes it was like I had to feel ashamed because it was described as a horrible place. I wanted to fix this, in fact, the older I got, the more curious I was about my roots, and fascinated with this beautiful and rich continent with big issues”.

Now aged 25, Sahra lives in Zurich, Switzerland. She works in project management and business analysis for an American agriculture manufacturer, and explains her joining this company as part of her career objective to fight against stereotypes about Africa.

“The reason I joined the company I am working for was because I had heard about their efforts to set up agriculture trainings with local communities they are involved with in Africa and I wanted to learn from this company. It fits with my ambition to eventually contribute to rebuilding Somalia, and more broadly to develop Africa as a resilient and self-sufficient continent“, she says.

Building water wells has traditionally been a common practice, because it is a relatively cheap and easy way of providing a large number of population with access to clean water. Moreover, in Islamic tradition, building a water well is a blessed gift because it counts as a good deed even after death.

While many wells are built in the region of Jazeera, they are shallow hand dug wells, which easily fall out of use because of lack of maintenance, and this may lead to contamination and depletion of the ground water. Salt water intrusion is also a risk.

Children at the bassin behind a water well in Jazeera, a small village on the outskirts of Mogadishu

“I want to drill a modern well with inside casing to prevent different levels of water mixing. It will also run deep to prevent the water supply from being easily contaminated and to avoid that it is heavily influenced by the climate conditions. The well will also be sealed off with a water pump. What I mean with sustainable access to clean water is that it can act as a source of water in the long term as well as that it minimally affects the ecosystem and the availability of the ground water.”

Participative approach

To ensure that the water well doesn’t suffer the same fate as many water wells before it – being left unused due to lack of maintenance – the building of the well has to be combined with training on maintenance.

The project needs the participation and input of the targeted community, the knowledge of the reality on the ground. The lack of basic information and reliable reports regarding, for example, the basic needs of the community, land ownership issues and location of ground water, are big challenges for persons like Sahra, who has neither lived in Somalia since she fled the country with her family, nor visited the country since then. Therefore, a youth organization active in Jazeera is an invaluable resource as they are able to collect the needed information from the local people. Moreover, this collaboration proves to be crucial because it also strengthens community ownership over the water well and respective responsibilities, too.

The participatory approach involves not only the community in Jazeera, but also the funding of the project. To raise funds, the project was posted online (gofundme.com/beatthirst). It aimed at raising 10.000 euros in four months, the amount needed for building a water well.

In the first two weeks, already 1.500 Euros were donated. Sharing the aims and objectives of the project through social media was an effective way to raise funds, and also a good way to gain visibility for the project. It was a project that everyone could easily relate to and promote access to clean and safe water.

At the current stage the project is mainly raising funds. Sahra plans to travel to Jazeera soon to discuss with local actors the location of the well and see for herself how things are going on. The construction of the well is planned for the month of May, before the month of Ramadan starts.

To build a water well takes money, approximately 10 000 euros.

Sustainable access to clean water involves also preventive health care such as training and information on first aid, hygiene, and disease prevention. Training will be available to everyone who is living in the area and willing to participate.

Organization of the training will happen in collaboration with local NGOs. Sahra's professional network and the internet allow her to get in touch with several NGOs active in southern Somalia. They provide her with their expertise in the organization and design of these trainings, and give useful information as for the available resources and major challenges on the ground.

So far, the organizing of the training is under way. The community is identifying one male and one female representative to be trained by the Mogadishu Red Cross on a “train the trainer” basis.

Youth as agents of social change

Contributing to Somalia has been in Sahra’s mind a long time already, but widespread insecurity in Somalia has been a deterring factor. Although the parliamentary election in 2012 was a marker of fragile peace, the idea of engaging in a project in southern Somalia is subject to risks and unexpected challenges.

 “Southern Somalia is still in a (post-) conflict situation, which means that there are security concerns. I haven’t been to Somalia since early childhood and I am not aware of what resources are available there and what potential barriers I might encounter. I understand that there are a lot of risks and a lot of factors that could stand in the way of this project being successful. This has been my deterrent in the past, but I have realized that this just shows how valuable and necessary such a project is.”

Sahra´s project illustrates diasporic youth of Somali descent as agents of social change in Somalia. This involvement is closely related to the relationship with their parents, and the role and influence they had in the lives of young people. Rather than sending remittances, younger generation prefers personal engagement and mobilization of their different social and professional networks.

Participative approach is a way to keep the wells in use. 

Building a water well is a practical act to help a large population to access clean water. But more broadly, the act is guided by a willingness to change the world. As Sahra says:

“I think many of us are just looking for a way to leave our mark, in a way we are waiting for the situation to settle down and the country to allow us to help.”

Faduma Abukar Mursal 

The author is a PhD student at the Max Planck Institute for Social anthropology in Halle/Saale, Germany.

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Photos: Sahra Ibrahim Malin and Salman Ibrahim Malin