First published 18 December 2005, Toronto Star
Time has not been kind to this once-great centre of civilization, which in the early 1500s inspired the Spanish explorer Leo Africanus to paint a picture of a learned, cultured and peaceful place where books were the main industry, where one literally walked on “gold.” Lured by this promise of riches, European explorers tried for centuries to find Timbuktu. By the time the first ones finally arrived in the 1800s, they found a desolate desert outpost not all that different from the sand-swept town of today, with no evidence of all the fabled wealth. Hence, the Western myth about a never-never place with little to offer the world — a myth that is about to be exploded.
Today, treasures are being unearthed here that are radically changing the way the world views Timbuktu, Africa and her history. They’re called the “Timbuktu manuscripts” and they disprove the myth that Africa had no written history. While many thousands have been recovered, there are still hundreds of thousands of manuscripts hidden away in wells and mud-walled storerooms in northern Mali. Huge collections have been passed down in families over many centuries, kept out of sight for fear that European explorers, and then French colonists, would abscond with them.
“Before, all the manuscripts were kept in our homes,” says Abdelkader Haidara, who has inherited his family’s collection of 9,000 written works dating back to the 16th century. “Then, in 1993, I had an idea to open a private and modern library that would be open to everyone.” Thanks to funding from an American foundation, Haidara has been able to open his Mamma Haidara library and catalogue 3,000 of the manuscripts, some of which date back to the 1100s. None of this would have been possible had not Henry Louis Gates Jr., chair of Harvard University’s African and African-American studies department, visited Haidara and realized the importance of preserving these documents.
“When Professor Gates came here and saw the storeroom full of these manuscripts written by African scholars centuries ago, he started to cry,” says Haidara. “He wept like a child, and when I asked him why, he said he had been taught at school that Africa had only oral culture and that he had been teaching the same thing at Harvard for years and now he knew all that was wrong.” Continue reading The treasures of Timbuktu