Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Le Front de Libération de Macina ?

 Mali is abuzz with a new concept:  The Macina Liberation Front,  purportedly a new terrorist organisation, referred to in a recent document published by Human Rights Watch who holds them responsible for a number of terrorist attacks in central Mali: the regions of Mopti and Segou. Malian press as well as RFI (Radio France Inter) has picked up on this, and the spin is in full spin as it were… The Independent (the Malian one, not the UK version) has the lurid headline: ‘Mopti,  the Venise of the North, in  a state of psychosis, last weekend’. (This may be slightly exaggerated, since I just spoke to a Mopti friend of mine who said she had never heard of it).
Nevertheless:  the hotel was nearly fully booked for the annual ‘crepissage’ of the Mosque this coming weekend, but one by one the reservations have been cancelled and now there are only two rooms left.  Most of the people that were supposed to come are diplomats, and they have all been reading various think tank reports  on these terrorist attacks which are supposed to be perpetuated by this new  extremist group ‘Le Front de Libération de Macina’, and embassies are issuing new prohibitions for travel to these regions.
Of course I, as a hotel owner in the region,  have every reason to play down something like this and I am aware that my opinion is unlikely  to be taken seriously . Nevertheless, I will add my little dissenting voice to the overwhelming clamour of the MINUSMA specialists and the Human Rights Watch people, who write their reports mostly from the safety and comfort of Bamako.

The facts are the following: reports of violence in the area of central Mali since January 2015 have increased in the region of Mopti and Segou, and localities such as Nampala, Tenenkou, Boulkessi, Dogofri and  Morha have been repeatedly attacked.

Ban Ki Moon has said in a recent statement: « an  intensification of  extremist activity has been signalled in the previously spared regions of Segou and Mopti.”

But his statement , those of RFI and of  all other commentators make the fundamental mistake of not pointing out - either by ignorance or by expedience- that the regions of Mopti and Segou have the geographical dividing line of the river Niger running through them:  all the large cities and administration centres are situated to the east of the river Niger and they  follow the main road leading to the north  i.e. Segou, San, Bla, Mopti, Djenné, Sevaré, Mopti. The eastern regions also include  the entire Dogon country. These are the regions that have 'been spared' and  they still are.
ALL of these attacks have been perpetuated to the west  of the river Niger.The western  parts of the regions of Segou a.d Mopti – that part which lies  towards the Mauritanian border have continued to be the target of attacks either by bandits or by elements that have fled from the northern extremist groups since the French dislodged them in 2013. This glaring fact has not been pointed out by any one of the commentators.  I would like to draw attention to my blogs of March 29 and 30 and April 1st 2013; ,(‘Murky Waters’, Attack on Mourha’)   amongst others which highlights this very problem. It is therefore not a new phenomenon, and it is misleading to describe it as such. Some of the commentators   are here on six  month contracts.   I boast the advantage of having observed, over the last years, from a position of central Mali, the events that unfold in close proximity to me.

Certain commentators have indicated that the local administration in these localities have fled and one source even mentioned that some prefects have withdrawn to  Djenné.  The truth is  that the Sou- Prefect of Morha (west of the Niger) did ‘withdraw’  to Djenné in order to report on the situation and on the recent violence in Morha to the Prefect here. He then returned to his post. The regions to the west of the Niger have had less of an administration  presence since colonial times. Certain of these localities such as Morha rely on the gendarmerie and the higher ranks of administration of larger localities on the eastern side of the river Niger to resolve many incidents (see blog 'Attack on Morha' 1st April 2013).

All this does not mean that there has not been an increase in violence: this part is unfortunately true. But please do label things properly! Please make the fundamental  distinction between  the east and west side of the river Niger: the river itself exercises a geographical barrier that is extremely important: the extremist groups are not waterborn- or have not been so far. No incidents have happened in the areas east of the river- this is because the terrorist elements are in the main not  local: they come from their hiding places towards the border of Mauritania, they do their destructive raids and then they disappear again into the wilderness- on the east side they would have nowhere to go.

And what about this mysterious ‘Front of the Liberation of Macina?’ Sekou Amadou Barry was the religious reformer whose  Fulani Empire of Macina  was established the region in the middle of the 19th century   with a religious fervor which can be described as the fore runner of today’s  extremist Islam . An iconoclast, he is responsible for the destruction of the Great Mosque of Djenné which  had stood here since the 14th century, but which was too ornate for his liking so he built another simpler one on a nearby site.  The present mosque was built on the ruins of the old and completed in 1907.

Think tank reports are seeing a connection between  a charismatic preacher, Hamadou Koufa, whose DAWA sect of Wahabi persuasion has links with Iyad Ag Ghali’s (above) Ançar Dine. They are suspected  to be the masterminds behind this ‘Front de Liberation de Macina’ which is  supposed to be made up of Fulani who hank for the return of the glory days of the 19th century when the Empire of Macina ruled their world. Is this true? ‘It is a compelling narrative,’ as a clever young diplomat friend in Bamako so trendily expressed it to me  the other day. Indeed, and it is possibly a scheme masterminded by the likes of Iyad ag Ghali as a means of whipping up support amongst a poor and disgruntled population.   And  there is apparently a small group of Fulani who have been recruited. But the present threat of this organisation is hugely exaggerated, and  whatever is going on right now it  is a stepping up of violence on the WESTERN shores of the Niger.




