A trailblazer in the Bergen-Sudan academic cooperation
Howaida Faisal Abdelrahman was the first female student from Sudan to get her PhD in Norway. Being a trailblazer was no walk in the park. That is, until her friend and mentor Anwar Abdul Magid developed the concept of raglah.
-Where are you now? And what do you work with?
I’m a senior executive officer at the unit for global challenges at the University of Bergen’s (UiB) Faculty of medicine. I also provide administrative support to the Alrek health cluster, on migration and migrants’ health. But my main responsibility is being the administrative coordinator for the Bergen Summer Research School (BSRS).
-What did you write for your Master’s thesis/PhD dissertation on, and why did you choose this topic?
When I was studying for my Master’s degree, one of my advisers at the University of Khartoum had his degree from the University of Bergen. So all of the examples he referred to were from Norway, a country none of his students, including me, knew much about. But I had always wanted to learn more about how people think about and approach research in different countries, so I got my supervisor to tell me more about the opportunities when it came to studying abroad. I applied for a scholarship to go to Norway to study and got the chance to combine all of my interests; microbiology, biochemistry and biotechnology.
At the time, all communications had to go via my father’s email. I was working as a teaching assistant at a medical university in Khartoum, and I remember my dad showing up at work all of a sudden asking me if I knew someone in Norway. Someone had called his office, with a message for his daughter. And so I accepted the offer to do a Master’s thesis at the University of Bergen, in odontology, on the effect chewing sticks "mistwak" have on oral microbes. After that I went back to Sudan, but I continued to work and publish with my supervisor at UiB. And this work brought me back to Bergen. The plan was to spend a year here as a guest researcher, but I got very excited about the research possibilities, so when the chance to do a PhD in molecular taxonomy which was a new field in botany in Sudan, I had to seize the opportunity.
-What is your fondest memory from your time as a Sudan scholar?
My fondest memory is of the people that I met and that inspired me. Coming to Bergen I quickly met Anwar Abdul Magid, one of professor Randi Håland’s students and a pioneer of the Bergen-Sudan cooperation. He advised me academically and came to be a good friend. He passed away some years ago, but I still feel that he surrounds me. He is buried in Bergen, and I regularly go to the graveyard to talk to him.
Going abroad by myself, 26 years old, was seen as very untraditional by many in Sudan at the time. My closest family supported me, but others were skeptical. I got a lot of negative comments. But on arrival I was warmly welcomed by the small Sudanese community in Bergen, which at the time consisted of only three families. Among the Sudanese in Bergen were Anwar Abdul Magid and Mohammed Babiker, who is now my husband. They came to play an invaluable role in my career.
The three of us used to meet every Saturday for coffee. I was inspired by seeing the way Anwar and Mohammed supported each other. And when I was on the verge of giving up and going back to Sudan, they supported me and convinced me to stay. Sometimes, I felt it was difficult to live in Bergen by myself. I missed the family atmosphere and taking all the responsibilities by myself. And I felt that only men should do what I was doing. But Anwar asked me: ‘Do you see any other Sudanese women do what you’re doing? Just think of yourself as a raglah’. And this term that Anwar came up with, that was meant to describe me not in terms of man or woman, but as someone strong and independent, was a game changer for me. It took time, but I stopped questioning myself. I started considering myself as a power person, rather than simply a woman doing a man’s job.
-How have the Sudan studies impacted your life?
It gave me a lot of insight, and it has allowed me to, in the ways that I can, contribute to the academic community in Sudan. Ever since I settled down in Bergen, I have kept in touch with some of the teachers from my time at the University of Khartoum, and being here I have had the opportunity to buy books here in Bergen and have people bring them there. I’m very happy that being here gives me the chance to help out and assist for example the Sudanese students who have come here and still do. And it is not only me who gets to contribute. I learn a lot from them too.
I was the first female Sudanese scholar to be awarded a PhD in Norway, and the degree also awarded me with a core role for younger people navigating academia. I get contacted by many who want to explore the opportunities that are here.
-Do you still keep in touch with other Sudan scholars?
I keep in touch with UiB- alumni from the Bergen-Sudan cooperation who are now spread all over the world. I also stay in close contact with academics at the University of Khartoum. I have always found it important for research to be multi-disciplinary, so I have a network that spans over a broad field of research interests.
-Why should current and future students focus on Sudan in their Master’s theses/PhD dissertations?
A continued cooperation between Bergen and Sudan would be of great benefit, also to Norwegian future students. To many Norwegians, Sudan is all about war and famine. But it is a country rich in both resources, culture and history. Staying in Sudan and experiencing the Sudanese study environment would be a great experience for Norwegian students. Going abroad makes you appreciate what you have whilst also providing you with new learning experiences. It’s so easy to get stuck in routines if you simply stay in your environment. Here in Bergen, I have four alarms set every morning. Whenever I go to Sudan, I turn them off.
Similarly, Sudanese students who come to Bergen will learn from the new experience. They learn to study in a different way. They will get a new perspective and ask new questions. And that goes for both male and female students, who are used to the Sudanese gender roles. Here they will learn to take care of themselves in a different manner. Being exposed to a new environment, makes you think differently.
To mark the occasion of the 60th anniversary of academic cooperation between Bergen and Sudan, we do a series of interviews with some of the former and current scholars and students who have been part of this long-standing partnership, and who have contributed to the strong and vibrant relationship.