Access to Manuscripts in Mali

M. Lynx Qualey informed her blog followers of a crowd-sourced fundraising effort to preserve manuscripts in Mali. Later, she tweeted a link to a History Forum post by Duke University Department of History Professor Bruce Hall in which Professor Hall raised objections to the T160K project.

I spent 8-9 days in Timbuktu in 1995 at the Ahmad Baba Centre. The details are fuzzy now, because I quit my Ph.D. history program around 1997, and I have not reviewed the notes I took from that trip. From 1994-1996, I had traveled some weeks/months each summer in Nigeria, Niger and Mali. I visited archives containing Arabic & Arabic script manuscripts in Kano, Nigeria, Niamey, Niger and Timbuktu, Mali. During these trips, I was allowed rather unfettered access to the manuscripts. I paid an access fee at the Ahmad Baba Centre, some equivalent of 25-40 USD, I think. I did not try to take any pictures of the manuscripts, and I did not have a computer. All I brought in was my legal pads.

Regarding Professor Hall’s observations, the most important one for our purpose is access to manuscripts. In general, the possessors of manuscripts in private collections do not grant access. This can be for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, the current owners do not know what they have. Sometimes, they believe that they should be reimbursed for allowing access.

Charles Stewart at the University of Illinois-Champagne-Urbana and John Hunwick at Northwestern University have created archives of Arabic manuscripts from West Africa available to US researchers. Dr. Stewart expressed to me some of the fears the owners of the
Boutimilit collection had about people plagiarizing or appropriating their ancestors’ books.

To the digitalized, internetified resident of North America, digitization and open access sound like great solutions. And, I, a supporter of WikileaksCopwatchCory Doctorow, and sousveillance in general, support this as well.

The problem is the gulf between African scholars and Africanists from North America, Europe and elsewhere. While my distance from the field today reduces my authority on this topic, while I was a graduate student, I observed that the relationship between the Africanists and their subjects was totally unequal, even though the Africanists depended almost entirely upon African scholars, informants, translators and archive librarians to progress in through their research. Yet these Africans hardly ever received reciprocal benefits such as a career path in academia, access to scholarly journals published in North America and Europe, money, publication of their research or a say in the finished work.

I never forget a session at an African Studies Association conference in Florida around 1995 or 1996. I raised my hand to ask a question of a presenter on Zanzibar and she said, “I thought you were from the [family of people about whom I made this presentation.]” Aside from the racist assumption that a brown person could not be an African history student attending the conference, I got the impression that she was worried that the people who provided her with the information she needed to advance professionally might actually hear her presentation about them.

Perhaps the UNESCO project has addressed some of these inequities. My guess is that these will not be solved until African nations are strong enough to support their own scholarship and Africanists no longer have the authority of empire behind them.

That may take a long time, or may never happen at all. But the first priority has to be preserving the manuscripts. And that is why I put a little money into the T160K pot.

I did meet Abdel Kader Haidara while I was in Timbuktu, and I trusted him.


One thought on “Access to Manuscripts in Mali

  1. Pingback: Responses: The Struggle over the Timbuktu Manuscripts « Arabic Literature (in English)

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