As I enter the Al-Ahfad campus in Omdurman, I feel like I am invading a female only territory. I walk past young ladies in niqab, barely able to see their eyes, and other who seem coming out of the latest youth fashion show. They come from all corner of Sudan, as their complexions reveal. Another oddity is the presence of a primary school alongside university classrooms. The school welcomes the children of students and professors alike. In a country where being mother at 18 is not unusual, the lack of schooling facility is often enough cause to interrupt studies; not here at Al-Ahfad.
This university is the realization of Babikir Badri’s dream. As a young man, Badri (1860-1954) joined the Mahdi’s army to fight foreign colonialists in the Sudan. After occupying northern Sudan, the Mahdi sent his troops to invade Egypt, Badri was among those soldiers. Captured by the Egyptians, he would spend five years in prison. Once free, he rejoined the Mahdi but soon realized they could do little against the British troops, with their superior equipment and military discipline. He also saw with clarity that Sudan needed to develop a structured educational system. He offered his service as school inspector, and the colonial government hired him.
During the early colonial period, the only schools in Sudan were the religious classes where children memorized the Koran. Little by little, the colonial government and Christian missionaries opened Western style schools. Badri lamented that Islamic schools where not enough to equip children with the tools for development. The principles of Islam needed to be complemented with other subjects. On the other hand, he was displeased with missionaries’ schools because, apart from offering sciences, geography, history and biology, they did not respect the local culture. He reached this conclusion seeing what his daughter – who went to a Coptic school – was studying. He also believed that school should be independent of government. A fact reflected in the non – governmental status of Al-Ahfad.
Balghis Badri, Babikir Badri’s grandchild and director of the Institute of Gender, Diversity, Peace and Human Rights at Al-Ahfad, syas that it was at the beginning of the XX century that her grandfather “proposed an idea that was revolutionary for the time and the cultural context. He thought that girls needed to receive an education that allowed them to be more than just a companion for their husbands. Perhaps the facts that he fathered thirteen daughters influenced his thought. In 1904, he asked permission to the British authorities to open a primary school for girls. The British, fearful of a negative reception by the local population, refused”.
Bardi did not shelve the idea and, in 1906, he received permission to start such school in Rufu’a, which opened the year after. The first students were nine of his daughters, and eight of his neighbour’s. He was the only teacher. It is at this time that Badri started travelling throughout Sudan to transform Koranic schools into primary schools. These journeys allowed him to learn more about the country.
When Bardi died in 1954, he left his memoires which became a reference for many educationalists in Sudan. His son Yousif Bardi (1912-1995) followed his father’s steps and opened the first secondary school for girls. Later on, on the field where the Mahdi’s troops fought against the British, Yousif built the first university college for the formation of female teachers. His father’s dream of having women in charge of the education in Sudan was becoming a reality. In 1995, the college became a fully fledged university, with Gasim Badri – Babikir’s grandson – as first Rector.
Over 14.000 women have graduated from this university, which now counts over 7.000 students, 256 studying in post-graduate courses. About 30% of the students come from the poorest section of society and receive bursaries to support their studies. All students must take part in a program called Rural Extension. Students and professors visit rural areas to discuss matter such as family life, breast cancer, forced marriages, female genital mutilation, and hygiene, with local women. In this way, the students open up their mind to various issues and their impact in Sudanese society.
The social dimension of this university is seen also in the course of African leadership for members of civil associations, political parties and private entrepreneurs. Conferences and seminars on gender, peace, citizenship and nation building complete the formative proposals of the university.
Al-Ahfad University today has different faculties: Health Sciences; Psychology and Education; Administration; Rural Extension; Education and Development; Medicine and Pharmacy. All the courses offer a new perspective about gender. In particular, the Institute of Gender, Diversity, Peace and Human Rights, favours special insight on this theme. The Institute cooperates with similar institution in Addis Ababa and Makerere (Uganda), and is in touch with university in Europe and the USA.