Meet Sandra McNeill- Part 1
Sandra McNeill Normally I tell other people’s life stories rather than my own, so this is a rather different experience, but more of that later. I was born slap-bang in the middle of the swinging sixties in Rochester, Kent. Dad, Ted was a printer and Mum, Eileen worked part-time at the local post-office. I did well at school and won a place at the local Grammar School in Gravesend. In 1984, I left home to study for a degree in Politics and History. The miners were on strike, The Clash performed in Brixton, I know, I was there, and I moved into student digs above a chip shop in Bristol, a city I called home for the next 23 years. My first job was in corporate sales. I guess I must have been good at it, as I rose quickly through the ranks of a fairly large PLC and ended up in a senior role but I never felt comfortable with a flash car and an expense account. I met Jim in 1990 and he encouraged me to follow my heart. I left the world of annual bonuses and final salary pension schemes and joined a local manufacturing company. I became the General Manager of Bristol Blue Glass, a small artisan factory with a long history and a world-wide reputation. It was literally out of the frying pan and into the fire…the furnaces were worked at 1400 degrees Celsius, not the place to be in a heatwave! The glassblowers fashioned the glass free-hand using the same tools and techniques the Romans were using some 2000 odd years ago. I never tired of seeing the elemental molten sand transform into a work of art before my very eyes. As well as supplying glass to retailers and running a visitor centre, we also had varied and often exciting commissions; for example, we worked with Warner Brothers Studios to make the goblets which featured in all the Harry Potter Films. One of my proudest career moments was accepting an award from the (then) Chancellor, Gordon Brown for our achievements in manufacturing. The celebration party after at The National Science Museum was pretty good too, what I remember of it. After leaving Bristol Blue Glass, I met another man who was destined to play a significant part in my life. Bristol’s inner city had three of the most socially and economically deprived wards in the country at the time, and I got a job working on an EU funded regeneration project, helping new and existing businesses to develop and grow. My colleague, Latif Ismail arrived in the UK as a young teenage refugee, having fled war-torn Somalia. We hit it off and became close friends. When the EU project came to an end, Jim and I set up our own training company and Latif often worked for us, but he was also doing his own thing too. Mostly he was busy changing the world. Even then. One day in 2008, he called me and asked what I was doing tomorrow? “Nothing much”, I replied. “Great, you are coming to the Foreign Office with me.” And so, began the next part of my career which continues to this day. We worked together on various Foreign and Commonwealth Office funded projects under the Government’s PREVENT programme to combat terrorism but started to do much more besides. By 2012, Latif had decided to return to Somalia, now relatively stable but in urgent need of skills and experience to rebuild itself after more than two decades of a brutal civil war.
He returned with a fierce determination to help bring about lasting peace, democracy and prosperity. It was always going to be an uphill struggle. Somalia regularly appears at the bottom of lists of countries with the ‘lowest’ or ‘poorest’ or ‘worst’ of whatever is being measured. As well as the effects of war, resulting in next to no infrastructure, it is also experiencing the worst of climate damage with increasing and Great friends as well as colleagues. With Latif on a work trip to Nairobi in 2017 persistent droughts and famine on an alarming scale. But the company we built now employs over 40 dynamic, talented people working on projects which are making a difference. Our primary specialism is in governance and state-building projects and in supporting stabilisation by combatting Al-Shabaab the Islamist Militant Extremists who still control swathes of the country. We have worked (and still work) with many international governments including the British, US and Danish; the United Nations and the European Union. We have a track record to be proud of despite the scale of the challenges and as well as our work we have a strong commitment to give back to the local community in Hargeisa where our organisation is based. In Muslim culture, Zakat is a form of charitable giving and is one of the five pillars of Islam. Perhaps the most significant result of our giving is when we worked with other like-minded people to build a secondary school which now educates 800 pupils in Hargeisa, Somaliland.
Kaafi Academy, a secondary school we helped to build in Hargeisa, Somaliland.
I have visited Somalia on many occasions and count myself to be very privileged to have spent time there. It may dominate the headlines for Islamic extremist perpetrated bomb blasts in Mogadishu; or piracy; or famine; and all of these things are true (piracy less so now). But there is much which is positive too. It has the longest coastline in Africa, with the Red Sea to the North of the ‘horn’ and the Indian Ocean facing east. The beaches are stunning, with undisturbed white sand that stretches for miles. In 2002 a group of French archaeologists discovered cave paintings at Laas Geel which date back to between 3000 – 9000 years BCE and are widely agreed to be the most vivid of rock art in all of Africa, sadly only seen by the most intrepid tourists. Despite no functioning state for a quarter of a century, Somalis have proved themselves to be not only remarkably self-sufficient, but astonishingly innovative too. They have the most advanced telecommunications systems in the whole of Africa. In response to a national currency which is pegged to no Central Bank, is unrecognised outside of Somalia and is subject to hyper-inflation, they have developed a comprehensive mobile money system. They say a picture can paint a thousand words. I love the juxtaposition of two such different worlds in this photo of a petrol station in Mogadishu. You fill your tank from a plastic bottle, standing on a makeshift table and then key the number painted on the side into your mobile phone. In an instant the money leaves your mobile account and arrives in theirs. It is also worth pointing out that Somalis living in the Diaspora send three times more money back home, than the combined annual global aid budget for Somalia.