In conversation with Professor Awad Ibrahim

Professor Awad Ibrahim

Professor Awad Ibrahim

Could you tell me about your childhood? Where were you born? Is there anything about your childhood that stands out for you?

My name is Awad Ibrahim. I was born in the Sudan; in a relatively large town on the bank of the Blue Nile river called Sennar: ( city=Sennar&country=SD). Situated at a juncture of railways, commercial and agricultural activities, Sennar is a modest town and considered historically as the site of one of the oldest kingdoms that gave birth to modern Sudan. My father left us (my mother, my older sister and myself) when I was three years old and I saw him only once after that when I was seven years old and he was in his deathbed. So, I was raised by a single mother who struggled to provide for my sister and myself. From when I was four or five years old, I recognized that I needed to do things for myself and be responsible for my future, since mom never had enough time, education or energy after a full day of working two jobs. In the face of formidable obstacles, she made sure we were fed properly, we were loved unconditionally and we were reminded over and over again about the need for and the preciousness of education. In the language of schooling, she would be considered illiterate, but in the language of education (being full of life experience and knowledge), she was a brilliant educator. I remember one time I failed an exam in my primary years. I tried to hide it, but when she came to know about it, she gave me a lesson that is still guiding my life. She said, “How dare you fail? How dare you not do your absolute best when I am killing myself trying to provide for you?” Now I am a full Professor (and became one when I wasn’t even 40 years yet) in a highly nationally and internationally ranked university and I am still haunted by what she said. In my turn, I am conveying the same message for our kids: we would not accept less than your 110% of efforts!

Was there any person or persons that influenced your childhood the most?

To my mother that I owe everything, and to her I dedicate the preciousness that is my life. She would have been quite proud of what my sister (an Attorney General now in Sudan) and I were able to achieve.

What is your educational background?

I did my primary, middle and high school in Sennar. Then I went to the highest ranking university in Sudan, University of Khartoum (, where I studied French and Psychology in the Faculty of Arts. During my time at the University of Khartoum, I was able to secure a scholarship to study in Universté Lumière Lyon II, France. Since 1990 when I finished my undergraduate, I obtained a masters from Université de Montréal (second language teaching and learning); started but not finished a masters at York University (in semiotics); and obtained my Ph.D. from the University of Toronto (curriculum, sociology and cultural studies). Since then, I published more than 6 books and more than 100 articles in the areas of sociology of youth, curriculum, philosophy, cultural studies and applied linguistics.

Could you describe your job as a professor in the Faculty of Education?

Being a professor, my job is divided as follows: teaching  40%, research 40% and service 20%. I teach undergraduate (teacher education) and graduate courses. Beside publishing and conducting research, I also supervise masters’ and Ph.D. students and serve on many thesis committees. As a personal initiative, I was able to establish partnerships a) between the Faculty of Education, University of Ottawa, and many high schools in Ottawa-Carleton District School Board and Ottawa Catholic School Board; and b) between the Faculty and many international organizations in the United States, Morocco and Saudi Arabia.

You are one of very few professors from continental Africa at the University of Ottawa. What has the experience been like? Do you get the same level of respect and recognition as other academic staff?

Being a continental African was a double-edge sward. On the positive side, it enabled me to open doors that others were not able to access. These include my work in Morocco, Sudan, Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa. On the negative side, it was a challenge for some of my colleagues to understand the value of this work. In the midst of everything, I did not forget to exceed all expectations from the University or the Faculty. Taxing as it may, but I over-publish, I out-perform my colleagues in terms of teaching (I received many teaching awards) and make my presence felt. As a result, I earned most people’s respect, whether they like me personally or not.

Some years ago, a study with one of the Toronto school boards found that black students had a much higher high school drop-out rate than the general population. Based on your experience as an educator, is the situation the same in the rest of Canada, especially Ottawa?

Unfortunately, we have some serious work ahead of us still. I am sensing that things are better, but because we don’t have concrete data to either confirm or debunk this, I find myself in a virtual tie of not fully knowing how to answer this question. I am leading a grassroot organization (bringing together continental Africans, Black Caribbeans and Black Canadian born) that is pressurizing OCDSB to release information on the performance of our Black kids. So, stay tuned! We won’t stop till we get the necessary information that will help us answer this question.

Following the findings of the Toronto study, an “Afro-centric” school was set up in Toronto, focusing on the cultural needs of black children. Some critics have described it as a set-back to the educational challenges facing black children What is your opinion of such schools?  Do you recommend any solutions to keep our children in schools?

