Thursday, September 27, 2007

Timbuktu Hopes Ancient Texts Spark a Revival

This article is a little old but interesting none the less...

Candace Feit for The New York Times

Ismaël Diadié Haïdara with collected family manuscripts. He says Timbuktu has a "second chance" to become a great city again.

Published: August 7, 2007

TIMBUKTU, Mali — Ismaël Diadié Haïdara held a treasure in his slender fingers that has somehow endured through 11 generations — a square of battered leather enclosing a history of the two branches of his family, one side reaching back to the Visigoths in Spain and the other to the ancient origins of the Songhai emperors who ruled this city at its zenith.

“This is our family’s story,” he said, carefully leafing through the unbound pages. “It was written in 1519.”

The musty collection of fragile, crumbling pages, written in the florid Arabic script of the sixteenth century, is also this once forgotten outpost’s future.

A surge of interest in ancient books, hidden for centuries in houses along Timbuktu’s dusty streets and in leather trunks in nomad camps, is raising hopes that Timbuktu — a city whose name has become a staccato synonym for nowhere — may once again claim a place at the intellectual heart of Africa.

“I am a historian,” Mr. Haïdara said. “I know from my research that great cities seldom get a second chance. Yet here we have a second chance because we held on to our past.”

This ancient city, a prisoner of the relentless sands of the Sahara and a changing world that prized access to the sea over the grooves worn by camel hooves across the dunes, is on the verge of a renaissance.

“We want to build an Alexandria for black Africa,” said Mohamed Dicko, director of the Ahmed Baba Institute, a government-run library in Timbuktu. “This is our chance to regain our place in history.”

Candace Feit for The New York Times

A copy of the Koran from the 12th century. According to notes in the text, it was bought for a Moroccan king for a sum of gold.

The South African government is building a new library for the institute, a state-of-the-art facility that will house, catalog and digitize tens of thousands of books and make their contents

available, many for the first time, to researchers. Charities and governments from Europe, the United States and the Middle East have poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the city’s musty family libraries, which are being expanded and transformed into research institutions, drawing scholars from around the world eager to translate and interpret the long forgotten manuscripts.

The Libyan government is planning to transform a dingy 40-room hotel into a luxurious 100-room resort, complete with Timbuktu’s only swimming pool and space to hold academic and religious conferences. Libya is also digging a new canal that will bring the Niger River to the edge of Timbuktu.

Timbuktu’s new seekers have a variety of motives. South Africa and Libya are vying for influence on the African stage, each promoting its vision of a resurgent Africa. Spain has direct

links to some of the history stored here, while American charities began giving money after Henry Louis Gates Jr., the Harvard professor of African studies, featured the manuscripts in a television documentary series in the late 1990s.

This new chapter in the story of Timbuktu, whose fortunes fell in the twilight of the Middle Ages, is almost as extraordinary as those that preceded it.

The geography that has doomed Timbuktu to obscurity in the popular imagination for half a millennium was once the reason for its greatness. It was founded as a trading post by nomads in the 11th century and later became part of the vast Mali Empire, then ultimately came under the control of the Songhai Empire.

For centuries it flourished because it sat between the great superhighways of the era — the

Sahara, with its caravan routes carrying salt, cloth, spices and other riches from the north, and the Niger River, which carried gold and slaves from the rest of West Africa.

Traders brought books and manuscripts from across the Mediterranean and Middle East, and books were bought and sold in Timbuktu — in Arabic and local languages like Songhai and Tamashek, the language of the Tuareg people.

Timbuktu was home to the University of Sankore, which at its height had 25,000 scholars. An army of scribes, gifted in calligraphy, earned their living copying the manuscripts brought by travelers. Prominent families added those copies to their own libraries. As a result, Timbuktu became a repository of an extensive and eclectic collection of manuscripts.

“Astronomy, botany, pharmacology, geometry, geography, chemistry, biology,” said Ali Imam

Ben Essayouti, the descendant of a family of imams that keeps a vast library in one of the city’s mosques. “There is Islamic law, family law, women’s rights, human rights, laws regarding livestock, children’s rights. All subjects under the sun, they are represented here.”

One 19th-century book on Islamic practices gives advice on menstruation. A medical text suggests using toad meat to treat snake bites, and droppings from panthers mixed with butter to soothe boils. There are thousands of Korans and books on Islamic law, as well as decorated biographies of the Prophet Muhammad, some dating back a millennium, complete with diagrams of his shoes.

