Doing a PhD In Pandemic Times: A Somali Mother’s Journey

This blogpost is part of a series of blogposts about my #PhDlife as a #PhDMum. #SomaliWomenDoingPhD #DoingAPhDInAfrica #DHUM

In January of 2020, I was one of three lucky people who got accepted, after a competitive recruitment process, into a fully-funded PhD research program. The collaborative research project Somali Diaspora Humanitarianism in Complex Crises (#DHUM, @Diaspora_Hum) was launched at the University of Nairobi on February 28, 2020 and is managed by a consortium; @IDS_UONBI, @rakorcc, @diisdk, and @RVInews. The project brings together diverse researchers who all share an interest in the Somali diaspora and the ways in which they mobilize, channel and deliver humanitarian relief support during complex crises in Somalia and Somaliland.

My research area

Migration is a central theme in my family’s history and present life. My mother hails from Yemen and my father from Somalia. They met in Mogadishu as teenagers where they got married and later relocated to Zambia. I was born in Mogadishu myself but grew up in many places around the world and I am a Dutch citizen. My father, in his adventurous journeys, traveled from the rural villages of Somalia to Mogadishu then onwards to Kenya, Tanzania and finally, Zambia. He passed on in the year 2000 after a short illness and is buried in Lusaka, Zambia’s capital city.

I have always been interested in the Somali diaspora. Numerous studies have studied the Somali diaspora in the West and how they take part in humanitarian action in Somalia. But what do we know about the Somalis within the African continent and the ways in which they take part in humanitarianism in Somalia? What do we know about the role of the private sector – the businessmen and women on the African continent and their contributions? I am interested in the Somali diaspora dispersed within the African continent characterized by mobility, entrepreneurship and humanitarianism. I came to live and work in Puntland in 2008 from the diaspora myself – the Netherlands to be exact- within the framework of the Diaspora Partnership Program to work with local organizations on Project Cycle Management. In an earlier blogpost I had shared my experiences about those early days.

The Somalis in Zambia

The Somalis in Zambia have maintained strong ties with Somalia eversince they first arrived there in the 1960s. Somali mobility in Africa is shaped by both crises and by opportunities. My research explores the particular nature of the Somali diaspora being a long-term diaspora in Zambia and thus an interesting contrast to refugees diaspora. I am intrigued by the crossroads of business, gender and the motivation to give in Somali intra-Africa humanitarianism. Somalis in Zambia contribute both humanitarian support and more long-term development work, simultaneously. They first arrived there to work as expatriate drivers in 1966 through collaboration and agreement between the Somali government and the then president of Zambia, the founding father Dr. Kenneth Kaunda. They are thus a salient case of migration due to economic advancement rather than conflict. Through my research, I hope to explore the ways the Somali businessmen and women in Zambia are involved in the mobilization, channeling and delivery of humanitarian relief support to Somalia during complex crises.

Why gender?

The role of women and youth in disaster response both at home and in the diaspora is crucial in understanding the movement of goods, ideas, and systems but also the institutions, social networks, etc that facilitate or block such support. We have seen, for example in recent emergencies in Somalia, that young people respond differently to crises in Somalia using technology and innovation. Paying attention to gender and generation will help better explore the specific roles of men and women, older and younger generations at the intersection of Somali diaspora humanitarianism and the motivation to give. Studying the role of businesswomen in diaspora humanitarianism will offer a different kind of narrative, depth, clarity and analyses about the connectedness of Somalis beyond borders.

Long and tumultuous years

As I slowly enter the 3rd year of my PhD research project, I look back on the past years. They have been extremely long and tumultuous years. So much has happened in those years. It is unbelievable that so much can actually happen in such a short amount of time. It is not easy to paint a vivid picture of the entire experience. A whole pandemic erupted just as I started this new journey. And like everyone else, we are living with the worries and concerns of COVID19 as we balance work and life. And like everyone else, COVID19 has impacted us both personally and professionally – my family and research project. Living with limited boundaries and the trauma of losing friends and family are some of the challenges. Also, I missed an important study trip to Copenhagen in August of 2021. More personally, I lost a sister, a brother and more recently my beloved mother. The past two years have in many aspects been the most difficult but also the most rewarding.

Coping strategies

What keeps me going? Everyone has a coping strategy to forge ahead in life. I believe in fate, and in the mercy of Allah. I believe that when you put your mind to something, it will often work out. For me, it is the smiles of my children but also the amazing support I receive from my husband and friends. Having a supportive spouse contributes significantly and can make all the difference.

Doing a PhD involves a substantial investment of time and effort. For sure you learn alot about yourself, your strengths, your weaknesses and what keeps you going. As a mother of small children myself and, like many other Somali mothers, a caregiver to extended family and relatives, doing a PhD in a pandemic era can be daunting at times. The social and familial expectations sometimes can be unbearable and may stand in the way of achieving your academic plans. But it is possible and here below I share some of my own personal experiences.

To begin with, I’ve learned that it is crucial to set up your own workspace, even at home or should I say especially at home! A place where you can concentrate and work peacefully. A place where you will be able to find the book or pencil you left on the table yesterday still at the same spot! I coped also by acknowledging my struggles and addressing them one at a time. But also by keeping track of my small wins and celebrating them as I forged ahead towards bigger goals. For example, I celebrated, together with my family, on the day I re-took and passed the Critical Development Studies course exam I had missed on same the day my mum passed away, 18 June 2021.  

Neither the world nor your family will wait for you or make time for you as a busy researcher, you need to catch up with everything. That is why it helps to be a good planner – have a good plan, first and foremost for your own mental and physical health! Make this priority number 1 but be kind and compassionate with yourself also. Also, make a plan on how you will improve and develop your practical research skills.

Passion has kept me engaged most of the time. Passion helped me overcome stress. You must have a passion for what you do! For your research, for reading, for writing and for group work. Notwithstanding, I learned that it is equally important to have supervisors who care not only about deadlines but also about you and your unique situation. I can’t stress enough the importance of having good supervisors.

Finally, keeping a daily journal, prayer, a positive mindset and the practice of Husn Al-Dhan have all helped me look beyond stressful moments and believe that better days lay ahead. Alhamdulilah.


Sahra A. Koshin is a PhD Candidate studying Gender & Somali Diaspora Humanitarianism in Complex Crisis at the University of Nairobi and the University of Copenhagen. You can follow her on Twitter @sahro

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