Sunday, September 09, 2012


In bed today suffering from a severe case of journalistitis.

This is due mainly to yesterday's escapades below, but also to a story about the Djenne Manuscript Library (above with South African delegation from University of Capetown early 2011) which is doing the rounds of the news channels of the world, including Aljazeera the day before yesterday apparently, and France 24 yesterday.

There was a young American here from Reuters last week, during the conference we organized for the Manuscript library with the experts from Timbuktu. The presence of the American was quite coincidental, but I invited him and his team to visit the library and to be present at the conference etc. They interviewed Garba Yaro, one of the archivists, and also Al Boucari Ben Essayat, one of the two Timbulktu manuscript experts. So far so good. It is obviously in our interest to have publicity for the library and the British Library Project.

Before they left I asked the young man to verify the facts with me, since we have had trouble before with journalists interpreting rather freely what is happening at the Manuscript Library: the Swedish broadsheet Svenska Dagbladet suddenly came up with the astonishing headline: “Mosque project stopped.'
-see blog May 29 and 30. This article was later retracted on my insistance.

There were certain inaccuracies in the notes the journalist had taken, and we rectified these points.

Reuters managed to sell this item well. It is however a misleading representation of what is going on here: There is no mention of the British Library Project although Garba made a point of explaining the source of the funding for the project. The digitization project is presented as if it had been instigated in order to save the Djenne Manuscripts from the onslaught of the Islamists, who are on the march south!
It is quite right of course that digitization is a way to ensure the preservation of manuscripts, it is also true that many manuscript owners in Timbuktu bemoan the fact they never did any such work. But the British Library Project here started a long time before the troubles in the north! 'Are you worried that the Islamists will come here too?' asks the interviewer. 'Yes' replies Garba. 'We are worried'.

All in all we are pleased that the item has been shown, even with the sensationalist spin, but I have come out in a rash, as I said..

9 Comments:

Blogger Claire Davies said...

Hope you feel better soon. Perhaps the world will know the truth when you write the book telling the story of Djenne Djenno. You certainly have enough material here!

6:28 PM  
Blogger toubab said...

Claire, love the picture of you in an English coutry garden, complete with lavender! I certainly wish I was there too right now, since Djenne in the rainy season is extremely unpleasant..
yes indeed, sometimes I dream of writng my memoirs one day when I have retired!

8:38 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Hi Sophie, this is the young American journalist in question. I'm sorry to hear you think we put a "sensationalist spin" on the story. But just to clarify: Where did you see the news report? The original story published on the Reuters website makes specific mention of the British Library in a paragraph cited here:

"A project financed by the British Library, conservators in Djenne have been working to digitise the manuscripts for the past 11 months, but have encountered difficulties convincing families to lend their texts."

The story's line was to show Timbuktu librarians, whose manuscripts are in the hands of Islamist rebels, giving new urgency to the digitization process. If there is no link to what's happening in the north of Mali, a story about a British Library-funded project in Djenne is more of an advertisement for the project than anything else.

Also, it is wrong to say the interviewer asks 'Are you worried that the Islamists will come here too?' because that is not in the video, this is your assumption that you have posted as fact.

Garba saying "the Islamists can come here" is also not an outlandish thing to say; you yourself told me that the digitization process in Djenne is much more important now that Timbuktu is in jihadist hands.

Moreover, the inaccuracies in the notes I had taken were information from Garba, who said he was in charge of the digitization process. I think it would be misleading to say there were "inaccuracies in the notes the journalist had taken" when the head of the digitization process was responsible for those inaccuracies. If we are interviewing an important person in the digitization process, we have to assume he knows what he is talking about. We attended the conference and were pointed by everyone to Garba as someone to talk to with knowledge of the program. If the digitization process cannot be trusted without you physically building the story every part of the way and telling us exactly who to interview and what questions to ask, the story should then be about a European woman organizing conservation of Malian manuscripts.

Finally, Reuters sells stories to other outlets, which can then mold the content how they wish. At that point it is impossible to tell them how to use the content. If certain outlets use the story in a more sensationalist way, this is no longer in my hands. In a neoliberal capitalist system, media companies' main goals are to earn a profit. The way they do this is to generate interest by exaggerating elements of a certain story. If you have a problem with this, as I do too, I suggest we work towards a more just system in general.

For clarity I have posted the original story I wrote and sent in below. If you see a major discrepancy between the story and the truth as you see it, then I apologize on behalf of myself and the rest of the media for deceiving you.

I hope you're doing well.
-Joe

12:06 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...


Librarians urge conservation of rural Malian Islamic manuscripts

DJENNE, Mali, September 2 – Librarians from the northern Malian town of Timbuktu--besieged since April by Al-Qaeda linked Islamists--urged conservation of Islamic manuscripts in the town of Djenne at the weekend.

The guardians of Timbuktu’s ancient manuscripts have fled the town for their safety--leaving the documents at the peril of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Islamist group Ansar Dine --and convened a conference in the nearby town of Djenne to demonstrate the importance of conserving the manuscripts through an ongoing digitization campaign in Djenne.

The Islamist groups have destroyed numerous UNESCO-classified mausoleums to local saints since taking power in Timbuktu in late June. Manuscript conservators in Djenne, a UNESCO World Heritage-listed town just 90 km from the last Malian government stronghold before Islamist-held territory, are worried that their Islamic heritage is under threat.

“We’re really scared of [the Islamists]…some people think the rebels can’t make it to Djenne, but that’s only an idea. They can come here,” said Aboubakar Yaro, 43, the head conservator at the Djenne Manuscripts Library.
“On a beaucoup peur de ça… Il y en a qui pensent que les rebelles ne peuvent pas venir à Djenné mais ça c’est une autre idée. Ils peuvent venir ici.”