Saturday, April 11, 2015

Volte - Face

Well, it seems that we shouted 'Hurrah' to speedily.
Although The CMA (Co-ordinated Movements of Azawad, which includes most importantly the MNLA) had assured the Algiers negotiators that they were willing to sign the Peace Treaty on the 15th of April and Algiers  in turn had relayed this news  to the Malian government ( who still this evening is continuing to relay this joyful message in several languages on  national TV) it now appears they have changed their minds. A press statement from Moussa Ag Attaher, the CMA spokesman  in Nouakchott insists that there are several points they cannot accept and they will therefore not be able to sign after all.
There have been several points the Malian government could not accept either, but they were made to accept them by international pressure for this peace deal which will give much more autonomy to the north  via a policy of de-centralisation.
Keita and I were wondering all day yesterday why there were no international news coverage of this important breakthrough: nothing on French news.  It is all as clear as mud what is actually going on. There are  things moving behind the scenes here, things we cannot know but only guess at...

Iyad Ag Ghali, the northern warlord whose Ançar Dine held Kidal during the Jihadist occupation, is still in hiding due to a mandate for his arrest, but he is  a big player in this drama. Another is the new Amenokal - the traditonal leader of the Tuaregs of the Kidal Area- who is also incidentally a deputy for Kidal in the National Assembly. He was in Bamako yesterday, speaking  with a severely forked tongue: he  mouths allegiance to a secular state of Mali; united and undivided while at the same time his recommendations for the solving of the crisis involves three eccentric and to  the Malian government indigestible concepts: he wants Kidal to adopt Sharia Law, he wants the unconditional dropping of all charges against Iyad Ag Ghali and finally he insists that  the Malian Army should only be allowed  to return to  the Kidal area if the Gatia force, a  highly efficient semi-militia, loyal to the government and led by the Touareg General Gamou, that  torn in the flesh for the MNLA is excluded.
So; in other words; it is all still a mess...

Thursday, April 09, 2015

Good News!

No time to write anything of note (we are snowed under by Malimali work) but I feel compelled to  say at least something about  the two major bits of good news that  today has brought:
This morning Alpha (right) my saintly but ham-fisted tailor brought his brother (left) along to see me.  Now, this was something of an apparition since  the last thing I had  heard of him was on the day we bundled him  into a  bush taxi  to the hospital in Mopti  on what I presumed was to be his final journey– he was on the verge of death from a badly infected tooth and noone expected him to even make it to the Mopti hospital. But here he was! Safe and sound but with a great scar across his neck.
Alpha, by the way, would be mortally embarrassed if he understood what his T-shirt said. He, like everyone else here buy our cast- off  second hand clothes in the market for a small fee. It is much cheaper to  dress in second hand Western clothes than to have something traditional made. This has of course  all but ruined the indigenous clothing manufacture. But that is another story… Here in Djenné though  many people still dress in their traditional beautiful Grand Boubous, and Alpha only wears T-shirts for work.
And the other Good News today  is that the northern armed rebels which include the MNLA have finally decided to sign the Peace Treaty which has been negotiated in Algiers over the last few months . The signing will go ahead on the 15th of April and Inshallah, it  will mark the end of these three years of profound Malian crisis and usher in the beginning of peace and prosperity once more for this bruised nation.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

For The Swedes only:

‘Hemslojden’ is a Swedish Craft magazine that just came out with an article about bogolan in which they use a lot of the information I gave them over the telephone. It is a good article but it does not, annoyingly, let people know that they can by MaliMali’s bogolan in Sweden at the shop Just Africa in Stockholm! Instead it promotes the rival African shop: Afro Art, which is older and whose owner the journalist also has interviewed for the article.
My blog address was given however,  so here is a little plug for Just Africa,  just in case someone who reads the article looks into the blog: do check out this shop, a treasure trove of goodies  from Africa  in Sodermalmstorg by Slussen!

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Bamako Birthday and MaliMali Shop

I am seething with frustration- if that is the right expression.  It has now been one whole week that I am back in Djenné and I have not once been able to connect to the internet ! I am writing this anyway, in the forelorn hope that next time I try it will finally work…-
It looks as if  am finally going to have to join the rest of the world, albeit kicking and screaming, into the second decade of the third millenium by buying a smart phone; since it seems as if this means of connection works better in Djenné .  I see my gardener’s assistant Karim fiddling with his smartphone and chatting to potential girlfriends while I am walking around in a constant rage and frustration and not even being able to open up the hotel emails with their potential reservations on my computer! I have so far maintained, in my quaint old-fashioned way,  that I am not interested in being constantly connected, nor in having a phone that can take pictures and do other clever things. I lose at least three mobile phones  a year. I therefore have the cheapest possible cell phone and it does what it is supposed to do: it can make a phone call.  When I arrived at the airport in Bamako last time I had trouble opening the back of my phone to change the SIM card, so I asked an airport cleaner who was sweeping up if he would mind giving me a hand. He looked sniffily at me and at my phone and told me  with undisguised contempt: ‘ we give these sorts of phones to our maids’.

