Growing up in war-torn Somalia and using abandoned tanks as climbing frames came to mind when Najib Abdihamid Ahmed (Development Studies 2021) was submitting his application to study at the University of Cambridge.
“For my application’s opening sentence, I wanted to write ‘As a kid, growing up in a post-conflict environment is extremely fun. There’s a lot of rubble, bullet casings, and things to play with, and not many rules’,” Najib recalls.
“We just made lemonade with whatever we had.”
The introduction did not make it on to his final draft, but Najib’s application was successful, and he has completed the first term of his MPhil as a postgraduate student at Gonville & Caius College.
Formative years often come to mind at key life events, and 26-year-old Najib, a recipient of the Darlington Studentship, was happy to share his experience.
Najib was born in Nairobi after his family were displaced to Kenya by the civil war in Somalia. His family returned in the early 2000s, moving to Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland, a self-declared sovereign state which is internationally recognised as an autonomous region of Somalia. Previously it was a British protectorate.
“A lot of Somali people born in the early and mid-90s were born in Ethiopia, Kenya, England, all over the world,” Najib says.
He was seven when he moved to Hargeisa and his early education was in Somali. He recalls regular visits from representatives of Halo Trust, a charity which clears landmines and has successfully removed the explosives from Hargeisa and Somaliland’s major cities and towns. A landmine exploded when his home was being built in the mid-2000s. “Thankfully no-one was hurt,” says Najib, who was also grateful to avoid explosions while playing on abandoned military hardware.
Najib learned English at Abaarso School and was one of the first students at the institution founded by Hedge Fund manager Jonathan Starr in 2009. The school’s stated aims are to nurture promising Somali children to advance society as future leaders.
“I was very academic, not because I was studying a lot, just because the material made sense to me,” he says.
“My class, the class of 2013, was the first in the last 30 years to send students to universities in the United States. I went to Georgetown (in Washington DC) and a lot of my friends went to different universities in the US. It was a very enriching experience.”
Najib attended Georgetown on an academic scholarship and returned to spend two years as a teacher at Abaarso. Now Najib wants to follow through on the early promise by shaping the education curriculum in Somaliland.
My plans are to think big picture and to determine how to shape people’s education
“My plans are to think big picture and to determine how to shape people’s education,” he says.
“One of the reasons why I wanted to study development, particularly educational development, is because there is such a huge deficit in terms of history. African history prior to colonialism is not something that is taught, or even researched, in Somaliland.
“My students knew more of the World Wars than they did about Somali history. Education is such a primary good which can impact other facets of development.”
Caius has a long association with Somaliland, through Richard Darlington (Geography 1938), who is universally known by his nickname.
“If you go to Hargeisa today and you ask any kid what Gacmadheere means, they would tell you many schools across Somaliland have that name. Gacmadheere means ‘long arms’ and that was what Richard Darlington was known as,” he adds.
“Gacmadheere contributed a lot to education in Somaliland. He even stayed after independence, running different schools.”
Najib lives with his wife, a trainee accountant, in College accommodation, attends the nearby mosque, and volunteers for up to six hours a week with Amnesty International’s digital verification corps, which verifies footage and events to expose human rights abuses.
Najib hopes others follow in his path and come to Caius from Somaliland.
“Without the Richard Darlington scholarship, I wouldn’t be here. It made me a member of Caius and a graduate student at Cambridge,” he says.
“We feel extremely included and supported.”