Ariela Marcus-Sells is a PHD student from Stanford doing research at the Djenne Manuscript Library(seen here conducting field work…)
She found out about the library through this blog!
Her research concerns 18th Century Sufism in West Africa and her doctoral thesis bears the provisional and rather poetic title Sainthood and Magic in the Writings of Sidi al Moktar and Sidi Mohamed al Kunti.
She was kind enough to write me a letter which I passed on to the project head office in the British Library, just to cheer them up. This is what she says about the Djenne Manuscript library:
I have briefly surveyed the manuscripts which have been identified thus far and have found several documents which I am sure will be of great interest to scholars of African History, including manuscripts relating to the history of the Empire of Macina, the Sokoto Caliphate, and al-Hajj Umar Tall.
Regarding my particular interest, the Djenne manuscript library contains at least three manuscripts related to the Kunta which I have not seen listed in any other catalogue. Moreover, the library contains a wealth of documents relating to Sufism and dating to the eighteenth century or earlier which will be invaluable for clarifying the nature of Sufism in the region during that period.
How about that!
Ariela is the first proper researcher studying the newly digitized images on the computer screens in the reading room. I have argued that the library must look after her well and that she should be given free access to whatever she needs. If she finds a manuscript that she needs on the library data base which is not yet digitized it will be done for her. It would be digitized later on anyway as part of the project.
Ariela has been working in Timbuktu of course.
Many researchers find the conditions there almost impossible. Although Timbuktu is awash with funding from all over the world, notably from the South African Government; the Ford Foundation; the Mellon Foundation; the regional Government of Andalusia, Spain and many other sources, it is extremely difficult for scholars to access the documents. It is impossible to take copies. Scholars therefore have to stay put in Timbuktu for years sometimes to work on the documents in situ. Although there is state of the art digitizing equipment, there is virtually no digitizing taking place.
The problem that scholars are encountering in Timbuktu, and which I am trying to work against here in Djenne, concerns a fundamental perception of access to knowledge. The traditional Islamic education is one of slow initiation into mysteries and knowledge is withheld from students in the early stages of education. The talibes in the Koran Schools here do not understand what they read, write and repeat. It is only in the later stages of their learning process that they will understand the sense of their lessons. This knowledge is something that has to be earned. This is of course diametrically opposed to our Western idea of free access of knowledge for all. It explains the reluctance of the manuscript owners to show their manuscripts. Dr. Constant Hames, one of my two academic sponsors for the project, was amazed that we had managed to persuade the Djenne marabouts to make available to the public the manuscripts which were always held to have “secret knowledge status’, in particular the esoteric manuscripts.
An additional problem occurring in Timbuktu is the fact that tiny family libraries are springing up all over Timbuktu, sponsored by some of the institutions mentioned above. This development is reported around the world as a laudable thing, while in fact it is of no use to anyone. No one visits all these little libraries which are mushrooming all over Timbuktu.
Djenne does not want to follow in the footsteps of Timbuktu. We want to discourage anyone from splintering off and opening their own library. In keeping the Djenne Manuscript Library the resource for the whole community of Djenne we hope to find funding for conservation, cataloguing etc. in this one centralized library.
It was originally decided by the management committee that scholars should pay an entrance fee at the Djenne Manuscript Library. I have been able to dissuade this and Ariela is studying for free in the workroom.
This morning a meeting was held at the library. It was decided that she will be able to take with her low resolution pictures in J peg format for her own personal study. This will however involve a fee, decided at 500 fcfa per image- less than a euro. This price is reasonable I believe and comparable to other institutions. Half of the proceeds will go to the manuscript owners and half to the manuscript library, who will have to find money some way to pay its staff once the project is over.