When Hibaq Mohamed Elmi visits construction sites in the northern Somaliland city of Berbera, she is often mistaken for someone interested in renting or buying the new building. Nobody imagines her to be the architectural engineer on site to oversee the entire construction.
Since setting up her own construction company, called Mama, in March 2020, Hibaq has designed and built 30 private houses and offices in Berbera.
She works a 14-hour day applying for tenders, designing, and over-seeing builds. Yet every day presents challenges due to prevailing stereotypes of women’s role in society.
“I have been facing discrimination since the day I decided to study architecture,” Hibaq told Radio Ergo. “Our society doesn’t believe women can be construction engineers. Whenever they see a building designed by me, people say it must be my employees’ work and that I couldn’t have done it.”
She employs 50 men in her company, 45 as site workers and five in the office, and often has to struggle to ensure they take her instructions seriously as they are not used to being led by a woman.
Hibaq joined Berbera university in 2014 on a scholarship and graduated in architectural engineering in 2018. As a top student in the national Somaliland high school exams, people were amazed that she chose to study engineering and warned that she would surely fail. Luckily, she had some key supporters.
“There was a day I decided to change from the faculty of engineering and forget about my dream as society was not happy with my choice. I consulted the university chancellor and he advised me to continue. He told me to think of what I could be doing for society with my knowledge once I graduate,” she said.
Fighting for construction tenders is the biggest challenge, she says, as at first her bids were always overlooked for those from men. She almost gave up, feeling that clients doubted her ability, and attributes her success to her family, who supported and motivated her when she was at her lowest.
“I encounter several reasons to quit this industry every day. But I come up with as many motivating reasons to keep me going. I want to be a successful architect and I am happy that I have my own company now,” she said.
Hibaq’s exemplary work has been winning her a reputation and more clients are now seeking her services.
She is often asked by both men and the women she meets why she is not married yet. Sometimes people tell her that women belong in the house. Nevertheless, she is happy to brave the attacks in order to inspire other girls, whom she encourages to dream big.
“I am hoping to be the best architect in Berbera and construct beautiful houses,” she declared. “I want to take part in the construction of the country and achieve the highest levels in the construction industry.”
That looks like a cabin one would find in the middle of national parks. Doesn’t look anything close to a pavilion designed for city centre. What a waste of money.
Even the Romans, 3000 years ago, had a better taste in design of a pavilion.
how long does it take to build such a thing. Even the memorial and museum haven’t progressed in months. Seems like they were using them for photo ops for the election!
So small like every monument or architectural statement in SL. Low roof, too many pillars. How many people can use this at any one time. It will probably become another tea spot for the folks.
Why is it taking the Mig monument and the museum so long to finish? The museum has been untouched and not made watertight for over a year now probably two.
11 April 2022 By Rashid Ali
The Courtyard Pavilion nearing completion in Hargeisa’s main square
Last year’s winner of the AJ Small Projects Award was Rashid Ali Architects’ Common Room, a town hall waiting room in Hargeisa, Somaliland. Founder Rashid Ali describes his practice’s work since then
Winning last year’s AJ Small Projects Award with the Common Room and working on our Courtyard Pavilion, another project in Hargeisa, have enabled us, as a practice, to reimagine how we make buildings and spaces that respond to the particular needs of the communities and clients we work with. It has introduced a form of advocacy into our approach, whereby our observations of the city and conversations with communities and public institutions assist us to develop projects that we implement directly. This involves mobilising funding with communities and public institutions, and engaging in the physical production of such spaces and buildings.
Through our research and building in Somaliland, we are also eager to address the climate crisis by reintroducing traditional construction techniques and materials that have sometimes been forgotten. More often than not, collaborating with local makers, universities, public institutions and communities is integral to this new form of practice.
Courtyard Pavilion section
The Common Room has evolved into a miniature social hub, where strangers and friends interact in unexpected ways. Teenagers sneak in to have photos taken for their social media platforms. Out of hours, off-duty security guards squat and enjoy qat, the leaves of a shrub, chewed as a stimulant by local men (and increasingly illegal in several countries).
As was always intended, the Common Room will come to an end in 2023. Since its completion, we have been working with the local government on the design of a new purpose-built town hall. This will sit on the same site and will be a collection of small, interconnected buildings that will retain the intimate character of the existing public courtyard.
There is something really fulfilling about working with low-income communities and in environments with limited resources
Another project that we have really enjoyed working on – and is in some way a continuation of our approach to the Common Room – is the partial redevelopment of Hargeisa’s main square. Although it constitutes only a small section of our original masterplan, Courtyard Pavilion will be the first designed public space in the city. As a concept it’s an homage to an acacia tree that once stood on the site, which in its time became a symbol of civic life and experience for visitors and inhabitants alike. As well as offering shade, seating and drinking water, the central courtyard of the pavilion is a form of miniature botanical garden that will contain a selection of rare indigenous plants from across the Horn of Africa.
The really interesting process for us since we opened our Hargeisa office is to understand the experience and process of building in Africa and the UK. Generally, we have been able to complete more projects in Somaliland than in the UK. This is probably to do with the fact that there is less bureaucracy, a more pressing need to see return on public investment and the fact that, as well as being the architects, we are directly involved in their implementation of projects as a sort of a pseudo-builder, along with local communities and makers.
View to garden elevation, Woodside Cottage, a residential project in Surrey. © Lyndon Douglas
Regarding the two projects in the UK that we have worked on in the same period, our residential project in Surrey will be completed this summer, while our Leicester community centre proposal has recently gone to tender. Generally, about two-thirds of my time is spent in Somaliland. We visit the UK when necessary and tend to work with collaborators or executive architects to oversee most of the site work. I try to visit at key stages. I am currently visiting to oversee and review tenders of the Leicester community centre. The pandemic has taught us that it’s not always necessary nor cost-effective to have a fully resourced office for our UK projects while we have more work in Somaliland. Technology has enabled us to work with long-established collaborators on implementation and we visit for important decisions when necessary.
We are still eager to gain more work in the UK, especially in the housing and cultural sectors. In this respect, winning the AJ Small Projects Award has raised our profile in some way. The practice has been nominated for two major international awards (to be revealed later in the year). These are for the quality of the projects we have designed in the past 10 years, a modest number of which have been implemented.
As the place where I was educated and worked, I am extremely attached to London, but there is something really fulfilling about working with low-income communities and in environments with limited resources; whether it be capital, or technology and materials.
Veranda at Woodside Cottage. © Lyndon Douglas
Great design and incredible use of space!