From Cape Town to Timbuktu: A Novice Traveller’s Reflections, Part 1

10 January 2012

By Mbongiseni Buthelezi

I went to Timbuktu and I came back. I have a T-shirt to prove it. It says, “J’ etais a Timbouctou et je suis revenu” (I was in Timbuktu and I came back).  I have witnesses too, twelve of them. They were there. We were all there together, all twelve of us from South Africa and one person from Nigeria. Timbuktu is not just a myth; it is a real place where real people live. Some friends and colleagues laughed incredulously when I told them we were going to Timbuktu up until we left for Mali. They had grown up being told, “I’ll send you to Timbuktu,” when they were being naughty. Or when somebody had gone to an unimaginable place they were told, “So and so has gone to Timbuktu”. They really did not believe that Timbuktu existed. Well, I’ve been there now and what we saw and experienced was a lifetime’s education in a week. Here’s some of what I thought while we were there and after we came back.


14 January 2011
As we come in to land in Bamako after many hours of travelling, I am struck by how flat the country is all around as far as the eye can see. It is dry; no, parched at this time of year. Brown, brown, and more brown everywhere you look: brown earth, brown houses, brown roofs. It is the dry season. The Niger River is a spectacular sight against this unending brownness.

All around Bamako the brownness is only broken by sparse pops of various shades of green. These trees are few and far between. Brown roads stretch away between brown clumps of houses into the far distance. The shapes and figures become more distinct as we near the ground: the odd vehicle making its way on one of these stretches of brown road, and people walking and riding motorbikes or bicycles or donkey-drawn carts on the roads.

I cannot help thinking of the writers of all those travels-and-adventures titles in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries who still haunt us to this day. I am going to write too – about the place, the people, the manuscript libraries. Perhaps my own travels-and-adventurers narrative is going to haunt and infuriate researchers down the years. Or maybe I am just another pseudo-ethnographer come to patronise the natives, being a native of somewhere far away where the people know little about here. I am going to write for people there to read about here, make this place make some sense to (some of) them. So, how then should I begin? Where do I begin?

27 January 2011
Let me begin at the beginning.  What do people here know about there? The building the South African government under Thabo Mbeki funded the construction of? There was enough of a buzz around it two years ago for some to remember. Was this a successful investment by South Africa in the cultural patrimony of the continent? We’ll come to that shortly. Let me first set the context for my interpretation of this investment.

12 of us from the Universities of the Western Cape and Cape Town and from the Ford Foundation went from South Africa to Mali to hold a series of workshops with our counterparts from archival institutions in the country. The witnesses who can attest to our being in Timbuktu were: from the Ford Foundation – Alice Brown and John Butler-Adam; from UWC - Ciraj Rassool, Leslie Witz and Premesh Lalu; from UCT – Saarah Jappie who, along with our guide/companion/translator Seydou Traoré, could make the impossible happen in Mali; Marilet Sienaert , Carolyn Hamilton, Pippa Skotnes, Nigel Penn, Jennifer Sorrell, and me. From Nigeria came Amidu Sanni of Lagos State University. The trip was organised by the Timbouctou Manuscripts project (TMP), which was founded and is directed by Associate Prof. Shamil Jeppie from Historical Studies and the Institute for the Humanities in Africa (HUMA), UCT. In 8 days we flew to Bamako; from Bamako to Timbuktu; visited a number of manuscripts libraries; toured the Sidi Yahya Mosque; held two days of workshops in Timbuktu. We flew to Mopti; took a 10-hour boat ride down the Niger to Djenné; held a workshop at the town’s library; visited the Imam of the Great Mosque of Djenné’s library and the mosque itself; closed the trip off with a visit to the Djenné-Djenno archaeological site; and flew back to Bamako and then Johannesburg and Cape Town.

The visit to the manuscripts libraries the day after we arrive in Timbuktu is a tour de force. Our host and guide, Abdel Kader Haidara, is a mover and shaker: in the course of the evening of January 15 he arranges for us to see all the riches we see on January 16. He is deeply invested and embedded in the work of identifying, cataloguing, preserving, and promoting the appreciation of the manuscripts found in Timbuktu and in Mali as a whole. He directs SAVAMA-DCI (Sauvegarde et Valorisation des Manuscrits pour la Défense de la Culture Islamique) and runs the well-appointed, private Mamma Haidara Manuscript Library in Timbuktu where much work of cataloguing and digitising manuscripts is being done. Some in our party already knew quite a bit about Abdel Kader Haidara. He had appeared in Henry Louis Gates’s controversial TV series, ‘Wonders of the African World’, and more recently, in the latest edition of National Geographic where his work is highlighted in an article on Timbuktu.