I also have a camera which I use when I want to take pictures, and finally, when I want to get onto the internet – at certain times I have set aside for this task- I use my computer. But this antiquated –although  I would say civilised- way of behaviour is clearly no longer an option and I too am about to become one of those boring people who are surgically attached to their smart phones. AAArgh!
I am in the midst of a  cavalcade of pleasant and important events that need to be recorded- an important birthday was spent in Bamako last week in the very pleasant surroundings of  the Swedish Embassy residence with my  kind friend Eva, the ambassador,  who arranged for a great Swedish style birthday cake and once more  let me stay as I was opening our MaliMali Bamako outlet in the same location as the shop ‘Ethnic Women’ who stocked out goods before and sold well, but closed down since its owner went back to France. MaliMali is now taking on the shop ourselves and on the night of my birthday we opened and  had a small informal drinks party for a handful of friends in  front of the shop in the balmy Bamako night. It is still only stocked with a fraction of the goods it will have and we  are  frantically trying to produce all the things that need to go in: fabrics, clothing and accessories. Meanwhile there is a big order from Sweden to fulfil and one from Brazil, as well as the fabrics I need to bring back to London in May when MaliMali is taking part in a fabric exhibition called Clerkenwell Design Week- we have a stand in a former Victorian Dungeon it appears…


Friday, March 13, 2015

A Toubab Tantrum

How did I ever get this hotel built? How have I managed to live here for close to ten years without having a major breakdown?  Why do I insist on being such a toubab all the time? Why have I not learned anything at all? The amazing and incomprehensible fact is  that  the hotel is actually standing here, the staff still works for me, my life is still trundling along in its roundabout way over its  its peculiar obstacle course with me  still trying to fit square toubab pegs into African mud holes and I have learned nothing.
Take this morning: we are building a staircase from the kitchen building onto the roof where there will be a small bridge between the kitchen building and the large roof above the ‘hangar’ or the hotel seating area. This is so the staff can bring the plates up on to the roof where we will now have our restaurant under the stars! This is an idea that came about when we had one lovely evening a couple of weeks ago, dining on the roof just for fun- why not do this always I thought : there could be pirogue wood tables which could stay in place always and pirogue wood benches to sit on with only cushions brought up every night to make it more comfortable. How lovely to have the night view over Djenne! And only a step away from the sunset terrace: people could wander down from there and install themselves at the roof top tables for  a whole new dining experience!
So today we were to have a site meeting with Ace and the mason to discuss how to do it. Now, just the idea of a ‘site meeting’ is so very toubab. I arrived  believing I would find Ace and the mason waiting and ready for me : we would be measuring things, discussing size, width and number of steps and width  and length of the bridge connecting,  and this would all of course be dependent  on the length of the roniers ( coconut tree stems)  which would hold up the bridge. We would possibly be making marks to make sure it would all fit, and it would all be reliant on a sort of master plan which we would work out together at this all important site meeting.

Instead  when Ace called me to the ‘site meeting’  I find  the mason with five labourers having knocked a great big hole in the roof!  The stairs where already well on their way all without seemingly any planning whatsoever, and all without even having consulted me in the slightest! I handle this sort of situation very badly and I had a screaming fit- all totally unnecessary of course: a great hole in a mud house roof is not the same s a hole in a toubab building.  “Don’t worry ! It can be closed again and we open it wherever you like it”, he explained sooothingly through the interpretation of Acé.  ‘But why did you just start the stairs without even talking to me? And why did you start them at this point exactly? I thought we were starting them here!’, and I pointed to the spot that seemed to be a more sensible position for the beginning of the stairs. I only had to say it and suddenly one of the labourers were slapping on mud in the spot I had pointed. ‘No! Damn it!  I don’t want him to do it NOW! Can we please get rid of him, the mud and the wheelbarrows ? I want to discuss it!’ I howled. ‘ Have you calculated how many stairs there are and where the hole should be  opened up?  ‘ Keita looked at me with that look I know so well by now. He is thinking: ‘what is she going on about? Why does she have to talk so much?’  ‘But Sophie, you give someone a job, you must let him get on with it!’ he said, unhelpfully.  This is exactly what I can't do. I just can’t. That is why I really don’t know how I have managed to build this hotel, and how I can still be here, when I am quite clearly so fundamentally unsuitable for these  Djenné style working methods.   I should know  by know that it does work out in the end! It always has worked out so why can’t I have faith that it will now? In the end I walked off unhappily- but as usual much more unhappy about my own reaction: my  cronic lack of patience and undertanding, than about the work itself.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

In the Shadow of Timbuktu: The Manuscripts of Djenné

My article ‘In the Shadow of Timbuktu, the Manuscripts of Djenné’ forms part of a book called ‘From Dust to Digital’ which has just come out to mark the 10 year anniversary of the British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme, which has sponsored our projects at the Djenné Manuscript Library since 2009.
I am very proud of this article, although it has to be said that it is heavily  knocked into shape by its editor Maja Kominko,  who worked tirelessly to find all the footnotes and who objected to many of my proposed paragraphs and ideas. These omissions and strictures were for the most part salutary, I have no doubt. Some of them I find faintly annoying though, such as the fact that my spelling of the Koran (perfectly acceptable according to the Oxford English Dictionary) was changed into ‘Qu’ran.’  When talking about the fact that when we were recruting workers for the library we were forced to take on  the relations of the library management committee, I called this ‘nepotism’. This was changed into’system of family connections’ since the article was supposed to be written in a positive and friendly mode… But the most annoying thing was was that they refused my thesis as to why  Malians are unhappy about digitising their manuscripts. This reluctance is something  everyone is aware of  who has been working in this field here

