Abdel Kader Haidara

Timbuktu's Buried Treasure

by Marcela ValdesBook Notes. The Washington Post Book World. October 8, 2006.

Anyone who cares about rare books would have been horrified by the damage. Page after page of the 16th- to 18th-century Malian manuscripts that Abdel Kader Haidara brought to the Library of Congress this past April was shot through with watermarks and insect holes. One sheet of a scientific manuscript titled "Knowledge of the Movement of the Stars and What it Portends in Every Year" was almost entirely washed out -- only a few words remained legible.

Then again, it was something of a miracle that the nine manuscripts still existed at all. After carefully preserving them for centuries, Haidara's family had hidden them underground for more than 60 years.

As Haidara explained through e-mail, the manuscripts were buried by his grandparents and great-grandparents during the French colonial rule of Mali. During that time, he says, "all African intellectuals hid their manuscripts." The reason was simple: Colonialists were deporting thousands of the precious volumes to Europe. "The ancient manuscripts of the El Hadj Oumar Tall Library are still in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris," Haidara writes. "They are still there. And there are others in various European capitals."

To prevent such theft, 19th-century Malians stashed their treasures away. Some sent their collections into the Sahara. Others built false fronts over the entrances to their libraries. And some, like the Haidara family, dug deep pits and buried their manuscripts in metal trunks.

And there they stayed until 1960, when Mali won back its independence.

"The original assumption [among Western scholars] had been that Africa did not have a written tradition," says Mary-Jane Deeb, chief of the African and Middle Eastern division of the Library of Congress. "When in fact it did."

Manuscripts have now emerged not only in Mali, but also in Kenya, Tanzania, Senegal, Nigeria and Ghana. Most of them are written by hand in Arabic because, in Africa, written traditions usually spread along with Islam. As a result, literacy was more common in Mali in the 14th-century than it was in Europe. And books appeared on every conceivable topic, including theology, astronomy, travel, law, economics and medicine.

Haidara's own family has been producing scholars, and acquiring manuscripts, for more than 400 years. Their private library, Mamma Haidara, which is named after Abdel Kader's father, is one of the largest libraries in Timbuktu. It contains more than 9,000 items. The oldest among them is a 10th-century manuscript on Islamic law written on parchment -- Haidara keeps it at home, and it has yet to be officially catalogued.

More than 80 percent of Mali's hidden manuscripts have now been unearthed, but the process of recovery has been slow, and thousands of manuscripts still have yet to be indexed or catalogued. Having lost so many of their volumes to Europe, for a long time after the country gained independence in 1960, Malian collectors felt wary of accepting foreign aid for manuscript recovery and conservation efforts. "Abdel Kader Haidara is in a way leading this movement of saying, 'Look, we shouldn't fear people. We should work with others. They can help us,' " Deeb says.

In fact, Mali's President Amadou Toumani Touré has designated Haidara as the world spokesperson for Mali's manuscript treasures. And with help from the Mellon Foundation, the Ford Foundation, UNESCO and other aid organizations, Haidara is working to renovate Mali's libraries, to catalog their holdings and to train their owners in up-to-date conservation techniques. "Our project is to save all these manuscripts," Haidara writes. Foreign aid for that project is crucial because Mali is one of the 10 poorest nations in the world.

When Haidara allowed the Library of Congress to digitize the 22 manuscripts he brought to Washington in 2003 and to post them on its World Digital Library (at www.loc.gov/exhibits/mali), and when he lent them nine more manuscripts for scanning in April, he worked toward another important goal: making the world aware of Mali's precious holdings.

"He's enormously generous," Deeb says. "Many librarians and institutions that hold rare manuscripts are wary of the new technology: of scanning, digitizing and putting their materials on the web. They're afraid they will lose control of them." But Haidara has understood that by having the manuscripts of Timbuktu digitized, they will be publicly linked to their rightful owners -- which may help prevent them from ever being stolen again.