The Sudanese people live at the border between the Arabic and the African cultures. In Sudan exists a completely original educational experience both in the Arabic and in the African contexts: Al-Ahfad, a university exclusively for women, inspired by Babikir Badri, the pioneer of female education in Sudan 

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:40:12

When entering the university campus, one feels a little inhibited as a man who invades an exclusively feminine territory. Before us pass some students dressed in the “niqab” which scarcely allows to guess the eyes, and some others who seem to have come out of a hairdresser’s salon where they have styled their hair according to the latest juvenile mode. These last ones wear also sunglasses and other beautiful feminine ornaments. Some of them, those of darker skin, come from the Republic of South Sudan; others come from the Nuba Mountains, the region of the Blue Nile or Darfur. Those with a somewhat clearer skin are original of the northern states of the Republic of Sudan. Another fact that calls our attention is the presence of a kindergarten and a primary school inside the University which cater the children of students and teachers, allowing them to carry out their respective academic works without neglecting the care of their children, which in Sudan is an exclusively feminine task. It is necessary to keep in mind that here, like in other Arabic and African countries, it is very common for a woman to be a mother at the age of eighteen/twenty, which, in many cases, becomes enough reason to prevent the young women from continuing their studies. This University is the realization of the dream of a visionary man at the end of the 19th century. His name was Babikir Badri (1860-1954). This Sudanese of Arabic culture had joined the army of Mohammed Ahmed Al-Mahdi when this charismatic leader, taking advantage of the dissatisfaction of the local population against the colonial Turk - Egyptian authorities, united the different tribes against them. The tribal Sudanese-Arab leaders felt humiliated and oppressed by the taxes. The desire of autonomy went hand in hand with a religious dimension, since the Mahdi had proclaimed himself a divine envoy to establish the government of God on earth. After conquering Khartoum, the Mahdi sent an army to occupy Egypt. Babikir Badri was among the soldiers. That army was defeated and Babikir spent five years in the Egyptian prisons, which did not prevent him from being part later of the Mahdist army that in 1898 tried to stop the assault of the British troops on Omdurmán, the Sudanese capital that the Mahdi had inaugurated. Babikir Badri survived the massacre that the British inflicted on the Mahdists and fled following the riverbed of the Blue Nile up to Rufu’a. There he realized that the reason of that defeat was the technological inferiority of the Sudanese troops. He saw with clarity that Sudan needed a revolution in the field of education. Then he offered himself to the colonial authorities to become an education inspector. After a two weeks training, the new British colonial government agreed to use him for such a task. In the first years of the colonial period the only existing schools in Sudan were the Koranic schools (Khalwas), where the children learnt the Arabic language and memorized the Koran. There were arising also the first schools of the colonial Government while supporting the schools opened by the missionaries, both Catholics and Protestants. Babikir Badri complained that the Khalwas did not help to develop the whole potential of the Sudanese people nor to promote a progress that would allow them to reach the levels of development of other peoples. The teaching of the Koranic principles was not enough and had to be complemented with a secular program. On the other hand, in his opinion, the schools of the missionaries, where sciences like geography, history, mathematics or the biology could be studied, did not respect the local culture. This was the conclusion reached by Babikir Badri after sending one of his daughters to a school opened by the Copts in 1902. According to him, the education had to integrate the benefits of modern sciences with the local culture. He also believed that the schools had to be independent from the government. In fact, Al-Ahfad, the University that today transmits his pedagogic ideology, is a non-governmental organization. His granddaughter, Balghis Badri, current director of the Gender, Diversity, Peace and Human Rights Institute of Al-Ahfad, tells us that it was also in that epoch that Babikir Badri proposed an idea that was revolutionary in his time and cultural context: “He thought that also the girls had to receive an education that would allow them to be something more than mere companions of their husbands. Probably the fact that my grandfather had thirteen daughters, besides some children males, influenced this conviction. In 1904, he asked the British authorities for permission to open a primary school for girls. But the Education Department of Sudan’s British Administration, afraid of a popular negative reaction and the scandal that an initiative of the kind could provoke, rejected the proposal. My grandfather was a very obstinate man and tried it again 1906. His proposal was once more rejected. Nevertheless, Sir James Currie, the director of the Education Department, finally authorized him to open the school for girls in Rufu’a. This was the way how my grandfather started his first school for girls in an adobe hut in 1907. The first students were nine of his own daughters and other eight the girls, daughters of his neighbours. In this school, Babikir taught all the subjects”. Babikir travelled throughout Sudan transforming several Khalwas into primary schools. These trips helped him to know better the autochthonous culture. Besides, he gathered the local proverbs and studied the different Sudanese tribes. He was also the first Sudanese who wrote a play, a kind of Romeo and Juliet with local characters. But his respect and love for the local culture did not prevent him from challenging it. Balghis Badri tells us that “in his schools the women did not have to cover their face with the typical Sudanese ‘tub’, a fabric coiled around the body in such a way that only allowed the vision of the eyes. His students had to wear it leaving the face uncovered”. Babikir Badri died in 1954 leaving a few written memories that are a point of reference to every expert on the Sudanese history of the Mahdist and colonial periods. His son Yousif Badri (1912-1995) continued the work initiated by his father and became the first Sudanese to open a secondary school for girls. Later, in 1966, in a place near to the battlefield where Babikir had fought against the British troops, Yousif created a University College to train female Sudanese teachers. In that way his father’s dream of the Sudanese being protagonists of the education in Sudan was fulfilled. In 1995 this University College became a University, whose Rector is today a grandson of Babikir, Gasim Badri. The word Ahfad in Arabic means precisely “grandsons”. This is the name that Yousif Badri wanted to give to the University. More tha 14.100 women have already graduated from Al-Ahfad. Nowadays it has 7.300 degree students and 256 postgraduates. 30% of them, which come from poor families, receive scholarships that cover the totality of their studies. A University team visits the homes of the candidates to these scholarships to make sure that they are granted to those who really need them most. Other 40 % of the students receive partial scholarships. But to register into Al-Ahfad not only means to join an academic center. Every student must take part in the Rural Extension Program. Dr. Nuria Brufau Alvira, a Spanish teacher who is employed at the Gender, Diversity, Peace and Human Rights Institute of Al-Ahfad’s, makes clear to us that “ the students and teachers leave the classrooms for some weeks and take off in buses towards different rural areas of the country. There they organize workshops with the local women on topics like premature marriage, breast cancer, feminine genital mutilation, reproductive health, hygiene… Hereby, the students are educated to be agents of social change in the reality that surrounds them”. The program has been carried out since 1973 and involves 75 villages every year, 1.200 students and 150 members of the University’s personnel. Besides, approximately 120 students of medicine offer their services to 60 poor families every year. The social dimension of this University, which tries to generate a change in its area of influence, is also shown in courses like “visionary African leadership“ for members of civic associations, political parties and companies, as well as conferences and workshops on diversity, peace, gender, citizenship and building of the State. *New People no. 141 (November - December 2012). PP.14-16