AFRICA: Timbuktu book reveals Africa's written history

Timbuktu is synonymous with the middle of nowhere. But centuries ago it was a world centre of intellectual pursuit and knowledge production, and its manuscripts - there are more than 200,000, some dating back to the 13th century - were widely circulated across Africa. A major project is underway to preserve the documents of the old mud-brick city on the edge of the desert. Now a new book co-edited by University of Cape Town historian Dr Shamil Jeppie, The Meanings of Timbuktu, is reviving Africa's rich written tradition of scholarship.

The Timbuktu manuscripts - covering a range of fields from law and medicine to astronomy and literature - prove Africa's long written history.

"For a long time the historical focus has been on the oral tradition in Africa," says Jeppie, who co-edited the volume with Professor Souleymane Bachir Diagne of Northwestern University in the US. "This is a fascinating revival of the continent's scholarship. We are using new tools and methods to study the written tradition and the circulation of books across Africa - not just a few but many thousands of manuscripts.

"It is a massive departure in terms of the written history of books and libraries long before the arrival of Europeans," Jeppie told University World News.

The Meanings of Timbuktu comprises 24 essays written by leading scholars from three continents, originally presented as papers at a 2005 conference of the Ford Foundation-funded Tombouctou Manuscript Project at the University of Cape Town. Among the writers are people from West Africa and from libraries in Timbuktu - "usually these kinds of papers are written by outsiders," Jeppie says. The papers were in English, Arabic or French and translated, in the latter two cases, for the book.

Timbuktu has an extraordinary collection of scripts, but there were many other centres of scholarly pursuit around Africa. In his chapter Jeppie writes: "They unambiguously reveal the sophisticated use of a wide diversity of Africa's languages in high-level intellectual pursuits, demonstrating African people's capacities to express themselves in complex forms and African intellectual capabilities over the centuries."

The current story of the Timbuktu manuscripts began in 2001, when South African President Thabo Mbeki embarked on an official visit to Mali. He spent time in the capital Bamako and in Timbuktu with Mali's then president, Alpha Oumar Konaré, now a statesman in the EU-style African Union. Konaré trained as an historian and archaeologist and his wife, Adamé Ba Konaré, is also an historian.

As Jeppie writes in his chapter: "With two history PhDs occupying the hill in Bamako, the subject of history when meeting Mbeki would always be on the agenda." He continues: "As historians serving in the higher education institutes of Bamako in the 1970s, they had been concerned with the pre-colonial history of Mali...

"For them, Timbuktu is a repository of history, a living archive which anybody with a concern for African history should be acquainted with. Timbuktu may be hard to get to but it played an essential role as a centre of scholarship under the Songhay state until the invasion from the rulers of Marrakesh in 1591, and even thereafter it was revived."

But the decline of Timbuktu into a forgotten town, overtaken even in national importance by other towns, needed more than the interest of a few historians, albeit powerful ones. It needed political will, and this came largely from Mbeki, driver of the 'African renaissance' movement which seeks to develop and transform the continent.

Apartheid isolated South Africa from Africa. For decades the country looked to the west for political and cultural connection. Jeppie writes: "The vast land mass north of the country's border was a large fly-over zone to be missed and dismissed. Nothing of aesthetic value had come from there; there were no great works of art and literature, it was asserted or implied.

"Since 1994, part of the continuing post-apartheid struggle has been to reorient the attention of the media and of intellectuals, and to steer education and cultural institutions to look with greater interest and concern to the continent (and other parts of the global south) as a location for collaborative possibilities and not as a miserable space to pass over."

Mbeki was only one of many travellers who have visited Timbuktu over the centuries, but as Jeppie points out, what he found was new to him. The Ahmed Baba Institute - "a confusing web of buildings" that hold the most significant traces of the scholarly world of old Timbuktu - was founded on the recommendation of Unesco in 1970 to collect and conserve the region's written heritage and begin writing a new African history using recovered sources from Africa. But the excitement died down and the collection gathered dust and deteriorated.

Mbeki promised Konaré that South Africa would assist Mali to conserve the thousands of manuscripts at the institute - some 20,000 items - which were not being adequately stored or preserved, and to boost its human resource capacity and encourage the intellectual and cultural exchanges needed to strengthen African capacities and realise a 'renaissance'.

A technical team left South Africa for Mali two weeks after Mbeki's visit, to investigate what needed to be done in practical terms and how South Africa could participate in a joint project between the two countries. This was not an easy task, says Jeppie, as the team took Mali officials by surprised, there was no South African diplomatic presence to smooth the way and provide support, and the jet-setting experts were not accustomed to 'adventure travel'.

But the joint project got underway and a library to preserve more than 200,000 Arabic and West African manuscripts dating from the 13th to the 19th centuries is under construction. It is the first cultural project of the New Partnership for Africa's Development, the development arm of the African Union.

"The government has focused on building new libraries and preserving books," says Jeppie. "Our focus is a collaborative research project to bring together scholars from West Africa and elsewhere concerned with the written tradition in Africa." Among other things, exchanges with scholars has resulted in the revelation of more manuscript collections, "though they cannot compete with the huge West African collections".

Jeppie and colleagues have been studying the old African scripts as part of the Tombouctou project. This research forms the foundation of The Meanings of Timbuktu. The first chapters provide background and context to the collection. Part one investigates the archaeological past of the Timbuktu region and soundings, examines the paper and calligraphic styles used in the manuscripts, and describes how scholarly institutions functioned.

Part two explores the various kinds of Arabic writing from Africa as sources for writing African history, and part three looks at the Kunti scholars of the late 18th and mid-19th centuries and their contribution to the intellectual life of the region. The volume ends with studies of the written legacy of the eastern half of Africa.

African traditions of scholarship, articulated in Arabic and African languages written in the Arabic script, have been studied by very few scholars, Arabists, historians or anthropologists. "Modern scholarly research on this African Islamic tradition of learning has a presence in a few scattered places in Africa, Europe and the United States", write Jeppie and Diagne in their preface.

But the world of African scholarship before European colonialism is generally not widely known or incorporated into school or university curricula about Africa: "Yet the corpus of materials to study is vast and, excluding North Africa above the Sahara, extends across West Africa and down the East African coast and there even exists a small body of materials in Cape Town," the editors write. The Meanings of Timbuktu seeks to emphasise the importance of preserving and studying the these manuscripts - for Africa and the intellectual world.

The Meanings of Timbuktu, Shamil Jeppie, Souleymane Bachir Diagne (eds), Human Sciences Research Council, South Africa. R 290.00