Address by Deputy Minister Ntombazana Botha at the opening of Timbuktu Manuscripts Exhibition "Script and Scholarship"

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14 Oct 2008

Programme Director
Venerable Imams
Our Honourable Guest Mr Diagayete from the Ahmed Bab Institute (Welcome)
Mr Nuttall – Director of National Museum
Ms Crampton – Curator of the Oliewenhuis Art Museum
Ms Members of the Museums Council
Directors and Curators of Museums (in service and retired)
All Government Officials
Ms Winkie Direko, Former Premier of Free State
Esteemed guests
Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen

It is a privilege and an honour for me to be invited to open the Bloemfontein leg of this travelling exhibition of unique manuscripts from the ancient African city of Timbuktu situated in the Republic of Mali.This exhibition has been made possible through the excellent collaboration of the government of the Republic of South Africa and the government of the Republic of Mali. As you probably know, it was inspired by our former President Thabo Mbeki’s vision of the African Renaissance. This evening I would like to share with you the background to the Timbuktu Manuscripts Project and the importance of this exhibition.For most of us, both black and white, who were schooled in English or Western and colonial modes of thought, the name Timbuktu conjures up the notion of a place of indescribable remoteness or even as a metaphor something mythical that does not exist. As you will learn from the exhibition, the contrary is true – Timbuktu was one of the greatest centres of learning in Africa. It had its own university at a time when the only two universities in Europe were in Bologna (Italy) and Oxford (England).You will note from the informative panels that accompany the manuscripts that Timbuktu is situated on the northern side of the river Niger at almost the most northerly part of its great bend through the Sahel and the southern Sahara desert before turning south and passing through Nigeria to the sea. It has, therefore, always been at the crossroads of trade and the exchange of resources – be they material, human or intellectual and spiritual. Camel caravans crossing the Sahara from the Mediterranean would head for Timbuktu because that was the first place where they could get water. In fact, the name of the city, according to the legend, is derived from the name of a woman, Buktu, who looked after the well from which the drinking water was drawn.  

The name “Timbuktu”, therefore, means “The Well of the Woman Buktu”. It is believed that it was this woman who cared for the travellers and provided the water they needed after their long journeys.From the south came the slaves, gold, ivory and all the products that Western Europe and the Middle East desired. From the north came salt, luxury goods, paper and, of course, the faith which was primarily Islam.Timbuktu was thus a place of commercial and intellectual exchange. The city developed great mosques and places of learning (which are now World Heritage Sites). One of the greatest scholars in the 16th century – predating Western colonisation of South Africa by nearly a century, was Ahmed Baba, who established a famous library in the city. Centuries later, the Ahmed Baba Institute for Higher Learning and Islamic Research was named after him. This institute was established by the Malian Government with support from UNESCO in the 1970s to conserve the precious manuscripts that date back to even before the time of Ahmed Baba himself.

One of the remarkable aspects of the history and culture of Timbuktu is its scholarly tradition.  For generations religious leaders and scholars have debated, taught and preserved the sources of learning in the city and the region, handing the manuscripts down from generation to generation, preserved in privates homes, schools and religious centres.While the Ahmed Baba Institute has more than 20 000 manuscripts in its care, it is estimated that there are hundreds of thousands of manuscripts in religious institutions or in private hands within a radius of 600 kilometres from the city and into the desert.The manuscripts are a vast treasure trove of knowledge and tradition. The collection comprises religious texts, documents relating to legal matters, astronomy, chemistry, zoology, botany, mathematics,  social and economic issues, matters relating to climatic conditions and almost the entire range of human thought. The text is in the Arabic script and alphabet. In the same way that it could have happened  with our own South African indigenous languages where the Latin or Western script was introduced to write in IsiZulu or SeSotho, the Arabic script was used in Timbuktu to communicate in the regional indigenous languages such as Fon, Mandinga or Hausa.

This is the most concrete evidence, that there has been a literary tradition in Africa since antiquity and that Africans read and wrote centuries before the arrival of their colonisers and Christian missionaries.When President Thabo Mbeki paid an official state visit to Mali in November 2001, President Kunaré took him to Timbuktu and the two presidents visited the Ahmed Baba Institute as well as the World Heritage sites. President Mbeki was enthralled to find such a wealth of evidence of African scholarship of great antiquity. This fitted perfectly into his vision of the African Renaissance.Unfortunately, the Ahmed Baba Institute was operating under many constraints, including a lack of resources. This meant that the manuscripts were not stored under ideal conditions and their long term preservation was in jeopardy. President Mbeki immediately made a commitment, on behalf of the people of South Africa, to help with the preservation of the manuscripts and the construction of a new library and archives for the Ahmed Baba Institute.The SA – Mali Project: Timbuktu Manuscripts was born from this initiative. The project was then adopted as NEPAD’s first cultural project.

A bi-national agreement was signed by the two presidents on Africa Day 2003 in Johannesburg and the Timbuktu Manuscripts Trust was established to raise funds to build the new library. The agreement between the South African and Malian governments has three main objectives:

  1. The conservation of the manuscripts;

  2. The construction of a new library and archives in Timbuktu; and

  3. The raising of public awareness in South Africa and Africa of the importance of the manuscripts and study of their contents.

This travelling exhibition is one of the tangible outcomes of the last part of the agreement as you have already heard from Dr Dominy.With regard to the conservation of the manuscripts, the National Archives of South Africa (which is a unit of the National Department of Arts & Culture) in collaboration with our National Library, the Library of Parliament and the Western Cape Provincial Archives, developed and implemented a complex conservation programme. Each year, for three years, conservators from the Ahmed Baba Institute were brought to South Africa for practical training in conservation and preservation of the manuscripts. South African conservators have also visited Timbuktu each year for fieldwork and constantly monitor the implementation of the new preventative conservation techniques that the Malian conservators had learnt in South Africa.

I am pleased to say that storage conditions in the existing Ahmed Baba Institute have improved greatly as a result, despite the challenges of the out of date infrastructure.The Board of Trustees has energetically raised approximately R20 million for the construction of the new library. A new library and archives building, to be situated on the northern side of the city of Timbuktu, across the square from the historic Sankoré mosque has been designed and is almost completed. We hope that it will be formally handed over to the government and people of Mali within the next three or four months.A new building of this complexity and importance requires much more than a mere R20 million to complete. So, the Trust continues to fund- raise and we would encourage all interested persons to support this effort.

Further details regarding this matter may be obtained from Dr Dominy.I cannot conclude without expressing my sincere appreciation to the President, the Government and the People of Mali, to our former President Thabo Mbeki for his inspiring vision, to Dr Essop Pahad, who chaired the Board of Trustees for several years and to the people of South African who have made generous contributions towards the construction of the Ahmed Baba Library and Archives in various ways  and  also to all the people who have been involved with this exhibition, and I would particularly like to thank the Iziko Museums and the National Archives.In conclusion, I would like to reiterate the words of President Amadou Touré (the President of the Republic of Mali) who said: “I hope that the forty manuscripts that will be displayed in museums in South Africa on the occasion of this exhibition will forge a better understanding of this unique heritage, especially by the youth of South Africa, and that this will serve to strengthen the friendship between our two countries”. With those words I declare the exhibition formally open and I invite all the people present here today to take time to view it. I would further urge you to come back again and to also encourage members of your families, friends and colleagues to also come and experience Africa’s proud literary heritage.