“My dream job” is how Hoda Hersi ’06 describes her position as project manager with BBC Media Action in Hargeisa, Somaliland, an autonomous region of Somalia.
“I love my work because I know I am making a difference,” says Hersi, who develops programming on social issues relevant to Somalia. “There’s also no typical day, and that definitely keeps it interesting.”
Hersi grew up approximately 3,500 miles southwest of Hargeisa in Gaborone, Botswana. Her father worked for UNICEF, and she and her sisters attended Westwood International School.
Her older sister, Saharla ’04, led Hersi to Decorah in 2001. “My sister enrolled at Luther in 2000 and liked it and the town a lot,” says the globetrotting Hersi. “So the year after she moved to Iowa, I asked my dad if I could join her there.” Her father agreed, and on New Year’s Day 2001 Hersi arrived in Decorah, where she was soon taking classes, making friends, and getting acclimated to Western culture at Decorah High School.
“It took time,” she says, to adjust to living as a minority, but she found the town every bit as warm and welcoming as her sister had. “I was living in Decorah during the attacks of September 11, 2001, and people were very thoughtful and very kind,” she says. “That’s one of the main reasons I decided to stay in Decorah and enroll at Luther in 2002.”
Hersi initially thought about majoring in social work, but ultimately focused her studies on communications. “The classes were challenging, and communication studies really fit me,” she says. “I enjoy public speaking, logic, reasoning, and debate—and I really like to talk.”
After graduating, Hersi worked briefly on a UNIFEM project with the Ministry of Family Affairs and Social Work targeting violence against women in Somalia. According to the United Nations Development Programme, the East Africa country has one of the highest rates of sexual- and gender-based violence in the world. “The violence against the women (and ultimately including the children) that I worked with was so horrific I couldn’t stomach it,” she says. She resigned that job within a year.
The time was right, she decided, to return to the classroom—this time in England, where she earned a master’s degree in international communications from the University of Leeds in 2008. Shortly thereafter, she returned to Somalia when her younger sister, who had just become engaged, asked her to help plan her wedding. Weeks later she accepted a job opening an office for a local NGO (non-governmental organization) that worked with abused children.
A communications position with the American consulting firm DAI followed before Hersi landed her BBC job in November 2012. The aim of BBC Media Action—the corporation’s international development charity—is to inform, connect, and empower people around the world. For Hersi and her team, headquartered in Hargeisa, that means developing and overseeing programming that fosters a sense of Somali identity and inspires people to engage in their communities and the social issues that affect them. “The programs have to be relevant to all areas of Somalia, Somaliland, and Puntland,” Hersi says, “and they must be entertaining and well written.”
From 2012 to 2014, she worked to improve family health in Somalia by helping produce the radio show Tiraarka Qoyska (Pillars of the Family), which tackled subjects such as health maintenance and disease prevention, including the importance of sound nutrition and good hygiene. The show regularly reached more than 300,000 people in Somaliland alone. Currently Hersi helps create the entertaining, yet educational, radio drama Maalmo Dhaama Manta (Better Days than Today), which explores a variety of issues facing today’s youth, from jobs and relationships to migration.
“It’s the first interactive program in the country where the audience gets to influence the fate of the characters,” she says. “When I hear from listeners who say the program not only entertained them but also helped them improve their lives, I know that I am doing something worthwhile.”
For more on BBC Media Action’s work in Somalia, visit lczine.com/hodahersi.