15 Mar 2019

The academic nomad: A pioneer in Sudan-Norway research collaboration

Professor Abdel Ghaffar Ahmed was the first person ever to get a PhD from the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Bergen. He has been a global nomad all of his academic career. Now he fears for the future of academia in Sudan.

On 15 August 1970, tired after a long journey, a young Abdel Ghaffar M. Ahmed went to bed in his makeshift room in Oslo. He woke up to beams of sunlight shining through his window, certain that he had overslept and that his days as a foreign student in Norway had come off to a really bad start. He got dressed and rushed out thinking that he had missed his first class, only to find people relaxing and enjoying their beer at cafés.

-I started wondering about these people, being so relaxed and drinking beer during their work hours. But as I got to the university, I realized that it was still 15 August. I had only slept for three hours, and the only reason that it was still daylight was that the sun was still shining, as it would in a summery Norway, laughs Ahmed.

A flying start
The first two weeks of his first stay in Norway were spent in the capital, in the company of 50 students from all over the world getting an introduction course. On the day of his arrival, he was not only surprised to see the long, bright summer nights. He was also surprised to see that Norwegian tv aired a film about the conditions in Southern Sudan.

When journalists from the Norwegian broadcasting company NRK showed up at the university to interview some of the foreign students a few days later, among them Ahmed, they said they could introduce him to the journalist who had made the film about Southern Sudan. The journalist turned out to be the late Per Øyvind Heradstveit, and he made sure that Ahmed got off to a flying start. They were both invited to participate in a panel discussion at Studentsenteret in Bergen, and Heradstveit, who had a taken a deep interest in Sudan and its people, brought along a representative from the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). Ahmed, being brought into big politics and not feeling perfectly at ease with his new role, got the second in command at the Sudanese Embassy in the UK to participate too. And so the stage was set for a debate out of the ordinary.

-The debate was supposed to last from 8 to10 pm, but continued till midnight. Disagreements were plentiful and the discussions rather loud. When the three of us Sudanese panelists went back to the embassy representative’s hotel together to have a drink after the debate, I’m sure no one in the audience expected any of us to come back out alive, he laughs.

At the time, the world’s eyes were directed towards Sudan, but still he was not prepared for the massive interest he experienced in Bergen.

-I didn’t really have any expectations, but I certainly didn’t think that it would be raining constantly, he chuckles.

United by Barth
Ahmed never planned to come to Norway, but a chance meeting changed everything. As he was about to finish his Master’s at the University of Khartoum, he was put in charge of the university’s youth hostel, a hostel that mainly accommodated foreign students in Sudan.

-One evening, a big, white Norwegian came in looking for a place to stay. We started talking, and it turned out he had just come back from fieldwork in one of Professor Fredrik Barth’s projects in Darfur. I told him that I had benefitted from Fredrik Barth’s ideas during the work on my own Master’s thesis, says Ahmed.

The meeting became the beginning of a life-long friendship, and an academic career that has shaped his life. The big, white Norwegian was Gunnar Håland, who is now Professor Emeritus at the University of Bergen and an international legend in Sudan studies. When Ahmed told him that he was hoping to do a PhD in the UK, Håland ignited a spark: Why don’t pursue an academic career in Norway instead?

And so this spur of a moment decision affected the very nature of Sudan studies in Norway.

Ethiopia: Abdel Ghaffar M. Ahmed during his days in Addis Ababa (Photo: Private)

Researching what matters
Ahmed is one of the pioneers of what has developed into a long-standing cooperation between the University of Khartoum, CMI and the University of Bergen. From the relatively few, but exceptionally strong research relations and friendships between a handful of researchers in Khartoum and Bergen, a vibrant and influential milieu for research on Sudan grew and has influenced public policies in Sudan and Sudan-Norway relations for decades.

Currently, he is central in the Assisting Regional Universities in Sudan (ARUS) programme, which is a joint effort between CMI, the University of Khartoum, Ahfad University for Women, the University of Bergen and seven regional universities in Sudan. The researchers all work on the most pressing development challenges in Sudan, and develop their research questions in close collaboration with stakeholders from civil society and government. Their approach is a bottom-up one, rather than the more common academic top-down stance.

This is the way to go about contributing to actual change, argues Ahmed.

-Involving civil society and government ensures that you research the issues that matter the most to people on the ground, and increases the chances of research uptake, he says.

There can be little doubt that the ARUS programmes’ unique approach to developing research questions and doing research both strengthens local research capacity and influences policy. Many of the people who have been involved in the programme as researchers are now frequently asked for advice and used as consultants in developing local policies.


Up close: Close contact with local stakeholders is key to success for Ahmed. (Photo: Hussein M. Sulieman)


The pastoralist heritage
As part of the ARUS programme, Ahmed himself focuses on food security and agriculture, a topic that has always been close to his heart. The pastoralists in Sudan, nomads moving around vast grazing areas with their cattle, is central to the country’s agricultural past, and perhaps also to its future. But their way of life is under pressure, and an increasing number of them settle in the cities. In some ways, their life gets easier upon settling in the cities. But it also means that a part of Sudanese culture and way of life is on the brink of extinction.  

-Many people make absurd claims about the life conditions for pastoralists in Sudan because they don’t know anything about their history, says Abdel Ghaffar Ahmed.

The professor himself comes from a long line of pastoralists on his father’s side of the family.

-My grandfather was a pastoralist. My father chose to settle in Kosti where he started a business selling tents and utility tools to pastoralists. In the daytime I was in school, but I spent every single evening in the market place talking to the pastoralists and listening to their stories, he says.

His background and his experiences have formed the basis for his research interests, so have the international impulses he has gotten along the way. Ahmed feels very strongly that being part of an international research environment has enriched all aspects of his research and his academic career. Now he fears for the future of academia in Sudan.


Out in the field: Conducting interviews during fieldwork (Photo: Hussein M. Sulieman)


A narrower path for Sudanese academia
Ahmed is worried about what he sees as an increasing Arabization of the education system and academia in Sudan.

-I feel sad for the students we are teaching at our universities these days. We are trying to guide them towards literature in English, but it is an uphill battle. More and more of the literature and curriculum is in Arabic, and it originates from a very narrow geographical area. Our students don’t get the international perspective anymore. But you cannot live in an isolated bubble. Research will suffer under such conditions, he says.

But the struggle to re-internationalise Sudan’s educational institutions, he will do from his home in Khartoum. After an international career, the academic nomad has finally settled.