My take  on this is that it is linked to the fundamental idea of education in the Koran schools here: knowledge is not given freely , it has to be earned. The little talibés will be reciting the Koran for years without understanding what they say and only when they have mastered large sections of the Koran by heart are they allowed to know what it means. Therefore , the idea to make access free on the internet to everyone is sort of anathema. Knowledge is precious and rare and should be kept so is the attitude. The reluctance to digitise  also has to do with the perception that if the manuscripts are digitised noone will visit the libraries anymore and therefore potential revenue will be lost. But it was my reference to the reading by rote in the 50 Koran schools of Djenné that the academic editors objected to : although it may be so in some of these educational establishments,  it is surely not like that in all the ‘Qu’ran Schools’ , they objected. When I insisted that it is absolutely true that the Talibés don’t know what they are reading they still refused to believe me and this section had to be cut out, sadly. I told them that in my opinion they were very ‘eurocentric’, and that personally I found  the idea of  releasing knowledge gradually in small portions was quite interesting…Anyway, here it is, knocked about a bit but nevertheless:
In the shadow of Timbuktu: the manuscripts of Djenné
Sophie Sarin
The ancient mud city of Djenné occupies an island in the Bani, a major tributary to the Niger River at the heart of the Niger inland delta in Mali. Although Djenné is less famous than its “twin sister” Timbuktu, which is situated 220 miles to the north on the edge of the Sahara desert, both cities have been important historical centres of trans-Saharan commerce and Islamic learning from the thirteenth century.1 Djenné is protected by its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, due not only to its spectacular mud architecture, including the world famous mosque, but also to the important archaeological site of Djenné Djenno.2
Modern day Djenné has in the region of fifty Quranic schools in which students (talibés) study Arabic and the Quran under the tuition of a marabout.3 Many talibés come from destinations as far removed as Ghana or Nigeria to study in Djenné, which is still regarded as a centre for Islamic learning.
Djenné has therefore over the centuries become an important depository for Arabic manuscripts, which have been copied and stored in the private homes of the ancient Djenné families, many of which have Quranic schools attached.4
The Islam practiced in Mali traditionally promotes the veneration of saints and often encompasses elements of Sufi mysticism.5 During the recent occupation of the north of Mali by militants (April 2012-January 2013), a large number of mausoleums of saints in Timbuktu were destroyed by extremists, and several thousand manuscripts from the Ahmed Baba Institute of Timbuktu were burned.6 Alongside the traditional dangers such as mould, water, insects and other environmental hazards, a dramatic new menace to manuscripts had suddenly manifested itself in the form of a wilful destruction by fundamentalists. Fortunately Djenné lies 130 miles south of Douentza, the southernmost town occupied by the rebels during their ten-month rule, and was never touched by this destructive force.
 Since 2009, with the support of the Endangered Archives Programme, the Djenné Manuscript Library has begun work to survey and create an inventory of the manuscripts of Djenné, and, an effort to digitise the collection has been underway since 2011. The digitisation project carried on regardless of the momentous events that were unfolding only a day’s journey further north, and the team never stopped working during this time. When fuel rationing made daytime work impossible, we worked only during night-time hours when electricity was available.
 The Djenné Manuscript Library7 is housed in a handsome two-storey traditional Djenné mud building just to the south of the Great Mosque. It was built in 2006 with the support of the European Community Fund and the Embassy of the United States of America. In 2007, a management committee made up of notable Djenné residents was put in place; their task was to ensure that the library remained as the property of the whole population of Djenné, and continued as a safe repository for the manuscripts from private family collections. The deposited manuscripts remained the property of their owners. The library is therefore a public space housing private collections: an original model, entirely different from that of Timbuktu which has in the region of fifty small separate private family libraries which are housed in the individual homes of the collectors.8
The idea of digitisation first emerged when, after reading the description of the Djenné Manuscript Library on my blog,9 a reader informed me about the Endangered Archives Programme at the British Library.10 With its support, we began our pilot project in the autumn of 2009. The project was a collaboration between Mamadou Samake of the Mission Culturelle of Djenné, a Malian government body,11 Babou Touré, a Djenné school teacher representing the Djenné Manuscript library, and myself. The aim of the pilot project was to survey the manuscripts in Djenné. This work involved visiting private Djenné families, and most of the work was carried out in situ in the family houses. Djenné is a close-knit community and people tend to be reluctant to show their manuscripts to strangers. The work was carried out by Garba Yaro and Yelpha Deité, the two library archivists who are both members of ancient Djenné families, and without whose reassuring familiarity the doors would have remained shut. Over the four months, we explored collections in thirteen Djenné family homes, many of which were also Quranic schools. We identified more than 4,000 manuscripts, but we were fully aware that this was only a small portion of the total number preserved in Djenné.
