SAHARA: An oasis of learning in the desert

Under the burning desert sun of the Sahara, academics from 10 Spanish universities recently joined with colleagues from Cuba, Algeria and the UK to pledge their support for the development of the "Saharawi University of Tifariti", the first of its type in the world.

At first sight, Tifariti looks an unlikely place to locate a university. It is a small, dry and rocky town in the previously Spanish Western Sahara, surrounded by territory 'liberated' from Morocco.

But the location is a powerful symbol of hope for the Saharawi people who have waited more than 30 years for Morocco to comply with a United Nations directive to hold a referendum over the territory's independence. The dignity of the Saharawi's stoicism has spurred many acts of solidarity, including the initiative to develop a university.

The Saharawi used to inhabit the area when it was a Spanish colony. After Spain entered a period of political instability in the mid-1970s - caused by Franco's impending death - more than 300,000 Moroccans took advantage to march into the territory. The ensuing fighting forced 165,000 Saharawi across the border into refugee camps in Algeria.

A small part of the Western Sahara remains under Saharawi control and this is where the university is to be located. Students will be mainly drawn from the Saharawi refugee camps over the Algerian border.

Despite the harsh living conditions and lack of resources, the Saharawi have always
recognised the importance of culture in maintaining their identity and promoting their cause. As a result, they are heavily involved in international art and film festivals, and a wide range of education projects.

A significant proportion of support for these initiatives comes from Spaniards, partly because they feel the Saharawi's plight has been ignored for economic reasons by politicians, and partly because of the shared linguistic and cultural history.

"One of the key decisions we are yet to make is to what extent the university will be a distance learning one," says Santiago Jiménez, a professor of medieval history at the University of Compostela and coordinator of Spanish universities in support of the Saharawi people.

"We want to offer specialised and postgraduate courses but have not yet decided whether to train lecturers from the camps to give the courses. If we decide to take this latter route, the process will be a longer one."

Jiménez and his colleagues are clear about the next steps: "In the first place, it is essential the Saharawi feel ownership for the project. We also need the education of the whole school population to be given a boost; fortunately it seems that there are committed people and friendly countries that are prepared to offer resources."

But Jiménez recognises the challenge in bringing the project to fruition: "We know that the construction of the campus and the library will be expensive and hope that international organisations and friendly countries will make one-off contributions. We do not forget however that the current context is one of recession."

"It is a complex challenge but the Saharawi people believe that focusing on their culture, education and training is going to be as important as food if they are to prepare themselves for the future."

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