Editorial, December 2015

9 December 2015

The attack on the Radisson Blu Hotel in Bamako on Friday 20 November was a reminder of the political instability in Mali. The political crisis in the country surfaced with the insurrection in the North, which led to the occupation of that region and major towns such as Timbuktu and Gao in mid-2012. During this period hundreds—perhaps a couple of thousand even—of metal crates of manuscripts were moved from Timbuktu to Bamako. Fortunately, these metal crates are housed far from the hotel that was the scene of the hostage-taking by two armed men affiliated to one or other rebel grouping in the country. By the end of the 2012 – 2013 crisis, when I learned of the transport of the manuscripts from the insecurity of the North to the relative security of the capital, Bamako, I mused to myself: “What if the capital is not all that safe?” But I did not declare this concern because it would have appeared too negative. My concern with that transfer of the metal crates was expressed in rather technical terms: Bamako is far too humid, storing paper in metal crates in a humid climate is not a very good idea, the cost of renting space to house these crates must be prohibitive, when will the situation in the North return to normality allowing the manuscripts to return to their original locations? The concern I kept to myself—about the probability of armed violence and general insecurity in Bamako—was based on what was reported about Bamako during the 2012 – 2013 period. The Presidential Palace was attacked and even ransacked. If this can happen to the most secure of building precincts in the capital then it does make one doubt the security of other spaces in the otherwise peaceful capital by the Niger River. We hope that the bloody incident of Friday November 20 does not happen again. We have many friends and colleagues in Bamako including those who relocated there from the North because of the problems besetting the region. We have many reasons to keep going to Bamako not least because the libraries are now hidden there.

In October, a weeklong programme of training related to West African manuscripts was held in Bamako. The Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures at the University of Hamburg, Germany, was the primary organization behind this programme. Participants were mainly from Mali but there were also Nigerian participants. Susana Molins Lliteras participated and has a report on the workshops in this edition of the newsletter.

In November, the Department of African Studies and Anthropology at the University of Birmingham hosted a conference in honour of Paulo Fernando de Moraes Farias. He was born in Bahia, Brazil and qualified as a medical doctor before coming to newly independent Africa, Ghana in particular, and eventually teaching at Birmingham. He began his university career there nearly 50 years ago—when it was still called the Centre for Western African Studies. Many colleagues—from different generations—converged for a tightly packed two-day conference. It was preceded by the Fage Lecture, which was delivered by de Moraes Farias. Bamako was a place through which he had passed through often while doing his fieldwork that resulted in his major work: Arabic Medieval Inscriptions from the Republic of Mali: Epigraphy, Chronicles and Songhay-Tuareg History (2004).

On December 19, we shall have the great pleasure to see the graduation of our two PhD students: Susana Molins Lliteras and Samaila Suleiman (to review their respective PhD abstracts, please follow the links highlighted above). Susana will continue her affiliation with this project while also holding a post-doctoral position in the Department of Historical Studies; Dr Suleiman is a lecturer in the Department of History at Bayero University, Kano.

In April this year, John O. Hunwick passed away at the age of 78. He was the doyen of scholars on the manuscript tradition of Timbuktu and its environs. His passing on is a huge loss to the scholarly community and all of us concerned with the study of Africa. Prof Hunwick visited us at UCT on two occasions: in 2004 and again in 2005. During the first visit he gave seminars and a few undergraduate lectures and assisted us in general to launch our project. He gave a lecture about Islam in West Africa on a Friday before the sermon at a local mosque. He was most generous with his time and energy and a delight to host. In 2005, he participated in the conference that led to the book: The Meanings of Timbuktu (HSRC Press, 2008). Prof Hunwick taught Arabic and History in various Anglophone West African universities for many years, and ran an Arabic programme in Cairo. In 1981, he joined Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, USA where he founded the Institute for the Study of Islamic Thought in Africa. He retired in 2004. A conference in his honour will be held in April 2016 at Northwestern University.

One of his major initiatives, with Prof Sean O’Fahey, was the Arabic Literature of Africa series published by Brill. The latest volumes in the series are out this December. Volume 5, titled The Writings of Mauritania and the Western Sahara, was prepared under the leadership of Prof Charles Stewart. We shall carry further information on this publication in the next newsletter.




  • Comments: 0


  1. Eliane de Saint-Martin’s avatar
    Eliane de Saint-Martin 17/12/2015 #

    Merci shamil de me tenir au courant des développements concernant les manuscrits de Tombouctou. Question : pourquoi les terroristes de toute origine veulent-ils détruire les patrimoine de l’humanité ? Pour prouver quoi ?

  2. Dave Hunwick’s avatar
    Dave Hunwick 24/11/2017 #

    Thank you for this wonderful tribute, I know he thoroughly enjoyed his time with you all and I know if he were still here he would be working hard to further the knowledge base on Timbuktu and it’s scholarly traditions. Many thanks to you and the organization.

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