To good health!
From lab technician to FHML student to national decision maker: after spending a number of formative years at Maastricht University, Abdifatah Ahmed Mohamed has returned to his native Somalia. There he aims to make a difference as Director of Policy and Planning at the Ministry of Health and Human Service.
“Yes, I work solid hours,” he laughs. The UM graduate has a lot on his plate. “I’m in charge of everything to do with health planning in the country: policy, planning, governance, coordination, financing, information provision and communication.” Add to that partnership and contract management with international organisations like the WHO, UNICEF and the World Bank, as well as close collaboration with other government departments.
“It’s really stressful, but I feel proud to be able to contribute. This is what I wanted to do.” Mohamed was appointed by the ministry eight months ago, after many years working with international NGOs and three degrees at UM. “In Maastricht, I was always a bit jealous of the institutional capacities of European countries. I saw it as my duty to come back and do something about the healthcare challenges in Somalia.”
After more than 30 years of civil war, the country indeed faces many health challenges. “We’re under-resourced financially, but also in terms of personnel and infrastructure. And we’re working within very immature institutions. It’s a fragmented system that relies heavily on donor support from institutions like EU or the World Bank.”
Mohamed grew up in a small village in the south of Somalia. “The soil is fertile; we have enough rainfall and a river. The natural environment could support prosperity.” Before the war, the village had a sugar factory, an electric grid and a railway. Now the country suffers from a lack of infrastructure and struggles with preventable tropical diseases.
“I knew things could be better. I was always ambitious and eager to learn.” He won a scholarship to train as a lab technician in Nairobi and, after returning, joined the Doctors Without Borders clinic in his village. “I understood what they needed from me, so I grew quickly within the organisation.” Mohamed went on to advise on cultural issues in their office in Norway. “I liked the work, but I felt a bit helpless; I was desperate to change things, so I looked for a way to have more of an impact.”
Abdifatah Ahmed Mohamed obtained his bachelor’s in European Public Health and two master’s degrees (Healthcare Policy Innovation & Management and Global Health) at UM. After working for Doctors Without Borders and other NGOs, he is now Director of Policy and Planning at Somalia’s Ministry of Health and Human Service.
“This is where I have to be”
As noble as his motivations were, the next step could hardly have been more mundane: “I googled ‘public health in the Netherlands in English,’” he laughs. “I found UM and thought: this is it! This is where I have to be.” That feeling was confirmed during his studies. “I also came to appreciate how important it was for me to gain more knowledge in the health sector if I really wanted to make a difference.”
This ambition led him to the master’s programmes in Healthcare Policy Innovation & Management and Global Health. “It’s exactly what’s urgently needed in Somalia. Global Health has really shaped how I view big international organisations in the field. It gave me a new perspective on what globalisation actually means.”
During the programme he worked on diverse global health projects. “We collaborated remotely with people from many backgrounds on different continents, from Canada to India, China and Sudan.” He made lasting friendships from the international cohort, as well as building up a professional network. “I’m still in touch with people doing relevant PhDs or working for the WHO, the Swiss Tropical Institute and so on.”
Mohamed looks back on his time at UM with fondness and gratitude. “Maastricht shaped the man I am today—I use the knowledge and in particular the skills I acquired during my three degrees on a daily basis.” Still, it was a challenge, both academically and personally. “It was a new life, a new city, many new cultures … In my first year, I didn’t really get Maastricht. By the third year I was helping others settle in.”
That UM is highly international is hardly news. “But you don’t appreciate just how international it is unless you stay in Maastricht for a bit. For me, it was eye-opening to learn about the differences between European cultures as well: Dutch, Belgian, French, Spanish, Italian and so forth.”
Swearing at drivers
Mohamed appreciated the straightforward Dutch communication style and the lack of hierarchy. His time here certainly had a lasting impact: “I got used to driving in the Netherlands. Upon my return to Mogadishu, where traffic is a lot less rule-based, I found myself swearing at the other drivers. That’s when I realised I had changed,” he laughs.
“I love Maastricht, it still feels like home. I can’t wait to visit again. Still, I always knew I’d have to come back and do my part to help Somalia.” Mogadishu, already overpopulated and growing ever larger, has a thriving nightlife and a beach. Mohamed may have his work cut out for him, but he is happy and confident that Somalia can thrive.
Text by: Florian Raith
Photography by: Abdifatah Ahmed Mohamed
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