David asked me to write something for 'the Arts Desk' in London- this is what I came up with: (David please put a link to the Arts desk -and your blog!- in the comments?)
Timbuktu, the legendary ‘end of the World’
does actually exist, and as everyone now knows, Timbuktu is in Mali. It has just been thrust into the world’s focus
after its recent liberation from the Al Quaida linked extremists that have
occupied the north of Mali during the last 10 months.
Timbuktu’s ancient mosques are protected
by UNESCO World Heritage status. It is the ‘city of the 333 saints’, which is
one detail that did not please its recent Jihadist occupiers who did not agree
with the worship of saints as practised by the Timbuktu population. Many of the
town’s mausoleums were therefore destroyed. In addition, as a final flourish
the Jihadists set light to the ancient Arabic manuscripts which had been stored
at the Ahmed Baba Institute, a Malian state institution for the preservation of
Irina Bukova, the UNESCO cultural envoy
accompanied President Hollande on his triumphant entry into Timbuktu on
February 2, after the French troops has liberated the town. The pair carried out an inspection of what had been
destroyed and Mme Bukova vowed to come
up with funding for the rehabilitation of the town, which has since been
announced as a sum of 5 million Euro.
Now this is all very commendable of
course. The people of Timbuktu suffered grievously under the Islamist
occupation and need every encouragement they can find. However, as an ex-pat
living in Djenne, Mali where I have a hotel (www.hoteldjennedjenno.com) I
confess to a somewhat jaundiced view of how such overseas funding might be
Firstly, the mausoleums which UNESCO will
reconstruct: about 80% of these are made
of sun dried mud brick which is then plastered with mud. Some are built with
the characteristic Timbuktu stone. But in both cases, I do hope that UNESCO
will let the people of Timbuktu reconstruct these mausoleums themselves. The
cost of rebuilding a traditional mausoleum in local material and using local
masons is negligible. But more importantly- it is surely the pride of the city
and something the people would like to do themselves? I fear that UNESCO will
be sending in ‘experts’ in 4x4s.
There is a museum in Djenne which was
built a few years ago with European Community money. This museum is still not opened
and has no exhibits. This is a scandal and the reasons for why it is still not
open remain shrouded in mist. It was built with mud the traditional Djenne
style and it is a very handsome building. It was a Bamako architect that got
the contract to build it. The masons of Djenne were employed as ‘advisors’ or
as labourers. Why? Because they cannot read and they cannot find their way
through the labyrinth of bureaucracy which has to be conquered before being
employed by the European Community. The
fact that they and their ancestors were the very ones that invented this
building style seems to hold no importance. And it
is not all. Every year this monumental building, like all of Djenne’s mud
buildings including its spectacular mud mosque need to be replastered with mud.
There are also always repairs somewhere on a mud building. Every year an
estimate by the Djenne masons is sent off with the cost to repair the
damage. It may be a figure of about 300 000 FCFA ( ca 460 Euro) Every year it is rejected as being too small a figure.
The powers that be believe they need to send up ‘experts’ from Bamako first of
all to make a report, then to make a proposal etc...Just one trip to Djenne
from Bamako in a 4x4, lodging, experts’ fees etc will come to a figure much
higher than the quote for the repair!
Let’s move on to the manuscripts. Timbuktu
has been awash by funding for their manuscripts for decades. They have had
money from the Mellon Foundation and the Ford Foundation in the US, the Andalucian
regional Government in Spain, funding from the State of South Africa, from
Bahrain, from Lyon in France, from Norway and from Luxemburg. They have state
of the art digitizing equipment worth many thousands, perhaps millions of Euro.
But yet Abdul Wahid Haidara, the director of Mohammed Tahar Library of Timbuktu,
estimates that no more than about 2% of the Timbuktu manuscripts have been
Now UNESCO intends to give them even more
money, particularly for digitizing. Meanwhile here in Djenne we also have very
large deposits of ancient Arabic manuscripts. They are stored at the Djenne
Manuscript Library (www.djennemanuscrits.com
). Djenne is traditionally thought of as
the ‘twin city’ of Timbuktu. It enjoys the same glorious past as an important
city of learning and commerce, but alas not the financial clout of its more
famous twin sister. However, the Library was given a grant of £ 55 000 from the
British Library’s Endangered Archives
Programme ( EAP) in 2011 for a two year project of digitization which will come
to an end in July. We have already digitized over 120 000 images of the ancient
manuscripts of Djenne, quite possibly a larger number than Timbuktu ever
managed to do. These images were
delivered safely on a hard drive to the BL in London yesterday as a safety measure
because of the continuing unstable situation in Mali.
There has been a resistance to
digitization in Mali. This has to do with a fundamental difference in perspective
on learning and the written word between the West and this traditional Islamic society.
We look upon learning as something that is freely given: libraries should be
open, knowledge should be shared and should be free and easily available. Here
the talibes learn to recite the Koran
by rote in the many Koran schools. They are not told what they recite. They are
not allowed to know until they can recite faultlessly. Then they have earned
the right to know. Knowledge is given discriminately, it has to be earned.
Timbuktu is notoriously difficult for scholars. It is hard to gain access to
the documents, many of which have a secret knowledge status. It has not been
possible to copy documents in Timbuktu, and digitization work in such a climate
is clearly carried out with difficulty. It is also a question of financial
gain. The private libraries of Timbuktu have feared that if their manuscripts
are digitized, people will no longer come to visit their library and pay the
However, with the recent events in Timbuktu
this attitude is likely to have been modified, and digitization programmes will
start, with the funding about to arrive.
Here in Djenne we are hoping that just a fraction of all this funding
might come our way so we can continue our important digitization work as well
as starting other disciplines such as the conservation and the cataloguing of
the Djenne manuscripts.
Project leader EAP488, Djenne Manuscript Library