Tuesday, 8 March 2016

#Collections: Timbuktu and the truth about African scholarship

Timbuktu. Source: UNESCO
I recall this night with embarrassment when a German colleague took me to a certain ‘Timbuktu Café’ in Hamburg. Poor me, I would not recall why Timbuktu was such an important city on the African map, that a  restaurant by that name was a favorite for the germans! There was amazing live African music (Oh! how I love live music) and the cafe was rich in artefacts of African origin. But as I soaked in all these in a ‘far off’ Hamburg, I lamented having little knowledge of my continent, and especially of places such as Timbuktu that were famous in other continents yet their history unknown to me. Thus, Timbuktu joins my list of #Collections which I started with a recollection of the Nok Culture as an indicator of Africa’s ingenuity and a review of The Nile Project. 
Timbuktu, a historical city in Mali, is one of those places which harbour evidence of Africa’s scholarship dating back to the Golden Age. I would love to make connections of Timbuktu with my love of Malian musicians like Fatoumata Diara and Rokia Traore, or with the cynical definitions of Timbuktu provided by the Oxford Dictionary as a term ‘used in reference to a remote or extremely distant place’. But let me keep to the history of the city as a centre for scholarship and economic activity since the 11th century.
Situated 20km North of River Niger and on the Southern edge of the Sahara Desert, Timbuktu is presently a desert. Historically, it was founded in the 11th century, starting out as a seasonal settlement, and then becoming a permanent settlement in the 12th century following a shift in trading routes. It then started flourishing from the trade in salt, gold, ivory and slaves. The place became part of the Mali Empire early in the 14th century. Archaeological research, however, claim that Timbuktu dates back to Iron age, with evidence of being occupied during the 5th century BC, thriving throughout the second half of the 1st millennium AD and eventually collapsing sometime during the late 10th or early 11th century AD.
I am particularly drawn to Timbuktu’s connection with the Islamic religion and being a world centre of Islamic learning from the 13th to the 17th century. This is chronicled in the Timbuktu Manuscripts  on art, medicine, philosophy, and science, and several priceless copies of the Quran. According to Wikipedia, ‘Timbuktu's rapid economic growth in the 13th and 14th centuries drew many scholars from nearby Walata (today in Mauretania), leading up to the city's golden age in the 15th and 16th centuries that proved fertile ground for scholarship of religions, arts and sciences. An active trade in books between Timbuktu and other parts of the Islamic world, and with Emperor Askia Mohammed's strong support, led to the writing of thousands of manuscripts’. However, following several invasions of Timbuktu and later the French colonization, Timbuktu lost its economic and scholarship strongholds. As a result, traditional architecture of mosques and other buildings as well as the manuscripts have been destroyed, or failed to be preserved over the centuries. Most of the manuscripts still remain unstudied and uncatalogued, and some lost or sold off, partly due to the demise of Arabic education in Mali under French colonial rule resulting in a decline of appreciation for the medieval manuscripts.
Luckily, Timbuktu old town including some buildings, mosques and remaining manuscripts are now preserved under the UNESCO world heritage sites convention. To try and bring Timbuktu back into the world picture, several movies, films and features have been produced to challenge the idea of Timbuktu as a distant  (sometimes, non-existent) place. For instance, the ‘Manuscripts of Timbuktu’ demonstrates how the region was once a leading cultural, economic, scientific, and religious centre that made a significant and lasting impact on Africa and the entire world. Another feature series has been produced on Timbuktu manuscripts (in French and Dutch). Through these films, Timbuktu can now be traced on the map of advanced civilization in Africa as the manuscripts offer evidence that the continent had vibrant scholarly institutions and written cultures long before the European intervention. It's perhaps for such reasons that my Timbuktu Cafe experience remains vivid in my memories. 

Source: Scribes of Timbuktu Archives
As a recipient of education introduced by the colonialists, who claimed that the first education institutions were somewhere in Europe,  (without mentioning the exceptions of Timbuktu or the University of Karueein, founded in 859 AD in Fez, Morocco and still in operation), I genuinely wonder, at what point did Africa become ‘uneducated’, ‘illiterate’ and non-religious. It is evident from the story of Timbuktu and Fez that indeed the Islamic religion has deep roots on several African countries, and on which learning was introduced through Madarasa. What exactly then shall we say of civilization introduced by the colonial powers years after the fall of Timbuktu? Or even, how much more don’t we know of the scholarship of the African people thousands of years before the introduction of western education. If I think of Timbuktu and of the Nok culture in Nigeria, and many other medieval African stories untold, I am convinced that beneath the surface of everything known, there lies incredible ingenuity of the African people that has been lost over the centuries, but also that is harboured by the same people. Shall we take this as the starting point of innovation that is required to transform our thinking on educating the continent? What should we actually be educating this and other generations to come of Africa? Just questions to ponder.

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