The Timbuktu manuscripts - how Africa risks losing its most unique heritage

Wealthy Africans urged to contribute money to preserve this vast repository of a continent's ancient wisdom

THE recent violence and upheaval in Mali has not only caused death, destruction and human suffering on a major scale; they have also exacted a terrible price on one of its most unique cultural heritages.

A treasure trove of priceless ancient African scholarship on science, agriculture, astronomy, poetry, Islamic jurisprudence, philosophy and mysticism, dating back to the 14th  and 17th centuries, may disappear in less than a year unless money is found to restore, preserve and digitise them.

The Timbuktu manuscripts, estimated by researchers in Mali to be over 300,000, mainly written in Arabic and local Malian languages (Bambara, Songhai and Tamashek), were spirited away from the northern Malian city of Timbuktu after jihadists took control of the city and much of the country’s north in late 2012.

The original library that housed the manuscripts at the Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Islamic Learning in Timbuktu was torched by the jihadists when they began retreating from the city in late January 2013 following a French military onslaught.

The manuscripts were smuggled out in crates of fruits and vegetables and transported on cars, handcarts and boats to Bamako in a covert operation that went on for months, masterminded and executed by a group of intrepid librarians from the Ahmed Baba Institute in Timbuktu.

But the epic struggle to save the manuscripts from jihadist destruction has created unforeseen logistical and “organic” challenges – how to maintain the manuscripts in their original state while in exile.

Wholesale decay fears
The bulk of them are now languishing in private homes in the Malian capital where the combined effects of pollution, poor storage and humidity is beginning to degrade their quality and raising fears of wholesale decomposition.

The Ahmed Baba Institute and UNESCO are now appealing for urgent international assistance to save the manuscripts.

In particular, wealthy Africans and philanthropists with “a cultural conscience” are being urged to dig deep into their pockets and contribute money to preserve this vast repository of ancient African wisdom for future generations.

Researchers have long been intrigued by the manuscripts. They believe a systematic deciphering of their contents could provide fresh insights into ancient African knowledge, and in particular, on farming and medicine.

Time is now running out, they say, and they fear these fragile manuscripts, currently stored in un-ideal conditions, may decompose.

Most of them are piled up in huge stacks in tiny musty rooms in Bamako, a condition which, when combined with the high humidity and dampness, quickens the process of decay.

A proper restoration of the manuscripts is inconceivable in their current state. The first and most urgent task is to find a proper shelter for the manuscripts. This would require a new library, campaigners say.

Digital project
The second task is to start the process of digitising them and this would require developing the right software, as well as huge amounts of money.

The Ahmed Baba Institute estimates that just the cost of digitising one single manuscript could be as high as 300 euros.

The African Union (AU) is also being urged to mobilise African states to support the project to restore the manuscripts.

In South Africa, the Timbuktu appeal has generated considerable interest, with a number of individuals and organisations believed to be keen to donate money and expertise to the project.

The Ahmed Baba Institute and Library in Timbuktu – the original home of the manuscripts - was notably built by South African architects.

A number of South African academic institutions, especially the University of Cape Town, have also kept close academic and research links with the institute.

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