Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Learning and Islamic Research (IHERI-AB)

The government of Mali had instituted the Ahmed Baba Centre for Documentation and Research (CEDRAB-the abbreviated title it is generally referred to in French) in Timbuktu in 1973. The origins of the centre go back to a meeting convened by Unesco, in 1967 in Timbuktu, when planning its multi-volume history of Africa. At the end of the meeting a resolution was passed calling on the government of Mali to establish a centre for the preservation of Arabic manuscripts in Timbuktu. The centre was built primarily with funding received from Kuwait and immediately began its collection of manuscripts.

The Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Learning and Islamic Research, as it is now known, currently holds about 30 000 manuscripts, collected through the efforts of some outstanding individuals, including Dr Mahmoud Zubayr, the centre’s first director, and Abdul Kader Haidara, who started out working for CEDRAB, before going on to establish his family's private library. This number of manuscripts is still a conservative quantity, considering the estimated number of extant manuscripts in the region. The Al-Furqan Islamic Heritage Foundation has already published a catalogue, incomplete as yet, listing about 9000 manuscripts from the CEDRAB collection.

Building The Library

In the period between 1973 and 1984 CEDRAB had only managed to acquire 3500 manuscripts. In 1984, Abdul Kader joined CEDRAB and, because of his potential and his influential family background, was given the task of gathering more manuscripts. His search began in Timbuktu, where, despite facing many difficulties, he contacted family members, buying what he could. He would sometimes pay US$200 for a single-page document and sometimes US$300 for a complete manuscript. The value of the manuscripts varied, but in general, history manuscripts were the most valuable, followed by ornate manuscripts, complete works that were very old, works of local scholarship, historical and political correspondence and, lastly, undated and anonymous manuscripts.

This search for manuscripts was then extended to the surrounding areas of Timbuktu. These expeditions in the outer regions extended from 1984 to 1987. Abdul Kader went to great lengths to accommodate manuscript owners, sometimes even buying them livestock, which would have been more valuable to some, than paying them with money. His success in the villages was outstanding. In some cases he collected 2000 manuscripts from a single village.

The manuscripts at the Ahmed Baba Institute were also sourced from all over Mali and as far as the borders of Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Guinea, Niger, Algeria and the Ivory Coast. Abdul Kader’s immense efforts were essential in this acquisition of 16 000 manuscripts for the centre, between 1984 and 2002.

The current director of the institute is Dr Mohammed Gallah Dicko.

The New Ahmed Baba Institute

In 2009, the new building of the Ahmed Baba Institute was officially opened. It is the product of a bi-lateral agreement between the South African and Malian governments, which began in 2001, after former South African president, Thabo Mbeki’s visit to Timbuktu. The building is one of several conditions of the agreement, all of which aim to promote the conservation, research and promotion of the manuscripts as African heritage. The new building not only contains state-of-the-art resources for the proper storage and preservation of the manuscripts, but also has facilities for researchers, including conference rooms and a lecture theatre, a library and accommodation for researchers from abroad.