Illustration by John Watson

How Mama Shamsa saves her ‘children’ from extremism

Peace mediator Shamsa Fadhil on countering child marriage and youth crime in Kenya
October 4, 2023

In Switzerland, in early summer, Shamsa Abubakar Fadhil is giving a talk with two of the boys she has saved from a life of violence and extremism. One of them, she tells the audience, used to be the “very difficult to get to” ringleader of a youth gang until Fadhil, known as Mama Shamsa, asked him a question: “Do you know that the way you’re stabbing and stealing from other people’s children, the same will be done to your daughter?” 

This approach worked, both for him and many other Kenyan youths who were rescued by Fadhil’s intervention. Both boys on stage are now peace mediators, which is why they’re here with her at the Emerging Peacemakers Forum in a chateau overlooking the calm of Lake Geneva.

Fadhil, 55, is a national hero to many Kenyans. She says she has managed to “transform the lives of over 10,000 youths”, many from her hometown of Mombasa, which has one of Kenya’s highest rates of juvenile delinquency. Fadhil hosts dozens of her “children” in her home, offering those trying to escape from criminality a blend of mothering and mentorship. “When you feel like you want to cry, come to my house. Cry yourself out,” she says. Fadhil, a Muslim, believes her hikmah (Arabic for wisdom) was given to her by God.

You just need to be there, however bad our children are, and teach them the right path

Kenyan news once showed Fadhil taking wanted youths to the local police station to get amnesty on the condition that they undergo her rehabilitation. The youngsters later seen leaving her home, motivated to change, were “shown on the news every hour,” she says. The next day, dozens of youths were at her doorstep. 

Some argue that the state, not individuals, should deal with Kenyan youth problems. Nonetheless, Fadhil’s approach has won her the Zayed Award for Human Fraternity. She gave her $500,000 prize money to her community. Pope Francis and Grand Imam Ahmed El-Tayeb of Al-Azhar commended her during the ceremony in Abu Dhabi.

Months after I watched Fadhil speak in Geneva, we talk—this time, continents apart, over video call. “It’s never about winning,” she says of the award. But she has had tremendous success on youth reform, as well as countering gender-based violence. In 2014, she created the Focus on Women and Youth in Coast Province for Political Development grassroots organisation, aimed at educating vulnerable children, which was followed by a nationwide campaign. The Kenyan government seeks out her advice; as we speak, she is interrupted by the president’s office.

Fadhil, who was married very young, now works to counter child marriage. As chair of a UN Women-backed network, the National Women’s Peace Committee, she has helped draft government policies to root out the practice. While child marriage is illegal, Fadhil is frustrated by its widespread acceptance, and by the complicity of faith figures who are paid to officiate. She tells me about a time when a faith leader skived off from a conference they were attending to perform a child marriage. For Fadhil, the solution could be economic: it comes down to “not paying enough salary to faith leaders”.

I ask her if that is also the answer to youth crime. “It doesn’t take money,” she insists. “You just need to be there… however bad our children are, and teach them the right path.” They need care and attention: “You can give birth, but being a mother is different… a mother has a big heart to embrace each and everyone.” She would like every society to emulate her message: be a Mama or Papa Shamsa, and save your troubled youth.