The survey revealed that the manuscripts contained texts on a whole variety of subjects: along with Qurans, religious texts, grammars, historical texts, correspondence and works of literature there were also esoteric and magical texts. This discovery tallied with the fact that Djenné has traditionally been regarded as a centre for maraboutage, an Islamic form of magic which is still practised extensively by the Djenné marabouts.12 Indeed, these magical texts constituted more than half of the surveyed manuscripts. During this phase, the archivists simply noted the theme, and returned the manuscript into the storage chest without entering into further investigation. The existence of a Tarikh [History] of the Empire of Macina, written in Fulfulde was noted; however, this manuscript has not yet been re-located into the library and we are still hoping the owners will bring it in.
The manuscripts held in private family houses varied greatly in terms of the state of their preservation. Most were kept in metal or wooden storage boxes in no discernable order.
Our archivists identified each manuscript and separated it from the others with a sheet of white paper before returning it to its place in the box. Most manuscripts were found to be incomplete or perhaps only jumbled up — later more thorough investigation would be needed. We were hoping that at a later date we would be able to digitise these codices. The most common damage noted on the manuscripts was from termites and from water, as well as simply from bad storage and careless handling. The preservation was not helped by the fact that Djenné houses are all made from mud and during the rainy season they often leak.13
A large number of Djenné manuscripts have been acquired over the past decades by the Ahmed Baba Institute14 and SAVAMA in Timbuktu.15 These institutions had a policy of buying up manuscripts all over Mali in order to centralize the manuscript scholarship to Timbuktu.16 Nevertheless, a substantial deposit of Arabic manuscripts in Djenné remained in the city.
Between August 2011 and August 2013, with the support of the EAP, we digitised 2,009 manuscripts in the Djenné Manuscript Library, producing nearly 150,000 digital images17. The documents are for the most part undated and many are incomplete. The manuscripts collected and digitised so far are only written on paper, although there are allegedly manuscripts in Djenné written on fish parchment.18 The majority of the documents are estimated to date from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, although there are many from earlier times, and the oldest dated manuscript in the Djenné library is from 1394.19 With the exception of rare manuscripts in French, which have not yet been digitised and which contain legal papers and certain official documents such as diplomas from medersas (madrasas)or tax receipts dating from colonial times, the manuscripts are all written in Arabic script.
The library also contains, as of July 2014, 122 manuscripts with sections in the local languages of Songhai, Bozo, Fulfulde and Bamanan written in Arabic script. 20 These sections are sometimes explanations in the margin of difficult Arabic words in the text, or in the case of esoteric manuscripts concerning traditional medicine the names of plants and trees used are often written in Bamanan. There are only few manuscripts written entirely in a language different from Arabic: two in Fulfulde, a theological tract and a document on natural medicine; one manuscript contains “Praise to the Prophet” in Songhai and another one preserves esoteric texts in Bamanan.21
The large majority of the Djenné manuscripts were copied in Djenné, and only a small proportion were brought in from elsewhere. The names of the copyist are known, and these are often ancestors of the collector’s families. This is possible to ascertain to a certain degree by consulting the family genealogy, of the sort preserved in the manuscript EAP488-Yar1-MS15. This text contains an account of the well-known legend of Quissatou Baloukiya, a virtuous woman, and was copied in Djenné by Imam, son of Ousman. He is found seven generations down in the genealogy of the Yaro family. Similarly, the manuscript Kitāb nuzhat al-khawāir fī uūl sharal-agāʾin (The Book of the Excursion into the Ideas about the Sources Explaining the Hatred) (EAP488-DJEI7-MS26) is a traditional Arabic grammar in verse, copied in Djenné in 1836 by Aquadi Ahmed, who forms part of the line of marabouts which served the family Djeite. The genealogy is given seven generations back in this case: Alqadi Ahmed, son of Imam Mohamed, son of Baha, son of Amar, son of Moussa, son of Mahmoud, son of Ousmane, son of Mohamed, son of Babou Almoustafa Attawate. Another locally transcribed manuscript is a handsome volume of Prayers to the Prophet, Dalāʾil al-khayrāt wa-shawāriq al-anwār fī dhikr al-ṣalāt ʿalā al-nabī al-mukhtār (Directions to the Benefits and Shining Lights: On the Benediction over the Chosen Prophet) (EAP488Mai1MS1). It was copied in the Hausa calligraphy in 1899 by Bakaina, son of Alpha Sidi, son of Mohamed Cheick, son of Cheick Boubacar, who is an ancestor of the present owner. Bakaina is an ancient and traditional Djenné name. This differs from Timbuktu, which seems to have had a more energetic trade in manuscripts, not only in recent times but also back in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, at the height of its importance as a centre for trade and learning, before the trans-Saharan trade routes shifted as a result of the development of shipping along the West African coast.22 Many of Timbuktu’s treasures have been copied in the Maghreb or in the Middle East and then brought to Timbuktu as valuable merchandise. Djenné, on the other hand, appears to have been less cosmopolitan in its manuscript trade, which is why the majority of manuscripts were copied locally. The Djenné scribes were nevertheless influenced by different calligraphic styles. With the Moroccan conquest in the sixteenth century, the Maghreb style was copied in Djenné, just as later the Hausa style became adopted, inspired by the arrival of students from northern Nigeria to the Djenné Quranic schools.23
