Op-Ed: Why The World Owes Education to an African Woman

The first university in Africa was founded in Morocco. Image by PxHere.

By Nnamdi Oranye

When we think of where the University came from, most of us probably think back to the oldest institutions we know – perhaps Oxford in England. Or perhaps we think of the top Universities of the world, like Harvard. We think of how a group of men had a passion for education and began these amazing institutions. We think of how much we need to thank the Western world for the University. Certainly the University is one of the most groundbreaking and important innovations of all time.

But was it a Western innovation? Actually, as the facts show, the innovation of the University comes from Africa. Morocco, to be exact. The story of Fatima al-Fihri (Al-Fihriya), a Moroccan Muslim woman from Fez, who was born in 800 A.D., is one practically no one hears about. When her father passed away he left money to both her and her sister. She used this inheritance to establish the University of Al Qarawiynn in 859 C.E., which is still existent today – 1160 years later.

It is, as a result, the oldest continually operating educational institute in the world – the first institution to award degrees for different levels of study. The original courses offered were in Islamic Studies, mathematics, grammar, and medicine. It is one of the largest tertiary institutions in North Africa and includes a library with over 4000 manuscripts.

Breaking through cultural limitations

Think about this for a moment. Here is a woman in 859 C.E. breaking through all her cultural limitations of her time and disrupting history for the last 1160 years. One innovation, the University, has spawned millions of other innovations – millions of people who have innovated in many, many other industries. Without Fatima, would there be a Harvard or a Stanford or an Oxford today? Without and African woman breaking through all the limitations of her time?

“The darkest thing about Africa,” said George H.T. Kimble, “has always been our ignorance of it.” This is true for not only our geography, which was Kimble’s main concern, but for practically every aspect of our continent. What is even worse is so many Africans themselves are ignorant of what’s really going on in Africa. We need to change our own mindsets towards Africa and innovation going on in Africa.

Fatima’s legacy is one that we as Africans can draw inspiration from. In our time, there are a million limitations we are constantly put up against. There is always a reason why our innovations don’t matter as much; why we ought not to think out the box; why we should let the world dictate to us what we should do and how we should move forward. Like Fatima’s legacy – one we don’t read in the ordinary history books – we are facing a similar dilemma now: No recognition and a great deal of ignorance, yet we live in an extremely disruptive landscape. 

She used her mind & imagination

Malcolm Gladwell says, “If you work hard enough and assert yourself, and use your mind and imagination, you can shape the world to your desires.” Fatima obviously worked hard. She obviously asserted herself. She obviously used her mind and her imagination – and built something that would allow millions to do the same. Like her, we need to start to know what’s going on in the world, what’s happening on the ground in Africa, and use our mind and imagination together with hard work and asserting ourselves in this world – as individuals and as a collective of Africans.

How did Fatima view the future? It’s worth thinking about what motivated her. Because the big question is: how do you view the future? Do you know where it is going? Do you like where it’s going? Do you know how you can influence where it’s going – and be a part of where it’s going? What will two or three generations from now say about your generation?

These are questions that continue to plague me, and excite me. Because, right now, we are standing on the cusp of many opportunities. All we need to do is think differently and see how things all fit together. As leaders and experts and entrepreneurs, it’s no longer good enough to just know ‘your thing’. We need to have a horizontal view across industries to help inform our vertical view in our particular industry. We need to connect industries, innovations, and people together; think differently; and create new ecosystems, just like Fatima and her university did. It’s great to major in your profession, but every profession is an interconnected part of the whole. Whatever your main work or whatever your side hustle may be, the picture is bigger than you think – and therein lies plenty of opportunity for you and for all of us, together.

Think bigger. It’s time to know your change and it’s time to step into it.

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