We start off the morning with a drive in a convoy of 4x4s to the Sankoré Mosque, which together with the Djinguereber and the Sidi Yahya Mosques formed the famed set of Timbuktu higher education institutions from the 14th century onwards. The mud-brick structure has been standing since about 1324. We learn that there were, and still are, many madrasahs (Islamic schools) throughout the town that were feeders for the higher education institutions. We then walk down the road to see one of the madrasahs. The children crammed into the small room all diligently recite their lessons as we intrude, gape, take pictures like good tourists.

Further down the road is the first manuscript library we see. The Bibliothèque de Manuscripts Iguomo is a small family-run affair. The family has collected all its manuscripts and put them in cases in the front room of its house. The library is available for use by anybody who is interested in studying these manuscripts. Later in the day we are to see several other libraries of the same kind – where families, encouraged by the upsurge in interest in Timbuktu since the late 1990s, have collated what manuscripts they have in their possession. In many families these are manuscripts collected over centuries, some going back to the 14th century. They have been excavated from forgotten boxes, from under collapsed mud houses or from where they were hidden in the ground away from the prying eyes of French colonial officials in the 19th century. In many cases, by the time the salvaging began, a lot of manuscripts had been lost to termites or water damage or mice.

But I am getting ahead of myself, so let me backtrack slightly. After the Iguomo library we get a tour of the grand building, the new Ahmed Baba Centre. In officialese it’s the Institut des Hautes Etudes et de Recherche Islamiques Ahmed Baba. It reportedly cost R40 million according to official figures, R200 million according to a BBC report. It stands imposing across the desert sands from the Sankoré Mosque. Empty. Unused. Unoccupied except by a thickening film of dust as the desert asserts itself over the state-of-the-art computers, scanners, digital cameras, and alarm, humidity control and air-conditioning systems. Has the much-vaunted South African intervention to save the cultural patrimony of the continent come to naught? I cannot say. The web of money, politics, family interests, power games, and serious scholarly interest is too thick to penetrate in a mere few days. We hover around the edges getting on with our mission here.

With heavy hearts and growing outrage we head over to the old Ahmed Baba Centre, the one South African money did not go into renovating. The Director of the old CEDRAB gives us a cursory tour of one of the manuscript rooms. The official digitisation and preservation work continues to happen here.  Across town the big, bloated white elephant of a new building slumbers.  Or perhaps it just looks like a white elephant to my transcoding tourist gaze – I am too used to state interventions in things turning into white elephants back where I am a native of. A few days later we are to see in the town of Djenné what has been achieved with much less money in the storing of manuscripts. But you’ll have to wait until next month to hear about that.

For now let me conclude by saying that on the afternoon of the day we see the Timbuktu ‘elephant’ we visit more small family-run libraries constructed and run with no money by mostly quite poor families. We visit a copyist’s studio. He shows us the ancient method of reproducing the kinds of manuscripts you find in the libraries we’ve visited– legal and religious opinions, judgements, books on astronomy and astrology, travel narratives, trade reports – which he still practices today. For me as a literary scholar, the most striking lesson of the visit is that there is a whole new layer to literary analysis that I know nothing about – an analysis of the calligraphic style in which a text is written. Calligraphy can tell us a lot about the production and circulation of the text, which is essential to the analysis of its style and content.

The day ends with a visit to the Fondo Kati and the Mamma Haidara Libraries. The Fondo Kati is a spanking new building funded out of Spain that is the object of a doctoral study by Susana Molins Lliteras of the TMP. It is at the Mamma Haidara library complex that we’ll be based for the next two days before we leave for Djenné. The day’s visits have been a revelation. What we’ve seen has primed us for the workshop ahead.

Mbongiseni Buthelezi is the Archival Platform Ancestral Stories coordinator.

Originally published on the Archival Platform website.

  • Comments: 0


  1. Angel’s avatar
    Angel 02/03/2012 #

    Wow! That mud moquse is stunning! I’ve never been to Mali and honestly don’t know much about it at all. You have definitely piqued my interest. :-)

  2. ami’s avatar
    ami 13/02/2016 #

    Cape Town is a really nice attraction and travelling destination. I visited there at once in my life but now I have a plan to visit there again in my life after finishing my <a >2 days tour from new york</a>.

  3. Vuyani Matsha’s avatar
    Vuyani Matsha 18/04/2018 #

    Great to see what sounds like work, being done to study these manuscripts. Is there any information that comes out of Timbuktu that can form part of the school curricula, especially during this time of wanting to introduce a decolonised study of Africa’s contribution to world civilisation?

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