In order to embark on the digitisation project, we had to create a new workroom with three digital cameras and lighting units. We also bought and installed computers and, most importantly, hired new staff to work in the library. This latter task proved to be more problematic than anticipated due to the system of family connections in Djenné. We all agreed that the new staff should be local, but Samake and I insisted on good Arabic knowledge, a good general level of education and knowledge of French. Other members of the team, however, regarded family connections as more significant than qualifications. To work successfully in Djenné, it is necessary to come to viable compromises, and therefore the workroom staff were chosen by the library management committee. With regards to the digitisation workers, Samake and I insisted that at least one of the team should have a good knowledge of Arabic, French and English. Ultimately, we were able to hire Mohammed Diallo from the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Bamako. After the staff were finally assembled, a month or so of training took place before the work proper began in the autumn of 2011.
Fundamental for digitisation was the painstaking work to survey the manuscripts, carried out by Garba and Yelpha, our archivists. An important part of their task was raising awareness among the manuscript owners about the importance of their manuscripts. The increased availability of printed material meant that, over the last century, the manuscripts were increasingly seen as not valuable and even redundant. Gradually, these efforts began to bear fruit and a steady trickle of Djenné notables started depositing their manuscripts for safekeeping in the Djenné Manuscript Library. Soon after the project started, we noted that the documents brought to the library were often different from those we were allowed to see on our visits to family homes. The families who chose to bring part of their collections would often select manuscripts that were regarded to have a high status, and these were most likely to be Quranic or traditional Islamic texts. We decided that it was necessary to introduce a rule that allowed for only one Quran per family to be sent for digitisation. Otherwise, we would have run a risk of producing a digital collection consisting predominantly of Qurans, thus misrepresenting the types of manuscripts present and produced in the city. Fortunately, there were also significantly high numbers of other types of texts being brought, displacing moveable units into the family houses.and we decided to continue the digitisation work at the library instead of displacing moveable units into the family houses.
The reason for the steady and growing trickle of new deposits at the library must also be linked to the fact that the manuscript owners receive 3000FCFA (around £4) per day during the time that the team are digitising their manuscripts. This amount, although not very large, is nevertheless three times the wage for a day-labourer in Mali, and it is a welcome addition to the family budget in a town which has precious few opportunities for earning money.
A few months into the digitisation project, we encountered serious difficulties that continue to be a matter of concern. The initiative for the construction of the library had come from the Imam of Djenné, who successfully raised funds for this project from the European Union and the American Embassy. Although locals believed that the library was built for the benefit of the whole town, once it was constructed, the Imam appropriated it for himself. This caused a serious schism and the Imam withdrew his manuscripts from the library. He decided to build his own private library, which he did with the assistance of SAVAMA-DCI,24 an association for the promotion of manuscript culture from Timbuktu. The head of SAVAMA-DCI, Abdel Kader Haidara, has been widely recognized for his work to safeguard the manuscripts of Mali. His work has involved the opening of small libraries with the help of external funding- a model that has been rejected in Djenné because it is against the philosophy of its library.25 The schism between the Imam and the town of Djenné became serious enough to call in the then Minister of Culture, Cheick Oumar Sissoko, and it was he who put the management committee in place in 2007.
At this point, the problem seemed to have been contained. However, with the arrival of the support from the EAP project, this old feud re-emerged with renewed vigour. A few months into the project, we were scheduled to begin making protective acid-free carton boxes in which to store up to 300 manuscripts. The material for the boxes was imported from the UK. I had hired a van and driver to deliver this bulky shipment to Djenné, and I arrived at the library with the van just after sunset prayers on a Friday in January 2012, having travelled the ten-hour journey from Bamako. In front of the library, there was a gathering of some twenty people, including the Imam. As I attempted to alight from the lorry and begin the unloading, the Imam said to me: “I forbid you to ever set foot in this place again!” To avoid a physical confrontation, I returned to my hotel with the truck and the material. During the course of the evening, each of the eleven town councillors of Djenné contacted me to insist that I return to the library the following morning and to assure me that I would come to no harm. The next day, I returned to the library, and we began to work on preparing boxes, after a short period of instruction from a professional box maker from Timbuktu.26
Although this incident had a positive conclusion, it cannot be denied that there is a strong antipathy towards the project from the Imam, a powerful figure on a national scale in Mali, and even beyond, and a small but powerful section of the Djenné community. This antipathy can at least partially explain certain rumours and attempts to bring the project into disrepute. These attempts, which draw their venom from the eventual free Internet access of the digitised images, were taken seriously enough by the Prefect of Djenné to jeopardize the very existence of the project. When I was called to the Prefect’s office to explain in detail the free Internet access, he expressed his critical view of the matter, likening it to the French colonial appropriation of the large collections of Malian manuscripts, now found in the French National Library.27 It was impossible to convince him that the project is not at all similar in that it does not remove the original manuscripts from the Djenné library.
