Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Despair over Timbuktu Manuscripts as Funding Pulled

Manuscript image courtesy of UNESCO
In January 2013 I reported on the war driven disaster in Mali that was putting at huge risk rare manuscripts in the Timbuktu region. I was thankful then to eventually find they had been secured and saved by the heroic efforts of the local people and the (partially South African funded) Ahmed Baba Institute. Now, at the end of 2014, South Africa is formally withdrawing its financial support by closing its Timbuktu trust fund and thus clearly putting those rare manuscripts back at risk. I despair.

It is reported that ANC former chief whip Mathole Motshekga is saying that the African Union has to take responsibility for preserving the Timbuktu manuscripts. But there has been no government support (from South Africa or elsewhere) for the initiative since 2009 and now the SA Timbuktu trust fund is going to close.

A bit of history

In 2001, Thabo Mbeki visited Timbuktu and as a result spearheaded the founding of a multi-million Rand trust fund for the purpose of preserving Timbuktu’s historically unique, important ancient manuscripts. As Africans were among the first to develop writing and maths the Timbuktu manuscripts are a rich source of Africa’s cultural heritage.

In 2009, the north-western African head of state, Amadou Toumani Toure, hosted the opening of a new state-of-the-art facility built with aid from the southernmost neighbours to house and preserve Timbuktu literary riches - the Ahmed Baba Institute.

The Fund and the Ahmed Baba Institute gave a place where South African experts trained local Malians in the restoration and preservation of their manuscripts. Dr Motshekga, the chairman of the Kara Heritage Institute, said about it: “We need to decolonise the African mind and Timbuktu is one of the places that one can use to show to our children that they were civilised before the so-called Western civilisation, and what is claimed to be Western is stolen knowledge from Africa.”

Thebe Medupe, an astronomer at North-West University, viewed the manuscripts as helping to debunk the myth that Africa had only an oral tradition. "Those ancient documents tell us that a thriving book trade existed, and that local scholars studied and published books about the Koran, medicine, astronomy, mathematics and more," Medupe said.

Good work is still being done despite the lack of funding - see the manuscript recovered from Bamako, Mali by ‘Timbukto Renaissance’ curator Abdel Kader Haidara (image via the Prince Claus Fund). But all this work has to be done in the face of continuing violence in the region (with a local mayor, his son and their driver killed on New Year's day) and now with virtually no funding/resources.

Financial and Political Situation

In 2003, the Development Bank of Southern Africa was appointed to administer the Timbuktu trust fund, to which the private sector donated R32m and the government R30m (R = Rand, 1 US dollar = roughly 12 Rand).

“The last tranche of funding was received in 2009 from government,” said the development bank’s spokeswoman, Nonnie Letsholo. “Since then, there have been no funds deposited or transferred.” She said the trust’s final statements were audited in October and a board meeting would be called soon “at which a resolution to close the trust will be taken”. There was still R90,000 in the fund, she said according to the reports I am directly quoting.

So roughly $5 million (R60 million) has been put into the Timbuktu trust fund, but nothing new now since 2009. 

There appears to be a significant political context to this, in that once Mbeki left office in 2009 there has been a distinct stepping away from the project by South Africa. 

“After Mbeki’s removal, the relevant ministries made as if there never was such a project,” University of Cape Town historian and Timbuktu project Shamil Jeppie told The Times. “The actual physical building, which was quite an advanced archival facility, has been suffering from neglect and from the absence of our continuing expertise to make the building a living research and educational facility.”

Graham Dominy, who was head of the National Archives at the time, recalled: "He [Mbeki] was there, but he was looking terribly sad. We had done what we undertook to do: train a group of Malians in preservation work and build the library. But we had follow-up work to do in bringing it to life."

The former deputy minister of arts and culture, Ntombazana Botha, said: "I had worked on the project from when I joined the ministry in 2004, but during that period between Mbeki being recalled and [President Jacob] Zuma coming in, we expedited what we were doing. We understood there was a possibility of things not following through. We didn't know what was going to happen."  In January 2009, with Motlanthe still at the helm, there was a "recommitment to the bilateral agreement with Mali", Botha said. "Timbuktu had been inscribed as a world heritage site and was on the danger list and that was the work we wanted to do."

However, when Zuma took office a few months later, the project was sidelined, ignored and finally dumped. Today, there is no trace of the project in either of the two ministries formerly involved.

So South Africa is out of the game and in some ways having this confirmed can give the rest of us the kick we need to step up and take action. Zuma has been an enemy of African culture and its open digitisation throughout his time in the Presidency either through indifference, indolence or direct malevolence to such values. Considering the dominant position of South Africa in the African Union pushing their responsibilities to there seems doomed to failure and division. As Tanya Farber, the author of the Times piece, states "Whether by plunder or policy, preservation of the Timbuktu manuscripts now rests squarely in First World hands".

Call to Action

Mali and Timbuktu need help, so what can we do? Well, some are already doing something and we can offer them our support.

UNESCO, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation has stepped in to preserve the collection with support from Germany and France. Let's get behind them and help UNESCO to achieve its goals.

There is also the Timbuktu Libraries in Exile. To learn more about how they are continuing their efforts to preserve manuscripts there and to contribute, visit their web site at http://t160k.org and follow them on Twitter @T160k. There is a good blog post here also.

There is an interesting piece in the Guardian on how crowdfunding is working in this context.

So what else can we do? Do write comments here and let me know what you think we could do, what actions we can take? How can we genuinely and responsibly help preserve Timbuktu manuscripts or in a wider context African cultural heritage?


  1. You perhaps know that the annual IFLA Conference will take place in Cape Town next august. Could this international event in South Africa be exploited to alarm about the Timbuktu Manuscripts and get somme funds?

  2. Great idea. We also have ICADLA in Ghana in May:

  3. This is very interesting. Thank you for summarizing the current situation. I knew about the project some years ago and then did not hear any development. Now I understand that the project has stopped. It is a shame. Yes, Timbuktu proves that Africa has more than just the oral tradition. Let us hope that UNESCO will be able to move the project forward and that Mali will be back to stability.
    Where can one see the manuscripts already digitized?
    Best regards,