The rows of listening students, the laptop and power point slides, may have been the familiar pattern of my last 20 years of life as a university lecturer. But partway through explaining some finer points of theory I was surprised by the amplified sound of a child’s voice coming from a nearby house reciting verses from the Koran. I’d grown used to the cockerel who crowed regularly outside the window, but this new voice was a sure reminder that Hargeisa University in Somaliland is a far cry from my Universities in England. Here I was, then, in the warmth of January sunshine and Hargeisa hospitality, offering my services to the University School of Social Work as a volunteer lecturer.
The university, by comparison with a university campus in Europe or North America, is small and occupies a group of buildings that were a former Teacher Training College. The first time I walked through the campus against a drift of students, I drew curious and very friendly attention. ‘Hi, how are you?’ many of them ask. Students have learnt English in secondary school and all the courses are taught in English.
The resources are, to be honest, minimal and students attend on a shift basis in order to reduce pressure on a limited number of rooms. A small corrugated iron shack offers refreshments – for men and women in separate sides – and lecturers take their break sitting outside on plastic chairs in the sunshine. No hardship for a sun-starved Brit. The library has quite a number of books, but lacks the most up-to-date texts and students have no access to online journals. But despite these limitations, the university has a healthy number of students studying a wide range of subjects. The students value their opportunity for education.
The school of social work, with which I was working, is in its second year with two cohorts of over 60 students, a committed group of staff, including lecturers and administrators. It has a strong sense of mission and ethos, instilled by the lecturers and dean. The students know that they are breaking new ground and are convinced of the value and the importance of their future role in improving the lives and the situation of the people in their country. Perhaps as a consequence of the recent disasters befalling their country, Somalis from politicians down to the hotel waiters I talked with are determined that their country should get back on its feet and succeed.
My visit of just over 2 weeks may have been little time to contribute greatly to the students’ education, but there are many ways that I intend to continue to support the school through my activities back home. By acting in an ambassadorial role I hope to convince others that visiting Hargeisa University as a volunteer teacher is 100% safe and a very enjoyable and highly rewarding thing to do. I walked alone around the town without any risk and everyone was very friendly and helpful. I have so many ‘best memories’ that it is difficult to single one out – the smiles, the gifts, the kind words – but perhaps I remember most the female student who, hands visibly trembling, willed herself to speak out loud to the class. Women students, long schooled in deference and modesty, find speaking out in a mixed class a very difficult challenge. Students and staff at Hargeisa University – yes, thank you, you all made it so completely worthwhile to travel so far.
Dr. Susie Young – Retired Professor from University of Exeter, UK. Second PhD Candidate at Bristol University