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Preparations for Timbuktu manuscript centre advance

The Timbuktu manuscripts are now being studied mainly by foreign researchers

© Alida Jay Boye/Unesco/afrol News
afrol News, 13 September
- Efforts to conserve, store and expose the estimated 700,000 Timbuktu manuscripts, one of Africa's principal cultural heritages, are going well ahead. Malians are educated into specialised manuscript conservators in South Africa and Tunisia and a new building to house the manuscripts is already being constructed in Mali's ancient town of Timbuktu.

Among several institutions taking an interest in assisting the government of Mali to conserve its Timbuktu cultural treasures is the government of South Africa, which today signed a cultural cooperation agreement with Mali. Already during the last three years, however, Mali has counted on South African assistance for its Timbuktu manuscripts conservation project.

Since April 2003, South Africa's National Archives has hosted a group of five Malian conservator trainees for approximately eight weeks annually. This has been followed with training workshops with the same five including a boarder group of Malian trainees at the Ahmed Baba Institute in Timbuktu.

The aim is to enable Mali and Timbuktu to take care of this African treasure by itself, as the Timbuktu manuscripts now rely on many foreign institutions to save many of the most damaged objects. A large number of historic documents from the 13th to 16th century are on the verge of being lost if not treated with urgency.

A great part of this necessary preservation is now being done in the US, under the auspices of the American Timbuktu Educational Foundation. Also a costly Norway-based Timbuktu Manuscripts Project is into the digitalisation of the documents to assure that valuable source materials from the West African Middle Ages are not being lost.

While these projects also partly focus on the need for Timbuktu to create revenues from its cultural treasure, impoverished Mali until now has not been able to handle these fragile papers as the government desires. Aid from South Africa however is now to be strengthened with assistance from Tunisia.

The governments of Tunisia, South Africa and Mali recently discussed further specialised manuscript conversion training for Malian trainees. In December 2005 South African Minister Essop Pahad visited Tunis and Kairouan to investigate the facilities and discuss collaborations on the training of the Malians in preservation. Training of Malian conservators was to take place in Mali and Tunisia.

The cooperation also includes the construction of a building in Timbuktu that is to house the manuscripts. The building is estimated to cost rand 22 million (euro 2.4 million), and fundraising in South Africa has already brought together much of this amount. Construction was started in April this year.

When the building is inaugurated, it is hoped that the newly educated Malian conservators will be able to take charge of the main conservation work of the Timbuktu manuscripts. There also exist vaguer plans for exhibitions of the manuscripts for tourists in the building, along with a research centre and library. The library is to house between 200,000 and 300,000 manuscripts currently locked away in 24 private libraries in and around Timbuktu.

The Timbuktu manuscripts are the principal written sources to West Africa's old history, and most have never been studied by modern scholars. They date back from the time when Timbuktu was one of the world's leading cultural and religious centres, hosting the ancient empires of Ghana, Mali, and Songhai. The documents include the highest level of science from their era, demonstrating Timbuktu's importance as an intellectual centre.

During the last centuries, many documents have been lost due to accidents, ignorance or robbery. Still, original Timbuktu documents are being offered on the black market in the region. The manuscripts, along with the entire ancient city of Timbuktu, have been declared world cultural heritage by UNESCO.

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