Friday, February 15, 2013

Article for Arts desk

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 Malian manuscripts.

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 ( I confess to a somewhat jaundiced view of how such overseas funding might be spent.

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 digitized.

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 ( ).  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 fee.

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.

Sophie Sarin

Project leader EAP488, Djenne Manuscript Library



Blogger Gilliane said...

Well written Sophie :)

6:36 PM  
Blogger Susan Scheid said...

I'm so glad David thought to propose this. May the word spread far and wide!

4:03 AM  
Blogger Charlotte Borggreve said...

Very interesting and an eyeopener as well. I posted it on my FB and will send it to my "I love Mali" friends.

I follow your blog and it gives a great insight on what's happening in Mali.

Longing to sit under the trees at the porch in Djenne Djenno. Hope to come next year again.

8:43 AM  
Blogger David said...

Delighted you sorted this out with Peter Culshaw (you did, didn't you?). Lucidly put, as ever.

Well, I'm here with my link as ever (do look at lovely Pia, won't you?) and the link to The Arts Desk - since your piece, however it's to fit with what PC proposed, isn't up today - is me again (if this embedding works).

10:18 AM  
Blogger toubab said...

Oh! of course David! How idiotic of me as usual. Of course people will get to your blog through just clicking on you!
I have tried four times to put a comment on your blog but some gremlins are preventing me! Love the Trym snowdrop, and the pics of Pia of course! And very happy about your Bach phase! May some of the glorious message stick also in this time of lent...?
Thank you also Susan and Charlotte! Indeed I wish you were all here to sit under the trees with me- rather lonely here at the moment..

2:07 PM  
Blogger David said...

It's up! Looks great (if I may say so, as it's a healthy mix of mine and your photos) and reads well, of course, though the little bit of Eurobashing did not go down so well here...

I'll provide the link, though you seem to have cracked that nut in your main texts now: Sophie's Arts Desk piece on Mali here.

11:07 AM  
Blogger toubab said...

Ah, the Diplo-Mate took it personally? Shame. Big kiss better from me...

3:20 PM  

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