On workshops, libraries and soldiers in Bamako

9 December 2015

I spent ten days in Bamako in early October, participating in a series of workshops organised by the Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures (CSMC) at the University of Hamburg, under the framework of events “Paroles de sagesse: les manuscrits anciens du Mali” sponsored by joint Malian-Franco-German cultural funds. Four workshops spread over seven days were held at the Malian National Library in Bamako, and were directed at a multi-national group of West African manuscript researchers, library and archive personnel, as well as manuscript owners.

My first impression upon landing in Bamako airport was the overarching presence of UN personnel and soldiers in the city. The only other airplanes on the runway at the time I arrived, besides my Ethiopian Airlines Boeing, were numerous UN cargo planes. As I waited patiently for my luggage, I was surrounded by many returning hajj pilgrims clad in white, accompanied by overflowing baggage, as well as serious MINUSMA (the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali) soldiers attired in khaki uniforms; the contrast was stark. These foreign soldiers were ever-present in government buildings, restaurants and hotels, altering the landscape of the city in ways I am still trying to understand.  Ironically, I felt much more insecure when in their company at the workshop hotel, than I ever experienced when wondering the dusty streets of Bamako on the back of a motorcycle.

Our venue for the workshops, the Malian National Library, is adjacent to the Malian National Archives, and both share that somewhat dilapidated yet grandiose look that characterises educational institutions in Mali such as the University.  One air-conditioned room equipped with a temperamental projector and wooden rectangular desks hosted a group of about thirty participants and rotating lecturers.  The participants hailed from the following West African countries:  Nigeria, with representatives from Maiduguri, Kano and Zaria; Cameroon and Mali. They collectively amalgamated a wide range of expertise and backgrounds: from manuscript cataloguers or conservators working for the Malian libraries such as SAVAMA and IHERI-AB, to library studies students from the Bamako technical college, to professors and lecturers from Nigerian or Cameroonian institutions, to imams and manuscript holders.

The first workshop was on Preservation and Conservation, presented by Michaelle Biddle, chief conservator of the Wesleyan University Library and with years of extensive experience working with northern Nigerian manuscripts. For me, the most relevant section was the useful explanations on tips to recognise the different types of paper used for manuscript production. Otherwise, the heated debate between Michaelle and one of the manuscript box-producers from SAVAMA—completed with choppy translation from French, Arabic and Songhai—on which the most appropriate boxes to protect manuscripts in Africa are, was definitely the most telling highlight of the session.  There is indeed much more to a manuscript box than the type of cardboard that is used to fabricate it!

The Cataloguing workshop was the one I was most intimately involved with, as I presented a small section on marginalia on the second day.  It was led by Stefanie Brinkmann from the University of Hamburg and the Islamic Manuscript Association (TIMA) and Mauro Nobili from the University of Illinois and honorary research associate of the Tombouctou Manuscripts Project.  The strength of this workshop was the effective balance between the theoretical presentations and the practical work in groups cataloguing manuscripts provided by SAVAMA. Furthermore, input from Dimitry Bondarev on the importance of describing the layout of manuscripts—which provide clues as to the purpose of production—was quite illuminating.  Without fail, there were other hotly debated topics during this session. One was the issue of transliteration and transcription, with those Arabists in the audience highlighting the grammatical defects of some standard systems while the lecturers tried to imprint the importance of consistency and using a recognised international system. The inclusion of the transcription of ajami into the mix further complicates the picture.

The final two workshops were on the topics of Digitisation, and Online Cataloguing and Digital Resources.  The first was led by Walid Mourad, field director of the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library, and the second, again by Stefanie Brinkmann. While the set-up and explanations of a digital studio proved to be fairly technical, I was able to extract useful advice for the taking of optimal images when digitising in the field without all the digitisation equipment. Had I only been privy to this information a couple of years back when digitising the manuscripts for my doctoral dissertation! The last session, which was presented through screen shots taken previously due to the frustratingly slow Internet connection onsite, highlighted the inherent inequalities built into digital resources. While these are considered free and open to all, they are in fact only accessible to those—mostly in the developed countries of the global North—with fast and cheap Internet connection. As became painfully clear in our concluding discussion, the privilege of access to fast Internet and prohibitively expensive digitising equipment is still a pipedream for most African manuscript collections and archives.

Nevertheless, as our guided visit to the SAVAMA building in Bamako emphasised, the fortunes of manuscripts and archives wane and wax with the politics and ideologies of the moment. SAVAMA now has over seventy staff members working at a frantic pace to box, digitise and catalogue the manuscripts transported to Bamako in the course of the 2012 crisis. The influx of generous German and other funds is obvious in the efficiently-run and well-equipped operation. The only thing missing from the picture were researchers actually working on the manuscripts themselves; and questions regarding access were elegantly bypassed. I was left wondering what would have been the state of this library and manuscript collections today, had the 2012 crisis—with its Islamist and book-burning overtones—not have occurred. 

University of Cape Town, South Africa


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