Digitisation has only recently come to be recognized as a way to preserve manuscripts in Mali. Timbuktu has received significant support to digitise its entire collection, with large funding from, amongst many other sources, the Government of South Africa.28 Yet, only a small percentage of the manuscripts were digitised at the time of the destruction of the Ahmed Baba Institute. The pace of the digitisation and the recognition of its value have increased in the aftermath of the Timbuktu events. There is still some reluctance towards digitisation and, in particular, towards free Internet access to digitised manuscripts. We should bear in mind, however, that the Open Access movement and notion that access to knowledge should be free, are relatively new phenomenon even in the western world. Moreover, in Mali there is a deep mistrust towards foreign philanthropy, which is seen as having a veiled interest. Indeed, we have often heard that the British Library is using the digital collection from Djenné to make money, and nothing can be done to dissuade the majority of people that this is not the case.29
The EAP requires free Internet access to all digitised collections. In Djenné, this has become a major bone of contention and ultimately, in order to continue the project, we were forced to negotiate a compromise. With the permission of the EAP, we delayed the online publication of the Djenné collection until 2018. We convinced the manuscript holders in Djenné that this would give us five years to promote the Djenné library and find new sponsors before the collection went online. The compromise, reached in 2013, proved to be the key that unlocked the impasse. The same year we were awarded a new grant from the Programme that allows us to continue our digitisation efforts.30 By mutual agreement, there will be a three-year delay on Internet publication after the end of the project, which means that the entire Djenné collection will be available online in 2018.
The results of the first digitisation project, a hard drive containing 150,000 images, was delivered to the British Library in August 2013. A copy was also delivered to the Archives Nationales in Bamako in December, in a ceremony attended by the British Ambassador and televised by Malian TV. The same event was used to launch the present project (EAP690). Such high profile events are invaluable for the promoting of good will for the project, and are used as a strategy to combat the undercurrents of ill will which still threaten to damage the project and the library.
Alongside the digitisation supported by the EAP, we have organised several events that aim to raise awareness of the importance of the manuscripts of Djenné, and to promote positive attitudes towards the library. In April 2014, we organised a week-long teaching seminar on the conservation and storage of manuscripts. The seminar culminated in a televised conference in Djenné, attended by over a hundred people. Among the participants were the manuscript owners who deposited their collections at the Djenné Manuscript Library, as well as scholars and conservators from Brazil, Sweden and Germany. The conference was supported by the EAP, the Helen Hamlyn Trust (UK), The Rizoma Institute (Brazil) and The Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures at the University of Hamburg, the latter represented by conservator Eva Brozowski, who conducted research into traditional inks used in the Djenné manuscripts. In association with MaliMali31 we have also organised calligraphy workshops and competitions at the Djenné Manuscript Library.
These events and efforts would never have been possible had the library not received the support from the EAP. The growth of the library’s collection, as the local population gradually deposit their manuscripts, is the most potent sign of the success of the projects in Djenné. The collection grew from 2,172 manuscripts representing 33 families in 2011, to close to 5,000 manuscripts, from 100 families in 2014. We are proud to see this sign of trust from the local people, who increasingly see the library and its archivists as reliable custodians of their collections.
1 For more on the history and location of Djenné, see John O. Hunwick, Timbuktu and the Songhay Empire: Al-Saʿdi’sTaʼrikh al-Sudan Down to 1613, and Other Contemporary Documents (Leiden: Brill, 1999); and Charlotte Joy, The Politics of Heritage Management in Mali: From UNESCO to Djenné (Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, 2012), pp. 25-30.
2 On Djenné’s World Heritage Site status and its problems, see Joy, The Politics of Heritage Management in Mali, pp. 51-74 and 75-92. For more on Djenné Djenno, see Roderick J. McIntosh and Susan Keech McIntosh, “The Inland Niger Delta Before the Empire of Mali: Evidence from Jenne-jeno”, Journal of African History, 22 (1981), 1-22; and Excavations at Jenne-Jeno, Hambarketolo and Kaniana (Inland Niger Delta, Mali): The 1981 Season, ed. by Susan Keech McIntosh (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1995).
3 Geert Mommersteeg, “Marabouts à Djenné: enseignement coranique, invocations et amulettes”, in Djenné: une ville millénaire au Mali, ed. by Rogier M. A. Bedaux and J. D. van der Waals (Leiden: Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunder, 1994), pp. 65-75.
4 For a good description of the tradition of contemporary learning in Djenné see Geert Mommersteeg, In the City of the Marabouts: Islamic Culture in West Africa (Long Grove, IL: Waveland, 2012); and idem, “L’éducation oranique au Mali: le pouvoir des mots sacrée”, in L’enseignement Islamique au Mali, ed. by Bintou Sanankoua and Louis Brenner (London: Jamana, 1991). See also Joy, The Politics of Heritage Management in Mali, pp. 95-107.
5 Benjamin Soares, “Islam in Mali in the Neoliberal Era”, African Affairs, 105 (2006), 77-95; and idem, “Islam in Mali Since the 2012 Coup”, Fieldsights: Hot Spots, Cultural Anthropology Online, 10 June 2013,
6 For more on the 2012-2013 conflict in Mali, see Alexander Thurston and Andrew Lebovich, A Handbook on Mali’s 2012-2013 Crisis, ISITA working paper, 2 September 2013,; Luke Harding, “Timbuktu Mayor: Mali Rebels Torched Library of Historic Manuscripts”, The Guardian, 28 January 2013,; and the collection of resources available at Berkeley’s Center for Africa Studies website, Many manuscripts that were thought to be lost were smuggled out to safety. The reports from the Ahmed Baba’s staff indicate that those manuscripts that were lost were destroyed in haste as the only valuable items the rebels could find in the building immediately before their flight, rather than because of their content. See Drew Hinshaw, “Historic Timbuktu Texts Saved From Burning”, The Wall Street Journal, 1 February 2013,
