The Scientific and Guarantee Committee of the Alexander Langer Foundation, composed of Anna Maria Gentili (President), Anna Bravo, Andrea Lollini, Barbara Bertoncin, Edi Rabini, Fabio Levi, Franco Travaglini, Gianni Tamino, Grazia Barbiero, Helmuth Moroder, Liliana Cori, Mao Valpiana, Margit Pieber, Pinuccia Montanari and Ursula Apitzsch has decided to bestow the International Alexander Langer Award 2008 upon the Somali village Ayuub, in memory of its founder Maana Suldaan ‘Abirahmaan ‘Ali ‘Iise.
In 1992, in the middle of the heavy crisis which hit Somalia after the fall of Siad Barre's regime, Maana Suldaan ‘Abirahmaan, daughter of the last Sultan of Merca, could not stand watching the streets of her town full of women and abandoned children who were trying to escape from violence and hunger. She opened wide the doors of her home to them, took care of them, fed them with the help of a group of Somali women. They were surrounded by total chaos. The country was down on its knees, without any rules. The “Lords of war” were fighting among themselves. However - and this is the first of Maana's many teachings - even in such circumstances people could take positive action.
Action was taken for the children: their families were traced; the ones who remained alone were given to adoptive mothers. A kindergarten and a medical/nutritional centre were organized to take care of over 500 young children, to help birthing mothers, to treat infectious diseases. Schools were organized for children and teenagers. In 2007, 12,215 pupils were attending these schools. Action was taken for the whole population: 300 km of irrigation canals were created, an NGO and a village were founded. The desert area where the village was founded turned into a green oasis, with vegetables, trees and fruit, animals. The village and the NGO were named Ayuub, after the first child who was found next to the body of his dead mother.
Maana taught us that “rebuilding” does not necessarily mean reproducing the past. She acted following the traditional solidarity of prominent families. But, more importantly, she renewed this tradition. The village of Ayuub has had a democratic administration for the last six years, trying to overcome tribal, gender and social class divides. Women represent the majority of students, which amounts to a revolution in the face of the prevailing mentality. As in 2004 Somalia experienced a hope for peace and a provisional Parliament was elected, Maana fought for a strong representation of women. In the end, the proportion of women in parliament was 12%.
Above all, Maana successfully fought to convince women to stop the tradition of feminine genital cutting. She introduced its transformation into a symbolic ritual which does not damage the women's body. “Women are the biggest resource of Somalia”, she used to say. “It is solely thanks to them that life continues here, in spite of decades of war”.
Maana was not alone in her work. She could count on the help of Elio Sommavilla, a priest coming from the Italian province of Trento, as well as a university professor of geology. Elio chose to live in Somalia. He respected and took care of this land as if it were his own. He started simple and environment-friendly projects to search for water. Together with some young local people, Elio founded the association “Water for Life - Acqua per la vita”, which is based in Trento but is linked also to other Italian towns. “Water for Life” receives funding not only from public institutions, but also from ordinary citizens, through long-distance adoptions and twinning programs between 26 schools in Italy and Merca. The twinning programs make for an intense cultural exchange: Somali teachers and children are given impulse to rediscover and practice their cultural and artistic traditions: music, dance, theatre, sport, handicraft workshops to produce objects that they can then send to the partner schools. The children in Italy, on the other hand, send them letters, videotapes, small amounts of money that they collect at home, through savings earned by avoiding wastes or participating in the domestic chores. Everybody can do something: this is Maana's teaching. Moreover, one can work with others without losing his/her own identity: like she did, a Muslim, Somali woman who worked with Elio Sommavilla, a Western man, a Catholic priest.
On December 14th, 2007, Maana died suddenly, at the age of 54. The cause of her heart attack, according to her close collaborators, was not the huge quantity of work packing up her days, but rather the grief over the growing flow of refugees coming from Mogadishu.
However, the village of Ayuub, the product of her work, is still standing strong. With the 2008 International Alexander Langer Award, the Foundation intends to support Maana's collaborators, her friends, her activities and her legacy.