Monday, April 24, 2017

The Bad Ass Librarians of Timbuktu - by Joshua Hammer

This was already on my must-read list when we received it as a gift from one of my husband's geography students. This tells the story of the rich history of literature in Africa - a history which contradicted the story told in 20th century Europe "that black Africans were illiterates with no history". Instead manuscripts from medieval times
proved the opposite-that a sophisticated, freethinking society had thrived south of the Sahara at a time when much of Europe was still mired in the Middle Ages
The work of scribes who copied texts at a rate of "150 lines of calligraphy per day" is described and their pay in gold nuggets or gold dust. The ancient texts were threatened several times over the centuries, including during the French occupation at the turn of the twentieth century. Over one hundred years later it was Al-Qaeda that nearly destroyed the literary treasure.

In the ensuing years many of the manuscripts had been hidden in homes, where they were deteriorating. Abdel Kader Haidara tracked down many of these manuscripts in the 1980s and convinced the owners to donate them to Mali's libraries where they could be preserved. By "2011 the Mamma Haidara Commemorative Library in Timbuktu was fast becoming one of the world's most innovative manuscript conservation centers and a symbol of Timbuktu's cultural renaisance". In 2012 Abdel Kader Haidara once again worked to save the treasures, as he organized people to smuggle the manuscripts out of Timbuktu where they could be safe from eradication. This tale is not just about librarians, but also about the common people who risked their own safety to move the books.

Controlling information is one way that those in power attempt to keep their authority. It is an old story. One we see throughout history, and just as relevant today as our own government attempts to vilify the press while spouting "alternative facts".

This could be hard to read at times as accounts of be-headings, kidnappings, and other senseless violence were part and parcel to the story. However, it is also a tale of hope and courage. All who understood that knowledge was worth preserving were the heroes of the story and serve as examples to those who may be despairing.

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