Given the history of education of Blacks in this country, we need to use all means to make our kids successful. My colleague Ali Abdi (of the University of British Columbia) and I just finished a book titled, The Education of African Canadian Children. In it, we do a thorough genealogy of the history of education of Black Canada. We need to learn, in particular, from the history of Black Nova Scotia. When they were not permitted to access public schools, they created their own schools. The two major lessons we learned from the history of education of/in Black Canada are: 1) the urgency of the moment; we can’t wait for someone else to change and hold in mind our best hopes for the future; we have to hold our future in our own hands; and 2) we have to make schools and schooling more relevant to our kids’ lives.

You have served as President of the Sudanese Association in Ottawa. What is the situation with this organization at this time? Do you have any relationship with the relatively new South Sudanese community?

The Sudanese Canadian Association of Ottawa (SCAO) is very much alive and full of energy. It had just elected a new board of high calibre, including members who are university professors, ambassadors, IT-specialists, teachers, etc. The board is composed of people who come from different gender, language and geographic backgrounds in Sudan. SCAO has ambitious programs for the next two years, including programs for youth and women that bridge the Sudanese, South Sudanese and Canadian communities. At this point, we have a very close relationship with the South Sudanese community and we have joint activities for young and old, men and women. Ironically, we feel closer now than before South Sudan separated in 2011.

The situation in both Sudan and South Sudan does not seem to have improved since the much publicized Daffour episode. What is your take on the current situation in the homeland? Is the Ottawa Sudanese diaspora community involved in any initiatives to assist those in dire need there?

Unfortunately, as a nation Sudan seems to be at a crossroad. It either has to get its act together or it will whirl into an abyss of war, civic unrest and economic depression. I hope the current government will wake up to what it has done in terms of destructing the infrastructure, making us a nation of refugees and depressing the psyche of the nation. From afar, there is only that much a diasporic community like ours can do. Despite it all, we are doing a lot. We are collecting donations whenever possible, we are sending educational and medical items whenever we can find them and we are sharing our human experience with the people of Sudan. For example, annually I go to Sudan and offer courses and workshops on developing a culture of research in higher education institutions. I am not the only one. Others go back and share their IT, economic, agricultural and medical (among many others) expertise.

Looking at Canada’s black population, there seems to be a divide between African and Caribbean communities on the one hand, and Anglophone and francophone communities on the other. Do you agree with this perspective and if so what can be done to remedy this divide?

As an existential question, I agree with. Yes, we are diverse and there is nothing wrong with that. However, as I am doing now, we need to work collectively in addressing our issues and hopes. While we need to acknowledge our national, linguistic and cultural background, we need to recognize, first, the system is the only entity that benefits from us staying divided and so, second, we need to come together to beef up our profile in the eyes of the city, region, province and federal government. Our issues and voices will be heard if we speak not with one voice but collectively. Our collective voice is more powerful. I am seeing this at the school board level. Our students and our issues are not addressed if we are not present, not loud about them or not exerting pressure as a ‘community.’

Over the years, have you seen any change in the status of the black population in Canada? Are we any better off now than say, ten or fifteen years ago?

I would argue that we should not be thinking about ‘change’ in a linear fashion, in that we move from A to B to C. Change is messy and takes different formats. I am sensing that we are making strides and our presence, at least in higher education and at least at the University of Ottawa, is increasingly felt. People are paying attention to what we have to say. We can’t control what people do with that information, but a lot of us are putting that information out there. We are also increasingly loud about our issues and we are learning fast how the system works. We need to strategically work with the system, while resisting its ugly head.

There are some segments of our community which claim that black men do not respect black women and vice versa, that we tend to defer to other races when we interact with them, especially white Caucasians. Do you agree with this perspective?

I don’t agree with this. It is too huge a statement and generalization that has to be put into context and read against a historical moment. We live in a patriarchal and sexist society and a historical moment. If this is the case, as social beings, Black men are no different than any one else. There are patriarchs and sexists among us like any other community. Nonetheless, we as Black men need to respect, love and build partnerships with our women.

Looking at the Black population in Canada, what do you see as our greatest challenge and how do we resolve it? What are our strengths?

One of our challenges in the 21st century is how to work collectively while keeping our national, linguistic and cultural differences. That is, how we can speak as a collective entity while acknowledging our internal differences. As much as that is a challenge, we need to creatively make that our strength.

Finally, do you have a message for readers of Black Ottawa Scene?

For she who hopes,

Tell her the journey had begun.

For she who loves,

Tell her love is around the corner.

Keep the hope my friends,

As the path is rich and filled with a beautifully scented future.

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