Monday, December 9, 2013

Voices from the past: The manuscript tradition of Mali

By: Julia Amanda Norris
Produced & Edited by: Danny Medlock
Timbuktu: The place that many once called “the end of the world” where artists, learners and traders converged in a medieval melting pot of culture and scholastic excellence. It was the home of 333 saints, the world’s first University, and a rich heritage preserved in an array of priceless texts. Texts, that immortalize not only of this vibrant place, but Africa, Islam, and of much of the world.
“Historically Timbuktu was an important center of commerce and learning and, in contemporary times, has become a key symbol of African literary heritage,” reads the website of the Tombouctou Manuscripts Project, an ongoing scholarly effort at the University of Cape Town in South Africa.
The content of these texts is vast, ranging from copies of the Quran, to collections of hadith, economic ledgers, treatise on the sciences, poetry, and writings of Sufi mystics.
History threatened
These manuscripts survived centuries, passed down in small-scale family
(Photo via African Echo)
“libraries” entrusted to the next generation with a vow and single purpose: to preserve. “Crucial to the preservation of the Timbuktu manuscripts are the libraries that have been established in the town,” maintains The Tombouctou Manuscripts Project. Yet, in 2012 these libraries were threatened.
“The tradition of scholarship and the manuscripts of Timbuktu are part of an ancient Islamic tradition that is characterized by tolerance, plurality, and a deep joy in learning,” said Alexandra Huddleston, creator of the recently published photography collection 333 Saints: A Life of Scholarship in Timbuktu. The texts, many written by Sufi scholars, are part of an all-inclusive Islamic tradition, one that is seen as heretical by some extremist sects.
Shortly after Timbuktu fell to an Al-Qaeda linked group, Ansar Dine, in the wake of the 2012 Malian coup, Mayor Cisse released a statement to the world that the texts had been destroyed and the libraries that held them burned.
Dr. Abdel Kader Haidara’s family has been passing down manuscripts for more than 700 years. The owner of the largest private library in all of Africa, he contradicts that claim.
Working tirelessly, he and his team managed to smuggle over 160,000 manuscripts out of Timbuktu. They went by land and by river, under cloak of darkness, through hostile territory until they and their precious cargo reached safety in the south of Mali. They did not lose a single text. 
Modern methods to preserving history
Adjusting to the damp climate of southern Mali proved difficult for the texts, however. Far from their dry, desert homeland they began showing signs of mold and decay. In response, Haidara teamed up with Dr. Stephanie Diakite, a lawyer and preservationist, to found T160K, a non-profit dedicated solely to the continued preservation efforts of the manuscripts.
Together, they sent out pleas for donations to foreign governments and scholarly organizations, but received little response.
In May of 2013, their desperation led them to turn to less traditional means. They launched a crowd-funding campaign on the website, and an accompanying AMA – Ask Me Anything – thread on the popular content aggregation site The result, both their publicity and donations increased significantly as they raised $67,446 of their $100,000 goal. This enabled them to purchase the archival materials they needed to continue preserving the priceless manuscripts.
Huddleston faced a similar challenge when it came to getting traditional outlets involved with the publication of 333 Saints. She took the photographs in 2007, but has been attempting to publish them since 2008 with little success. “No one was willing to pick up the story because it was about Mali, which editors perceived as having little interest in the public at that time.”
She also eventually turned to crowd-funding to accomplish her task. Thanks to she was able to raise the necessary funds to publish her book.
The Djenne Manuscript Library
In central Mali, The Djenne Manuscript Library is also fighting a preservation battle. Mahamadou Diallo, a preservationist at the Djenne Manuscript Library, explained that these texts “are exposed to threats such as rain water, termites among others,” and that “they were not kept in good condition by their owners.”
Djenne Manuscript Library
This library hasn’t needed crowd-funding to turn their project around. For the past two years, the British Library’s Endangered Archives Program has funded the project. Despite this funding, the library does not have everything they need. Diallo expressed gratefulness for their funding, but said that they still need additional funds to buy more archival boxes to protect the manuscripts. In light of this, their main priority is digitization.
“The manuscripts are so important. They show that Mali and even the continent is culturally rich,” said Diallo.
Returning to Timbuktu
As Mali continues to stabilize itself politically it needs awareness on the part of the global community not only of the conflict that happened there, but of what it meant for the cultural heritage of that nation and what this culture needs moving forward.
For T160K, that is the hopeful return of the manuscripts to their home in Timbuktu, a task that requires complete political and social stability in the North.
For Djenne that means continued financial support for their efforts, and increased awareness that Mali’s history is not only of the past, but that it is very much a part of the present.
“Cultural and intellectual knowledge transmission in Africa has included both oral and written traditions for centuries,” said Huddleston. “The manuscripts of Timbuktu are part of a living and continuing tradition of scholarship. They are still used and studied and created today by the people of Timbuktu, and they are not relics of a vanished culture.”

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