SAHARA-SPAIN: University of the Desert

The universities of Berkeley, Managua, Leeds and Pretoria have joined forces with more than a dozen others in Algeria, Cuba and Spain to support a unique 'University of the Desert' in the Sahara. For the first time, the planned University of Tifariti has a multi-institution commitment to the Saharawi cause.

As a result of war, the Saharawi people have been split between a territory occupied by Morocco and a refugee camp in the Algerian desert. A small strip of land in between is under their control and is the proposed site of the university.

"This university aims at confirming the Saharawi's sovereignty as a nation," said Professor Isidoro Moreno, a professor of Anthropology at Seville University.

In the last three decades, the Saharawis and the United Nations have transformed one of the poorest education levels in Africa into a situation where 90% of the population is literate.

Cuba is one of the few countries to have funded their higher education and some 1,500 Saharawi have now graduated from Cuban universities. These people are known as 'Cubarawis' because many spent 14 years in Cuba before returning to the refugee camps. Along with their Cuban cultural habits, they brought with them ideas that have helped revitalise the exiled society.

"It is true there are no jobs," says Bucharaya Buyen, Spain's Saharawi delegate. "People say, 'Why do you have some trained as ship captains?' and we reply: 'Because when we return that skill will be needed'."

Abdel Kader Taleb Aomar, Prime Minister of the Saharawis, says: "We now have a sufficient number of qualified students who are creating a demand for the university. Other universities see the injustice that has taken place here and want to contribute to people getting their rights."

* Read Paul Rigg's detailed and exclusive report of his visit to the Saharawis camps in our Features section in this edition.