Djenne is thought to have at least 10,000 manuscripts held in private collections, dating from the 14th to 20th centuries. The manuscripts, passed on through families from generation to generation. Written in Arabic or in the local languages Songhai, Bozo and Peul with Arabic script, they treat subjects ranging from Islamic jurisprudence to family histories.

The Djenne Manuscripts Library houses over 4,000 private manuscript collections sorted by family collections.

A project financed by the British Library, conservators in Djenne have been working to digitise the manuscripts in Djenne for the past 11 months, but have encountered difficulties convincing families to lend their texts.

The events in Timbuktu, however, have given urgency to the conservation efforts.

“The Islamists sleep in the Ahmed Baba Centre, where the largest number of manuscripts are,” said Abdoul Wahid Abderahim, president of the Association to Protect the Timbuktu Manuscripts. “The Islamists can come and pillage the manuscripts…the manuscripts contradict what they do,” Abderahim added. Les Islamistes peuvent rentrer et piller les manuscripts. Les islamistes logent au Centre Ahmed Baba, là ou il y a le plus grand nombre de manuscripts…Les manuscripts contredisent même ce que eux ils font. (Association pour la protection des manuscripts Tombouctou)

Abderahim and his colleague Albouhari Ben Esseyouti met with Djenne’s manuscript owners in an empty primary school on the banks of a Niger River tributary at the weekend to explain to them the importance of conservation through digitisation.

The librarians from Timbuktu encountered difficulties explaining the digitisation process to the manuscript owners, the vast majority of which are farmers and not computer-literate. During the course of the conference, one owner asked how he would get his manuscripts back after inserting them into the computer.

By the end of the day, however, the message was clear.

“To avoid what has happened to us in Timbuktu, you must conserve your manuscripts in a way that is indestructible,” Esseyouti, Abderahim’s colleague said in Songhai to some forty manuscript owners present, in between breaks for tea and peanuts.

12:07 PM  
Blogger toubab said...

Dear Joe,
thank you for clarifying and thank you very much for inserting the Reuters story here.
I never saw any of the news casts, but only heard many reports, and as far as I know Al Jazeera and the other channels did not mention the British Library Project. That was my main concern. What you have written is in fact a good representation of the story and I have no problem with it.
The problem is of course as you mention yourself that you have no control over what people do once they have bought your story.

You write:
'Moreover, the inaccuracies in the notes I had taken were information from Garba, who said he was in charge of the digitization process. I think it would be misleading to say there were "inaccuracies in the notes the journalist had taken" when the head of the digitization process was responsible for those inaccuracies.'
I am in fact the head of the digitization project.Garba's French is not very good and he must have understood you. He told me he and others had indicated to you that I was the head of the project. This is the problem I often encounter- journalists don't want to talk to me,I assume because I am white. However, if they want to have in depth information about the project I believe I am the best person to talk to.
Anyway, I have no problem with the story as you present it.
With best wishes,
Sophie

5:24 PM  
Blogger toubab said...

PS.Joe,
there are certain details that I as head of the project need to check- for instance the project is called The Endangered Archives Programme, it is sponsored by something called ARCADIA although administtered by the British Library. These are details that I am contract bound to mention to any interviewer, who should be talking to me as the head of the project. (I am not saying exlusively to myself of course!)I realize that such matters may be boring to the general public and may be cut out, but at least they should be there to start with.

Finally, it is not 'Conervators' and Conservation', as you mention in your article. Conservation work is quite different. We are doing digitization, and that can be termed 'preservation,'
in a sense.
That's about it for now I think!
Sophie

5:54 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Hi Sophie,

- The Merriam Webster dictionary defines conserve as "to keep in a safe or sound state...especially : to avoid wasteful or destructive use of", while 'preserve' is defined as "to keep safe from injury, harm, or destruction". I would say both words can accurately describe this project.

- Regarding what Garba said: Cheick spoke to him in Songhai as well, so his status as leader of the conservation (or preservation, if you wish) process was clear to us. It looks indeed as if there was a misunderstanding, though. These things do happen, in many languages.

- You wrote in a previous post: "I have long suspected that the stringers and various Malian journalists working with Reuters or AP etc are in some- not all of course- cases bought and telling the foreign journalists what their patrons want them to hear." Why didn't you tell this to Cheick to his face, while he was there, instead of posting it on the internet in a venue he would probably never read? You had the chance to ask him about this directly instead of writing something behind his back. He would have answered you directly because he is a brave journalist who is putting his life in danger to tell the truth about what is going on his country, and doesn't get paid a whole lot to do it.

- Your main concern about the article seems to be that I did not interview you. If you really thought you would be the best person to interview, you could have just said that to me while I was with you in Djenne. And in stories about Mali, I do indeed try to keep Malians as my protagonists. I don't think this is a bad thing.

Again, I hope you are doing well.
-Joe

6:19 PM  
Blogger toubab said...

I will reply briefly, including (correctly) the quote you refer to:
'I have long suspected that the
stringers and various Malian journalists working with Reuters or AP etc are in some- not all of course- cases bought and telling the foreign journalists what their patrons want them to hear.'
I stick to that.The context was quite different, and did not refer to you or your article, nor your stringer and collaborator Cheik however. In fact I thought of him when I wrote the words 'not all of course'.

My problem, as I already explained, was that The British Library had not been mentioned. You explained it was not your fault. I accepted that.
Let's leave it at that, shall we?
Sophie

11:54 PM  
Blogger toubab said...

And finally-
in the context of manuscripts, 'conservation' normally refers to the physical reconstitution of damaged documents.
Sophie

11:58 PM  

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