8 Ismaël Diadié Haidara and Haoua Taore, “The Private Libraries of Timbuktu”, in The Meanings of Timbuktu, ed. by Shamil Jeppie  and Souleymane Bachir Diagne (Cape Town: HSRC Press, 2008), pp. 271-75.
10 The academic sponsors of our initiative were Dimitri Bondarev from SOAS, now at Hamburg University, and Constant Hamès from CNRS.
11 On Mission Culturelle, see Joy, The Politics of Heritage Management in Mali, pp. 32-35.
12 See Trevor H. J. Marchand, The Masons of Djenné (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2009), pp. 7-8, 25, 71 and 74. On maraboutage and marabouts, see 26, 32, 35, 102-08 and 269-73. See also Geert Mommersteeg, “Allah’s Words as Amulet”, Etnofoor, 3:1 (1990), 63-76; and idem, “Qur’anic Teachers and Magico-Religious Specialists in Djenné”, International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World (ISIM) Newsletter, 3 (1999), 30.
13 On the efforts to modernize houses in Djenné and on the lack of funds to maintain them, see Michael Rowlands, “Entangled Memories and Parallel Heritages in Mali”, in Reclaiming Heritage: Alternative Imaginaries of Memory in West Africa, ed. by Ferdinand de Jong and Michael Rowlands (Walnut Creek, CA: West Coast Press, 2007), pp. 71-98, esp. p. 95; and Charlotte Joy, “Enchanting Town of Mud: Djenné, a World Heritage Site in Mali”, in ibid., pp 145-59, esp. p. 153.
15 It is a well-known fact to everyone in Djenné, including the archivists at the library, that Abdel Kader Haidara has bought manuscripts from the Djenné collections, both for the Ahmed Baba institute when he worked for them and for his own library the Mamma Haidara.
16 Mohammed Ould Youbba, “The Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Islamic Studies and Research”, in The Meanings of Timbuktu, ed. by Shamil Jeppie and Souleymane Bachir Diagne (Cape Town: HSRC Press, 2008), pp. 287-302.
17 EAP488: Major project to digitise and preserve the manuscripts of Djenné, Mali,
18 This information has been provided by Yelpha Deité and Garba Yaro, our two archivists.
19 The manuscripts are dated by the colophones.  
20 On the practice of writing other languages in the Arabic script, so-called Ajami, see for example, Moulaye Hassane, “Ajami in Africa: The Use of Arabic Script in the Transcription of African Languages”, in The Meanings of Timbuktu, ed. by Shamil Jeppie and Souleymane Bachir Diagne (Cape Town: HSRC Press, 2008), pp. 109-22.
21 Information provided by the project archivist, Yelpha.
22 See, for example, Ghislaine Lydon, On Trans-Saharan Trails: Islamic Law, Trade Networks, and Cross-Cultural Exchange in Nineteenth-Century Western Africa (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).
23 On script styles from West Africa, see Mauro Nobili, “Arabic Scripts in West African Manuscripts: A Tentative Classification from the de Gironcourt Manuscript Collection”, Islamic Africa Journal, 2:1 (2011), 105-33; and idem, “Manuscript Culture of West Africa,  
25 For a selection of the recent press coverage recognizing Abdel Kader Haidara’s role in the preservation of Mali’s manuscripts, see Joshua Hammer, The Brave Sage of Timbuktu: Abdel Kader Haidara, The Innovators Project,
26 Garba Traoré is the Head Conservator at the Ahmed Baba Institute. The project has used him several times for teaching and lecturing.
27 Noureddine Ghali, Inventaire de la Bibliothèque ‘umarienne de Ségou, conservée à la Bibliothèque Nationale (Paris: Édition du Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, 1985).
28 For other initiatives, see Dmitry Bondarev, Safeguarding the Manuscripts from Timbuktu: A Report on the Current Situation and a Proposal for a Larger Preservation Project, Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures, Hamburg, 9 May 2013,
29 On an ongoing local perception that their heritage may have been “sold to the whites”, see Joy, “Enchanting Town of Mud”, pp. 156-57.
30 EAP690: Project to digitise and preserve the manuscripts of Djenné and surrounding villages,
Bondarev, Dmitry, Safeguarding the Manuscripts from Timbuktu: A Report on the Current Situation and a Proposal for a Larger Preservation Project, Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures, Hamburg, 9 May 2013,
Ghali, Noureddine, Inventaire de la Bibliothèque ‘umarienne de Ségou, conservée à la Bibliothèque Nationale (Paris: Édition du Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, 1985).
Haidara, Ismaël Diadié, and Haoua Taore, “The Private Libraries of Timbuktu”, in The Meanings of Timbuktu, ed. by Shamil Jeppie and Souleymane Bachir Diagne (Cape Town: HSRC Press, 2008), pp. 271-75.
Hammer, Joshua, “The Brave Sage of Timbuktu: Abdel Kader Haidara”, The Innovators Project,
Luke Harding, “Timbuktu Mayor: Mali Rebels Torched Library of Historic Manuscripts”, The Guardian, 28 January 2013,
Hassane, Moulaye, “Ajami in Africa: The Use of Arabic Script in the Transcription of African Languages”, in The Meanings of Timbuktu, ed. by Shamil Jeppie and Souleymane Bachir Diagne (Cape Town: HSRC Press, 2008), pp. 109-22.
Hinshaw, Drew, “Historic Timbuktu Texts Saved From Burning”, The Wall Street Journal, 1 February 2014,
Hunwick, John O., Timbuktu and the Songhay Empire: Al-Saʿdi’sTaʼrikh al-Sudan Down to 1613, and Other Contemporary Documents (Leiden: Brill, 1999).
Joy, Charlotte, The Politics of Heritage Management in Mali: From UNESCO to Djenné (Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, 2012).
—, “Enchanting Town of Mud: Djenné, a World Heritage Site in Mali”, in Reclaiming Heritage: Alternative Imaginaries of Memory in West Africa, ed. by Ferdinand de Jong and Michael Rowlands (Walnut Creek, CA: West Coast Press, 2007), pp. 145-59.
Keech McIntosh, Susan, Excavations at Jenne-Jeno, Hambarketolo and Kaniana (Inland Niger Delta, Mali): The 1981 Season (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1995).
Lydon, Ghislaine, On Trans-Saharan Trails: Islamic Law, Trade Networks, and Cross-Cultural Exchange in Nineteenth-Century Western Africa (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).
Marchand, Trevor H. J., The Masons of Djenné (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2009).
McIntosh, Roderick J., and Susan Keech McIntosh, “The Inland Niger Delta Before the Empire of Mali: Evidence from Jenne-jeno”, Journal of African History, 22 (1981), 1-22.
Mommersteeg, Geert, “Qur’anic Teachers and Magico-Religious Specialists