In Timbuktu, a race to preserve Africa's written history
Ancient manuscripts in Timbuktu, that prove a written history often overlooked by the rest of the world, are crumbling due to lack of funding for preservation
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In the conservation room at the Ahmed Baba Institute, Garba Traore is preparing a sheet of writing that has torn in half, its edges rapidly crumbling in his hands. He lays down a heavy but flat sheet of plastic, then a sheet of a fibrous paper called “bondina,” then a sheet of gauzy transparent tissue paper. With a paintbrush, he spreads a clear methyl cellulose glue, and then lays the manuscript carefully on top.Skip to next paragraph
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It takes a good few hours to blot out and squeeze out the excess glue with a large metal pressing machine. But the final result is a sheet of paper that is sturdy enough to hold, and that should remain preserved for centuries to come.
“For me, why this is important, it is for the satisfaction of preserving our history,” says Mr. Traore, the conservator. “It is not for the money, it is not just for Africa. This is for the world, because everyone who wants to come to see the manuscripts can now come and see.”
For African leaders like South Africa’s former President Thabo Mbeki, Timbuktu’s rich past is a powerful symbol that Africa is not a blank sheet of paper onto which the world can scribble its wisdom, but rather a continent that simply needs a “Renaissance,” a rebirth into a world where Africans are equal players and controllers of their own destiny.
“Timbuktu is part of our collective conscious,” says Rantobeng William Mokou, South Africa’s ambassador to Mali, on a recent trip to visit the Ahmed Baba Institute’s newly built facilities in Timbuktu. “We have been given a lie about our history, that it was always an oral history, never a written history. But, here, we find history written by Africans about Africa. This needs to be preserved.”
For well-known collections such as the Ahmed Baba Institute and the Mama Haidera Institute, preservation and conservation are already well underway. But for the perhaps dozens of small private collections around Timbuktu, help is far away, and not likely to come.
Abdul Wahid, a local teacher and grandson of a great Timbuktu scholar and copiest, opens a steel trunk stacked full of manuscripts. He is fortunate, because a Moroccan businessman based in France has donated enough money to help construct a private library where the manuscripts can be stored.
But he knows that unless he can get money to start cataloging, digitizing, and preserving these fragile books, they may easily crumble away into dust.
“At first I was going to sell these manuscripts, but then I realized how important they were and I want to preserve them,” says Mr. Wahid, holding a 15th century manuscript while a mama goat and her baby wander around the courtyard, bleating.
In these books is more than mere knowledge, but also a sense of pride. “These manuscripts tell us that we had people who studied astronomy, medicine, and science, and many things,” he says. “At first we thought we didn’t have a history. Now I believe we had books on many of these subjects before Europe.