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Discoveries of Timbuktu

Ciraj Rassool

Meanings-of-TimbukI am not a scholar of Timbuktu or Arabic or Ajami (African languages in Arabic script) texts. Instead I have had the opportunity to think about the meanings and significance of this book from the vantage point of a scholar of heritage, archives and collecting. I myself travelled to Timbuktu and Djenne under the auspices of the Tombouctou Manuscript Project led by Shamil Jeppie (this book’s co-editor) to participate in seminars and workshops on writing and African history and the challenges of conserving ancient manuscripts.

This book should be understood as a product of the history of the quest to determine the value of Timbuktu, its mosques and sites of learning as well as of the meanings of its ancient manuscripts and the challenges of conservation. It should also be understood as part of post-apartheid South Africa’s encounter with Timbuktu, its manuscripts and its narratives of writing and historicity, and how these have been marshalled in the service of the creation of South Africa’s post-apartheid modernity.

While in no way a specialist, I nevertheless began thinking about the manuscripts of Timbuktu and Djenne in Mali while I was a graduate student in African history at Northwestern University 25 years ago. There, the documents of South African resistance to apartheid shared the same library space with the West African manuscripts and transcription project as part of the demarcating and ordering interests of area studies that wanted to render different parts of the African continent knowable in the US. This manuscript project was also a product of African nationalism’s insistence that Africa had a history. In the face of colonial narratives of illiterate Africa, Timbuktu, a literate, archival edifice of history and modernity was being imagined as part of the recovery of African history.

In this frame, Malian manuscripts were sources for historical enquiry, presenting the “interrelationship of the authors and their writing,” in addition to the work of assembly and the creation of databases (see John Hunwick’s chapter). These studies classified texts into different headings – pedagogical, devotional, polemical and historical – mostly texts of a religious nature, concentrating on teaching, honouring saints and religious interpretation.

These historians’ quest to recover, transcribe and disseminate written sources of African history was matched by emerging notions of heritage. In the 1960s and the 1970s, the historic practice of the care for manuscripts within families began to be seen as detrimental to the survival of documents. Modernity’s template of a large, centralised, state archival building for the ‘scientific’ conservation of manuscripts was introduced. Following a UNESCO resolution and a meeting of experts held in Timbuktu, the Centre de Documentation et de Recherches Ahmed Baba (Cedrab) was created in 1970 “to collect and conserve the written heritage of the region”. In 2000, Cedrab was restyled as the Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Islamic Studies and Research, a “financially independent, national establishment of a scientific, technological and cultural nature”. It held a manuscript collection of more than 20 000 documents, representing “a fraction of the manuscript resources available in Timbuktu and its region” (see the chapter by Muhammad Ould Youbba).

This was what Thabo Mbeki encountered when he travelled to Mali on an official visit in November 2001. Mbeki’s visit was “part of a long line of travellers,” including Ibn Battuta and Leo Africanus, “led there by its now near mythic status”. At the Ahmed Baba Institute, Mbeki was introduced to its collections of documents and manuscripts, the “significant traces of the scholarly world of which Timbuktu was a part”. And yet, at the Institute, ‘storage and conservation facilities and the human capacities to conserve them for posterity were questionable.’ (See the chapter by Shamil Jeppie.)

Moved by these encounters, which flew in the face of colonial notions of pre-colonial African non-literacy, and non-historicity, Mbeki promised South African assistance with conservation, especially with conservation facilities and capacities.

The outcome was the inauguration of a new library that heralded the promise of conservation and a new sense of order and structure. The beautiful new building presented  a new era of modernity and preservation, yet when I visited earlier this year it was still largely empty. Visits to all the main families who held significant private manuscript collections revealed that they continued to hold on to their collections with little intention of engaging the new South African-made library. It was as if this new building may in some unintended ways have been imposed upon a long history of family manuscript holding and indigenous systems of preservation. As much as it was driven by anti-colonial sentiments, the South Africa-Mali Timbuktu project had elements of being a South African voyage of discovery, bringing ‘development’ to Mali. South Africa’s own post-apartheid modernity almost depended on this magnanimous gesture of being the bringer of development.

In addition, parallel, independent systems of conservation had begun to emerge. Families in Timbuktu had begun to upgrade their collections management and manuscript display systems. Some had themselves developed new, complex institutional infrastructure for storage, conservation, display and digitisation. At the apex of this alternative manuscript management system was the Mamma Haidara Manuscript Library, led by the charismatic advocate of preservation and digitisation, Abdel Kader Haidara. He stressed the history of concealment of manuscripts by Islamic scholars in leather bags and abandoned desert caves for more than a century, with libraries sealed with mud, as measures to prevent colonial plunder. While Timbuktu alone holds more than 100,000 manuscripts, Haidara suggests there are about a million spread between state, private and family libraries throughout Mali. (See the chapter by Abdel Kader Haidara.)

The Mamma Haidara Library thus emerged as a serious site of collection and care for manuscripts, embarking on “scientific conservation and digitisation”. Moreover, it facilitated the emergence of Savama-DCI (Sauveguarde et Valorisation des Manuscrits pour la Défence de la Culture Islamique), a consortium of private libraries started in 1996. Based in Timbuktu, Savama-DCI facilitated the re-emergence of 21 private libraries, and embarked on a programme of cataloguing, preservation, training, translation, and further searches for manuscripts. Moreover, Savama-DCI entered into a partnership with the Malian Ministry of Culture resulting in the building of a Library of Manuscripts in Djenne (see the chapters by Abdel Kader Haidara and John Hunwick).

At Djenne some of the key answers to the conservation dilemmas experienced at Timbuktu were beginning to be addressed. A unique model of preservation and partnerships emerged, creating an institution of the state, driven by energies and understandings inside an NGO, but founded on the capacities and commitment of citizens. This was a library that worked with a notion of conservation, not as an infrastructural or technical issue, but as a social question. Holders of private manuscript collections deposited their collections in special storage areas of the library and held on to the keys themselves, ensuring public preservation and private authority to exist simultaneously. These were exactly the sort of social understandings of the meaning of conservation that seemed missing at Timbuktu in the new South African-made library.

These then are the histories, imaginaries and contested cultural systems of archive, conservation, recovery and development that lie behind The Meanings of Timbuktu. Shamil Jeppie’s research in Timbuktu has revealed him to be a patient, respectful and committed collaborator with Malian scholars who, unusually, had departed from South African academics’ national trend of self-obsession. This is indeed an important book.

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