Mali: Google project immortalises Timbuktu manuscripts

By Jaysim Hanspal
Posted on Thursday, 10 March 2022 15:42

A museum guard displays a burnt ancient manuscript at the Ahmed Baba Institute in Timbuktu
A museum guard displays a burnt ancient manuscript at the Ahmed Baba Institute, or Ahmed Baba Centre for Documentation and Research, in Timbuktu January 31, 2013. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier/Files

In collaboration with SAVAMA-DCI, Google Arts & Culture today is releasing over 40,000 digitised manuscript pages from the endangered Timbuktu collection. 

In its golden era, the Malian city of Timbuktu was home to numerous Islamic scholars and the thriving book trade. Sankore Madrasah university established the city as a scholarly centre in Africa. This gave birth to thousands of manuscripts depicting learning in morality, politics, astronomy, and many other subjects.

In 2012, the manuscripts were threatened by Ansar Dine, a militant Islamist group who threatened to destroy local shrines classed as world heritage sites. Local communities and relatives of Timbuktu librarians conspired to protect the manuscripts, often in their own homes or hidden around the city.

Today the manuscripts are considered one of “Africa’s greatest written legacies”, according to Chance Coughenour, program manager and digital archaeologist at Google Arts & Culture.

Mali’s greatest legacy

This global project, working with local organisations such as Timbuktu Resistance (TR), Instruments-4-Africa, and UNESCO, has created an online exhibition surrounding Mali’s greatest legacy to aid scholars in their research whilst educating internationally about Mali’s culture.

Preservation means different things to different people. In the past, we could only protect the original artefacts. In the face of the unknown, it is important to digitise because paper material degrades.

With lesson plans available in English and French, an original album by Malian singer-songwriter Fatoumata Diawara, and interactive online tours of key sites in the city, the project aims to open up Mali’s culture to a global audience.

Coughenour stresses the success of digitisation in preserving ancient artefacts.

“Preservation means different things to different people. In the past, we could only protect the original artefacts. In the face of the unknown, it is important to digitise because paper material degrades,” he says.

For Cynthia Schneider, former US Ambassador and co-director of TR, an initiative that aims to utilise Mali’s heritage to promote peace and prosperity, this project is a beacon of hope in troubling times. “The answers to our present problems can be found in the past. Google hopes this will encourage government investment in culture.”

Rebel with a cause

This project is primarily a success due to Abdel Kader Haidara, the director of the private Mamma Haidara Memorial Library. In 2012, under threat from Islamist rebels, Haidara spent a month cataloguing the historical manuscripts of Timbuktu during the night, packing them into over 1000 metal boxes and hiding them.

In Africa, there are lots of problems all of the time: poverty, negligence, neocolonialism, wars. These things mean that we neglect our legacy.

Today, as he works in conjunction with Google Arts & Culture, Haidara has translated and curated the over 40,000 manuscript pages he managed to save from destruction.

Haidara believes that this project will enable him to finally share the manuscripts with the world. “It’s true that [African culture] is neglected but with these initiatives, like this one with Google we can begin to promote this important heritage”, he tells The Africa Report. 

“In Africa, there are lots of problems all of the time: poverty, negligence, neocolonialism, wars. These things mean that we neglect our legacy.”

Dr Haidara inherited his position as scholar and protector of the manuscripts from his father, a professor who spent his life preserving them. He said, “When I started working with my father, I realised it was a good profession that could serve the country and myself well. When someone comes to your house and they feel at ease, it’s the same thing with the artefacts and their country of origin. It will allow generations to return to their heritage and learn something, that’s why I think it’s better that they stay here in Mali.”

Over the years Haidara has been propositioned for the manuscripts many times, to take them out of Mali or purchase them completely. He has never given in.

“This exhibition with Google shows the world the value of these manuscripts. It will be beneficial for education, for anyone who wants to learn something from it. We here in Mali don’t have the means to show this great heritage to the world. There are millions and thousands of people who don’t know that this written heritage exists. Even here in Africa.”

Although the manuscripts have been digitalised for public consumption, the librarian does not believe his role as protector is over. “I think it is necessary to protect this history all of the time, and never stop. If we don’t guard our history, we will lose it.”

“Now we have started translating and publishing the manuscripts, and touring and publicising them, we can show people. This is something for the world.”

You can find the Mali Magic exhibition and the digitised Timbuktu manuscripts on the Google Arts & Culture website.

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