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  • Alex Colville

Endangered Manuscripts need your help

Updated: Sep 10, 2020

Tucked away on the southern edge of the Sahara lies the ancient city of Djenné. The city, with its traditional mud-brick (‘adobe’) houses and towering Great Mosque, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Islam reached this region in the 13th and 14th centuries.

Djenné has a scholastic heritage to rival the better-known Timbuktu. The 50 Koran schools dotted across the city are sites of Islamic learning that date back to the medieval period, with the manuscripts used there the proud possessions of local families, now placed in the care of the Djenné Manuscript Library, protected from insects and the floodwaters of the rainy season.

From 2009 to 2016 the library’s collection grew from a few hundred manuscripts belonging to a handful of Djenné families to becoming an important depository for 8520 manuscripts belonging to 141 Djenné families.

Some documents have beautiful diagrams, this one is from a discourse on philology.

The subject matter of the manuscripts ranges from Korans, Islamic jurisprudence and Hadiths, traditional stories concerning the Prophet Mohammed and his companions, and poetry from the pre-Islamic poet Imru’al-Qais. There is also a very large collection of manuscripts on traditional magic – talismans, herbal remedies and traditional healing recipes.

The policy of the library has been to offer open access to scholars who would like to study the manuscripts in situ, but the deteriorating political situation in northern and Central Mali at the hands of al-Qaeda has meant that very few scholars have been able to avail themselves of this opportunity.

The Djenné Manuscript Library is now losing all its funding. The staff, in particular Garba Yaro (pictured above), its devoted main archivist, will no longer have a salary. Unless something is done soon, the Manuscript Library is threatened with closure. Its team, with more than eight years of work experience, will have to find other activities and the manuscript owners will no longer be able to look to the library to care for their collections.

The good news is that this is not a question of a lot of money: with £5000 a year, Garba Yaro would keep his job, the library could get its yearly coating and a modest few light bulbs would be kept alight. And most importantly, the Djenné families who have deposited their manuscripts in the library for safe keeping would not have to remove them again. The irreplaceable heritage of this ancient world, still in desperate need of research, would be safeguarded for the next generation.

If you would like to donate, click here!

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