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Young people attending Mass celebrated by Pope Francis at the Prince Moulay Abdellah Sports Centre in Rabat Young people attending Mass celebrated by Pope Francis at the Prince Moulay Abdellah Sports Centre in Rabat  (AFP or licensors)

The African university students studying in Morocco

Pope Francis’ weekend visit to Rabat showcased many African students from sub-Saharan countries studying in Morocco’s public and private universities

Paul Samasumo –Rabat, Morocco

When one of my friends back home found out that I would be in Morocco for Pope Francis’ Apostolic visit, as part of a small team of Vatican News media, he immediately contacted me. Would I get in touch with his nephew studying in Morocco to…, you know, check up on the young man, see that he is studying hard, getting good grades. It is code language. Being from that part of the world, I know it means visit the boy and "report to us" any unusual behaviour (drink, drugs) or unusual living arrangements (cohabiting?). Obliging to such spy missions is customary. In effect, they don’t yield much because young people are usually at their best when they are visited.

So, I did the needful by getting hold of the young man. It turned out that we could only link-up on the phone because he lives in another city and, though on a short break, he was not travelling to Rabat for the Mass of Pope Francis because he has a very, very important assignment that is due very soon. He really was very sorry to miss the opportunity of seeing Pope Francis (and seeing me). And yes, I could tell his uncle that he still sings in the Catholic choir.

Scholarships from the government of Morocco

All this set me thinking.

My friend’s nephew is one of a growing number of African students in Morocco thanks to generous scholarships given by the Kingdom of Morocco. The bursaries are part of bilateral agreements between Morocco and some African governments. There are also some African families now sponsoring their children to study in Morocco.

This is more so given the restrictive student visa requirements and the high cost of tertiary education in Europe. It is not surprising then that  Morocco is fast becoming an attractive alternative for students and the African governments that send them as well as families that privately invest in the education of their children.  Within a few years public and private universities in Morocco have opened their doors to many African students hungry for affordable but quality university education.

Morocco re-joined the African Union in 2017

It seems to have all started with Morocco re-joining the African Union (AU) in 2017, after a 33-year hiatus. Morocco did not take kindly to the continental body recognising the independence of the disputed territory of Western Sahara, so the country’s leaders decided to quit the AU in 1984.

Since being admitted back, the Kingdom has worked hard to harness its soft power in relations with other African countries.

It is these bilateral agreements with sub-Saharan African countries that have greatly facilitated the increase in scholarships and study grants. Visa requirements for students have also been made easier by the Kingdom. It is part of what has come to be known as “education diplomacy.” Moroccan authorities speak of Africa being at the heart of the country’s diplomacy.

Students from French-speaking African countries

A higher proportion of students in Morocco are French-speaking and from French-speaking African countries. This is because of Morocco’s French colonial history. Nevertheless, authorities in Rabat have found a way around the language barrier for non-French speakers. English and Portuguese-speaking African students are offered intensive training in the French language. This is actually attractive for English and Portuguese-speaking learners because their value on the job market increases when they have two or more European languages on their CV.

When I inquired about African students in Morocco, Hans Stegemann, the Director of Caritas Maroc in Rabat, confirmed that there are now about 15 000 African students in the country. Some of them help out with Caritas’ migrant programmes, as volunteers.

Just at the beginning of March 2019, Ambassador Mohamed Methqal, the General-Director of the Morocco International Cooperation Agency (AMCI) expressed satisfaction with a joint scholarship programme that the Islamic Development Bank (IsDB) in Morocco signed with his agency, the AMCI. The latter is the government’s body that monitors government scholarships and study grants. Methqal is quoted as saying the agreement signed with IsDB would benefit more African students.

Africa’s young talent needs all the help 

Morocco’s strategy is winning many friends on the African continent. The country is now the de-facto continental leader when it comes to offering student grants and scholarships. The authorities say they want to share Morocco's business, communication, science and technological expertise with the rest of Africa. So far, African students, their families and governments are not complaining.

Morocco can also count on the many graduating students who return to their countries of origin. They will become the Kingdom’s goodwill ambassadors.

It is also a fact that many African universities (public and even private) face daunting challenges that range from finances, lack of IT facilities to the sustainability of the institutions. These challenges, in turn, sometimes compromise the quality of some courses offered.

Don't look a gift horse in the mouth

All this is not saying there are no challenges with studying in Morocco.

It is often said, “don't look a gift horse in the mouth,” meaning do not be ungrateful. Observers have commented that though the Kingdom of Morocco is welcoming and generous, more could still be done especially in the area of social integration of foreign students.

Africans who originate from sub-Saharan Africa and live in Morocco say some stereotypes subsist, for example, the notion that almost all black Africans in the country are either migrants or in the Kingdom illegally or that they are involved in some illegal business.

Some students also complain of uncalled-for catcalls and even heckling on the streets by total strangers.

The most prominent challenge students here face is with accommodation. I was told that finding landlords that will rent apartments to Africans can sometimes be a challenge –even when they can afford the rent. The students I casually met in Morocco were understandably unwilling to enter into a discussion with me ( a stranger) about the problems of integration. It is usually a great privilege to be nominated for a government bursary in most African countries. The last thing you want to do is to jeopardise that by speaking to a media person.

Some observers suggest that problems of integration stem from the fact that many Africans who hail south of the Sahara, do not speak Arabic and this could be a factor that causes social exclusion or isolation. Perhaps it is a conversation that needs to happen publicly.

In all, many African students acknowledge the challenges but are at the same time full of praise for their hosts, the Moroccan government, because of scholarships, generously provided. Many feel lucky, (blessed was the word I heard) for the chance to acquire a high level of quality education which they probably would never afford or get in their own countries.

Through a translator, one student briefly spoke to me in French and said words to the effect: “I will try and persuade my younger brother to work hard (in school) so that he can also come to study in Morocco.”

There could be no better endorsement.

01 April 2019, 00:43