A young woman with a cause. That’s Habiba Cooper Diallo, who at 12 became concerned about “obstetric fistula,” a hole in the birth canal caused by long labour, especially among impoverished women. Now 22, Habiba has won awards, received international media attention and written a book for young adults called Yeshialem Learns About Fistula. She started Women’s Health Organization International to work toward its eradication.
The daughter of a Jamaican mother and a Guinean/Liberian father was born in Toronto. Habiba’s Jamaican grandmother worked as a nanny several months a year in Canada. Family members later moved here including Afua, Habiba’s mother. A teacher in Jamaica, she arrived in the ‘80s, worked in a women’s shelter and studied at University of Toronto, ultimately earning her Ph.D. Habiba’s father left Liberia at 12 on a scholarship to school in Kuwait and then university. In the ‘80s he moved to France and then Canada, where he worked on an Ontario farm and then moved to Toronto where he met Afua. He became a bus driver. “He was really passionate about his job. He was a real people person,” says Habiba.
We connected because we had the same experiences growing up with immigrant parents.
The household celebrated their cultures with music, language and food. “My dad could cook like a Jamaican,” Habiba laughs. There were cultural connections, including similar words in Jamaican patois and his language, Fulani. Sadly, he died of a heart attack in 2010. A year later the family moved to Halifax as Afua became the James R. Johnston Chair in African Canadian Studies at Dalhousie University, a six-year term. She remained to teach, while Habiba’s sister returned to Toronto to study.
Habiba identifies as a Black Canadian from two cultural backgrounds. “When my dad died, I missed him and that culture. My dad didn’t talk that much about his life in Liberia and Kuwait and his migration; we held on dearly to each snippet.” In Toronto her friends were from various backgrounds. “We connected because we had the same experiences growing up with immigrant parents.”
Settling here was challenging for her parents, but not because they were destitute. “It’s kinda funny, white Canadians expect that to be the story. It’s not my experience but, nonetheless, it was hard for them in the beginning.” And they faced racism — “a lot, a lot.” Habiba is annoyed to be frequently asked where she’s from. “I feel like society always wants to exclude us. I’m Canadian; I was born and raised here. But some people aren’t happy with that answer.”
At Halifax Grammar, she participated in the school paper and debating club. At 16, she knew she wanted to become a doctor and fight fistula. With her B.A. in African Studies from the University of London, Habiba worked at Dalhousie as a program assistant on a global health contract. She is now job hunting, taking courses toward medical school and working on her organization. “Of all the women who have fistula, less than one percent will get treatment. They don’t have enough doctors.” As a doctor in Africa, using Canada as a home base, Habiba is going to help to change that.