The myth of an 'oral Africa' finally bites the dust

Publié le par hort,,2116062,00.html

In fabled city at the end of the earth, a treasury of ancient manuscripts
In Timbuktu the race is on to preserve papers that document a west African golden age

Monday July 2, 2007
The Guardian

A hot wind stirred up the desert sand. Fida ag Muhammad, a wispy man with a blue-grey turban, hurried across the street. Reaching a mud-brick building, he quickly unlocked its corrugated iron door and pushed it open. A beam of soft early-morning light pierced the darkness. On a metal table covered with a red bath towel sat half a dozen leather-bound  manuscripts. Carefully untying the string around a small weathered pouch, Mr Muhammad pulled back its flaps to reveal a sheaf of yellowed papers. Their edges had crumbled away, but the neat Arabic calligraphy was still clear.

"A Qur'an," he said. "From the 1300s." For an outsider, such a remarkable find might seem extraordinary. In Timbuktu and its surrounding villages like Ber, where Mr Muhammad lives, it is commonplace. After centuries of storage in wooden trunks, caves or boxes hidden beneath the sand, tens of thousands of ancient manuscripts, covering topics as diverse as astronomy, poetry, music, medicine and women's rights, are surfacing across the legendary Malian city.

Their emergence has caused a stir among academics and researchers, who say they represent some of the earliest examples of written history in sub-Saharan Africa and are a window into a golden age of scholarship in west Africa. Some even believe that the fragile papers, which are now the focus of an African-led preservation effort, may reshape perceptions of the continent's past.

"It has long been said that there was only oral history in this part of the world," said Salem Ould Elhadje, 67, a historian in Timbuktu. "But these manuscripts come from an African city, a city of black people." The Timbuktu of myth is a place at the end of the earth. In reality its location was the key to its development nearly a thousand years ago. With the Sahara directly north and the Niger river south, it was established as a rest stop for travellers and a trading post for gold and salt. By the late 1500s, however, when it formed part of the powerful Songhai empire, it had become known as a centre of great learning.

Books became hugely prized. Travellers from as far as the Middle East brought manuscripts to Timbuktu to sell. Using paper manufactured in Europe, scholars in the town produced their own original work, which was then copied by their pupils. Commercial transactions were recorded - slaves and ostrich feathers were among the goods traded - as were the  pronouncements of learned men on everything from the environment to polygamy and witchcraft. "Every manuscript contains surprises," said Shahid Mathee, part of a University of Cape Town team studying the manuscripts. "We have even found texts where scholars offer advice on overcoming erection problems."

Timbuktu's decline began in 1591 with a Moroccan invasion. But the practice of writing, copying and storing manuscripts lived on here and in other west African cities such as Gao and Kano. It was not until 1964, at a Unesco conference, that Timbuktu's literary wealth was recognised. Still, it took a further 37 years for the campaign to document and preserve them to gain momentum.

On visiting Timbuktu in 2001, the South African president, Thabo Mbeki, was shown some of the manuscripts held at the Ahmed Baba Institute, named after the city's most famous scholar, including a copy of Islamic law dating to 1204. Mr Mbeki was so impressed he declared them to be among the continent's "most important cultural treasures" and pledged to set up a project to help properly conserve the manuscripts.

After centuries of exposure to the harsh desert climate, abrasive sands and hungry termites, many of the manuscripts are badly damaged. Even those intact, such as Mr Muhammad's Qur'an, are so fragile the pages may disintegrate when handled. "Every minute, every second, part of a manuscript is being lost," said Mahmud Muhammad Dadab, a scholar who compares their value to the works of Victor Hugo and William Shakespeare.

With South African money, a £3.5m home for the Ahmed Baba Institute, featuring a museum, archive and rooms for scholars, is being built in the heart of the city, and will open next year. Meanwhile workers are trying to safeguard the institute's growing stock of 30,000 manuscripts. In a large room with fans whirring overhead, a team is building made-to-measure cardboard boxes for every manuscript that will provide protection from the dust. Fragile pages are being carefully affixed to special Japanese paper to stop them crumbling.

Across the courtyard, researchers sit in front of computers documenting the contents of each manuscript. Then, with the help of computer scanners, ancient knowledge is uploaded into the 21st century. "We are creating a virtual library," said Muhammad Diagayete, 37, a researcher who was busy documenting a 1670 text on astronomy written in blue, red and black ink. "We want people all over the world to be able to access these manuscripts online."

