Somalia has the longest coastline in mainland Africa, stretching more than 3,000 kilometers (1880 miles) across the Horn.
But for decades, those pristine beaches remained untouched and devoid of people and activities. And as the nation gained a semblance of peace in 2011, Somalis flocked there to swim and eat at newly-opened seaside restaurants, only for them to become a target for terrorists. The attacks on beachgoers was a testament to the continued erosion of safe spaces amid an increasing wave of brazen and hellacious violence.
Ilwad Elman, a 28-year-old social activist, wants to change that by leveraging the ocean’s proximity as a way to heal old wounds and alleviate the problems of war. Through her organization the Elman Peace and Human Rights Center, the 2017 Quartz Africa Innovator works to reintegrate former child soldiers and assisting victims of sexual violence. The prolonged conflict, limited care facilities and the social stigma associated with mental problems have meant the prevalence of mental illness in Somalia—one in three according to the World Health Organization in 2011—is higher than in other low-income and war-torn nations.
To deal with this, Elman has introduced yoga and surfing therapy as a way to explore the therapeutic benefits that spending time in the ocean, learning to surf, and connecting with one’s body through yoga can have on victims of war. Elman says they hope to explore these alternative techniques to therapy and counseling to empower young people to open up, share their stories, and challenge the emotional and psychological stress they face on a daily basis.
“We have been ingrained, trained, and raised to just move on from any traumatic issue,” Elman said, from Mogadishu. “We don’t grieve, we don’t mourn, and it’s considered a sign of weakness or a Western belief that you talk about your problems and you actually explore them deeper to figure out how to cope.”
For the yoga project, the organization sent two of its caseworkers to train with the Nairobi-based Africa Yoga Project, which uses the practice of yoga to boost employability and increase service engagement. After coming back, the social workers integrated yoga into their existing support systems.
For the surfing, the Cape Town-based Waves for Change, which uses therapy to engage youth in townships donated 10 boards. Elman then engaged some of the child soldiers rehabilitating at their center to help them cope with physical and psychological trauma. “So many of the people we work with have been in survival mode their whole lives,” Elman said. And surf therapy has been “a great tool to start a conversation.”
Elman said threats still persisted during training sessions at beaches. Traditional social structures also meant physical openness by girls in public was frowned upon at times. But Elman says they are determined to go through with the project, and also collect empirical evidence on the true impacts and benefits of these activities. “It will be really important in building an architecture for mental health in Somalia,” she said.