The Burco Girls School was an all girls British education academy that opened in 1952 in Burco, Somaliland.
Zaynab is the name of the daughter and granddaughter of the prophet Mohammed PBUH in Islam and being a daughter and granddaughter are the two most important roles I play in my life. This story honors my beautiful grandmother. Allahu yarhamo. May God have mercy on her.
Grandmothers and mothers are so dear in Somali culture. They bring healing, prayers, knowledge and so much love into the family. “Hooyo,” meaning mother in Somali, has the root word “hoy,” meaning home. Your home is wherever Hooyo is. Storytelling is very deep-rooted in Somali culture and often done by Somali elders. In Islam, mothers are also highly esteemed. There is a known hadith (prophetic saying) where the prophet PBUH (peace be upon him) was asked: “Who is most deserving of my good company?” The Prophet said, “Your mother.” The man asked, “Then who?” The Prophet said, “Your mother.” The man asked again, “Then who?” The Prophet said, “Your mother.” The man asked again, “Then who?” The Prophet said, “Your father.” Another known islamic hadith states that heaven lies at your mother’s feet.
I had, and still do have, many wonderful women I call my grandmother. My mom’s stepmother, my grandmother’s younger sister, my stepdad’s mother and all the older women in our family who helped take care of me. Today, however, I want to tell the story of one of my ayeeyos (grandmothers) who passed away when my mother was three years old: my mother’s mother who I never got the chance to know but whose story never fails to amaze me. My ayeeyo was the first child of eight born in her family and was deeply loved and treasured by her parents.
Her story begins in Hargeisa, Somaliland in the 1940s, before war and civil unrest would eventually change my family’s entire life. When she was only six years old, my Ayeeyo got the chance to go to a British boarding school. At this time, it was frowned upon and uncommon for girls to go to boarding school, especially Western boarding schools. Many people in the neighborhood expressed worry to my great grandparents and did not understand why my great grandfather would allow his daughter to attend school at such a young age, especially so far away. But he strongly believed in the importance of education, especially for girls.
Somaliland was colonized by Britain from 1884-1960 and in the 19th century, British schools began to be established. Burco Girls School was an all girls British education academy that opened in 1952 in Burco, Somaliland. My grandmother was a part of the first group of girls to attend this school and also one of the first in her city. The school would collect all the girls in the class in a vehicle and take them to school because it wasn’t within walking distance. The school girls used to only go back home on holidays and would stay in the city in order to attend boarding school for the rest of the year. My ayeeyo was the youngest in her grade of girls to go to school. My great grandfather sent her earlier than others to learn, and at six years old she left home to pursue an education. She used a telegram and wrote letters to communicate with the family while she was away. I can only imagine how courageous she must have been to persevere through that.
My grandmother completed all the grades that were available to her, which was only to seventh grade at the time. Then she went into a two-year teaching program to become a teacher. There were no universities in the region then but some students would go to England or France to attend university. When she became a teacher, she worked on a campaign to help kids and adults gain literacy, teaching them to read and write in Somali, and she taught English as well.
My aunt tells me my ayeeyo worked very hard. She taught for long days and then came home to sew dresses, curtains, and bed sheets to sell in the city. My grandfather was in jail for a time because of civil corruption and so my grandmother had to take care of her children alone. She taught them how to do everything. She was a perfectionist.
My grandmother’s oldest daughter, my aunt, has practiced nursing for many years and is now a philanthropist who aids in financially supporting young girls in Hargeisa to finish their education. She recently visited one of the schools for which she raised money. My mother is a histologist and got her biology degree with a full ride scholarship in the U.A.E. I just finished my bachelor’s degree in biology and hope to acquire my masters degree next. I believe that my ayeeyo was truly a trailblazer for all her children and grandchildren, but especially for her girls, and I know she would be so proud to see where we all are now.
My mother never got to know her mother well, but I see so many similarities between them. My mother was always so passionate about education and enrolled me in STEM programs since elementary school. She has always been my biggest inspiration and influenced my love for science. I have always loved school and am especially passionate about young black girls pursuing STEM education. Everytime I felt like giving up in school because of imposter syndrome and the lack of representation of other black girls in STEM, I thought of her.
The story of my grandmother is special, but so are the stories of many other brilliant and resilient Somali women. Somali people are often known for their resilience, and Somali women are especially resilient. I take great pride in being a Somali woman. I also love writing and this story took a while for me to write. I spoke with multiple family members to piece together my grandmother’s story. This made me realize how important it is to keep the tradition of storytelling alive in our culture. I want to continue to write my experiences and emotions to document my story for future generations. My grandmother’s story holds valuable lessons that can inspire and educate others. By writing this today, I hope to create a meaningful narrative that not only honors my grandmother's legacy but also serves as a testament to the resilience and strength of our family and Somali people.
Because what are we without our stories?
Zaynab Ahmed is a Somali-American creative writer and poet from Minneapolis, MN. Her work is centered around the intersectionality of her identities and lived experiences as a young Somali Muslim woman. Outside of her creative work, she loves working in the STEM field and is passionate about health equity.