Private collections are also being restored. Outside interest, and funding, has helped to create more than 20 libraries in Timbuktu, from tiny collections with a few hundred documents to Ismael Haidara's Fondo Kati Bibliothèque, which has more than 7,000 leather-bound manuscripts dating back to 1198. Many were brought from Andalucia, Spain, by his ancestors, who came to Timbuktu in the 15th century.

A few doors down is the Mama Haidara library run by Abdel Kader Haidara, no relation to Ismael, the best-known curator in the city. With funding from US foundations, he is also digitizing his 9,000-document collection, and is building extra rooms for scholars and tourists, as well as an internet cafe.

Before opening the family library, he helped to build up the Ahmed Baba Institute's collection, travelling,all over the region by camel, canoe and car to try to persuade families to part with their manuscripts in exchange for livestock or printed books.It was a difficult task. Though many families cannot read Arabic, the manuscripts are regarded as precious heirlooms that cannot be sold. In Ber, a two-hour drive from Timbuktu, Fida ag Muhammad spoke of valuable caches of manuscripts buried in the desert by families fearful that outsiders would try to prise them away.

As a result, experts believe that hundreds of thousands of manuscripts remain in private homes across the region, and the quest to find and conserve them will go on for many years."We have to persuade people that they need to be protected and documented," said Abdel Kader Haidara. "If we don't read what our ancestors said, we cannot know who we really are."
Straigth talk from Hort
Hieroglyphics, the world’s first writing system, was invented by our ancestors, the ancient Egyptians. Even paper which we write on today comes from the Egyptian word ‘papyrus’ yet  the myth of an oral Africa lives on. I remember discussing this with a West Indian friend in Canada as recently as 2 years ago. He was adamant that Africans were an oral people and it was impossible to convince him that this was a fantasy created by Europeans, because he had been schooled in the colonial tradition. Unfortunately, he is not the only one who has been miseducated about African history. I myself studied Spanish at University for 4 years and although the teachers spoke about Timbuktu and even gave it credit for the Spanish renaissance, at no time did they give me the impression that Timbuktu had anything to do with black people. In fact, I got the distinct impression  that it was Arabic and only years later did I find out that Timbuktu was in Sub-saharan Africa. 

I have noticed that this is a common European practice, i.e. to take African achievements and pass them off as Arabic. The same thing happened in Egypt. We are told that the Arabs invented mathematics, the calendar, astronomy, etc, when in reality, these were all African achievements that the Arabs got when they conquered Egypt. That was where the knowledge was at that time. "Why were the Arabs in Mali? because once again,  it was our ancestors, the ancient Malians, who had the knowledge and that's what they wanted. It was not the Arabs who had the knowledge but they knew where to find it. That  is why it is imperative that we reclaim our ancient African history so that we can put a stop to the cultural genocide of African people and especially, African children all around the world.
Timbuktu had a profund influence all over Europe. Many people, both black and white are unaware for example, that the famous universities of Oxford and Cambridge in England were founded by scholars who had studied at the universities of Timbuktu and Djenne in Mali.  What is ironic is that today, Malians, who were the first people to start universities have an 81% illiteracy rate, yet in the 11th century, Timbuktu had 20,000 students 3,000 teachers (that other  myth of African people living in sparsely populated villages also bites the dust), and once again highlights how much Africa has regressed since the Arab and European conquests. Repeating coranic and biblical verses all day long like morons is certainly not going to reverse this trend. (to learn more about how this regression took place, and how to end it,  may I recommend the exellent article entitled Decolonizing the african mind on our site)
The reason that the manuscripts (written in West African languages and Arabic) were saved was because wise Africans hid them when the Portugese invaded Africa. Lest we forget, it is only recently (the last 500 years) that Europeans have understood that books were meant to be read, not burnt. Only Thabo Mbeki of South Africa has been trying to do something to save these manuscripts which is a true scandal. They did not find 700 or even 7,000 but 700,000 African manuscripts!.! Can you imagine how much interest these manuscripts would have generated had they been found in the West? But of course, their discovery only dispels the myth of an oral Africa which most people would prefer to perpetuate.
To learn more about the manuscripts and what you can do to help, please visit the Timbuktu foundation link (liens) on this site.
To  learn more about African writing systems please visit :
Please forward to as many people as possible.

Publié dans contemporary africa

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