Mr. Haïdara is a descendant of the Kati family, a prominent Muslim family in Toledo, Spain. One of his ancestors fled religious persecution in the 15th century and settled in what is now Mali, bringing his formidable library with him. The Kati family intermarried into the Songhai imperial

family, and the habit Mr. Haïdara’s ancestors had of doodling notes in the margins of their manuscripts has left an abundance of historical information: births and deaths in the imperial family, the weather, drafts of imperial letters, herbal cures, records of slaves, and salt and gold traded.

Moroccan invaders deposed the Songhai empire in 1591, and the new rulers were hostile to the community of scholars, who were seen as malcontents. Facing persecution, many fled, taking many books with them.

West African sea routes overtook the importance of the old inland desert and river trade, and the city began its long decline. When the first European explorers stumbled across the once fabled city, they were stunned at its decrepitude. René Caillié, a French explorer who arrived

here in 1828, said it was “a mass of ill-looking houses built of earth.”

Mr. Caillié’s description remains accurate today. For all its vaunted legend, Timbuktu remains a collection of low mud houses along narrow, trash-choked streets backed by sand dunes, difficult to reach and unimpressive on first sight. In 1990, Unesco designated it an endangered site because sand dunes threatened to swallow it.

Timbuktu: The Next Chapter

Many tourists who come here stay for just a day, long enough to buy a T-shirt and get their passports stamped at the local tourism office as proof they have been to the end of the earth. In a recent Internet campaign to choose the new seven wonders of the world, Timbuktu failed to make the cut, much to the chagrin of the city’s tour guides and boosters.

Yet the city has been making a slow comeback for years. Its manuscripts, long hidden, began to emerge in the mid-20th century, as Mali won its independence from France and the city was declared a Unesco world heritage site.

The government created an institute named after Ahmed Baba, Timbuktu’s greatest scholar, to collect, preserve and interpret the manuscripts. Abdel Kader Haïdara, no relation of Ismaël Diadié Haïdara, an Islamic scholar whose family owned an extensive collection of manuscripts, started an organization called Savama-DCI dedicated to preserving the manuscripts. After a visit from Mr. Gates in 1997, he was able to get help from American charities to support private family libraries. With the support of the Ford and Mellon foundations, families began to catalog and preserve their collections.

But time, scorching desert heat, termites and sandstorms have taken a toll on the manuscripts. Most were locked in trunks or kept on dusty shelves for centuries, and their pages are brittle and crumbling, waterlogged and termite-eaten. In the village of Ber, two hours of dusty track east of Timbuktu, Fida Ag Mohammed tends to several trunks of manuscripts that have been in his family, a line of Tuareg imams, for centuries.

“This is a biography of the Prophet Muhammad,” he said, gingerly lifting one manuscript bound in crumbling leather. “It is from the 13th century.”

The neat lines of Arabic script were clearly legible, but the edges of many pages had crumbled away, the words trailing off into nothingness.

Savama is in the process of building a new mud-brick library for Mr. Mohammed’s books, but until it is ready he has no means to preserve his manuscripts. To rescue their contents, if not their physical substance, he was copying the most fragile texts by hand, using an ink he makes himself out of gum.

Now, when the scorching heat of the day eases, a favored sunset activity in Timbuktu is watching the Libyan earthmovers dig the new canal. Like tiny toy trucks in a giant sandbox, they push mountains of sand to coax the Niger to flow here, bringing more water and new life to the dune-surrounded city.

“To see this machine makes me more happy because it means things are changing in Timbuktu,” said Sidi Muhammad, a 40-year-old Koranic scholar, splayed on a dune with a group of friends, gossiping and fingering their prayer beads.

The Malian government has encouraged Islamic learning to flourish here once again, and there are dozens of Koranic schools where children and adults learn to read and recite the Koran. Training programs are teaching men and women how to classify, interpret and translate the documents, as well as preserve them for future study.

Abdel Kader Haïdara, who in many ways started the renaissance by wandering the desert in search of manuscripts, persuading families to allow their treasures to see the light of day, said Timbuktu’s best days lie ahead of it.

“Timbuktu is coming back,” he said. “It will rise again.”

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Final Boat Trip Post

Go to Dom's Blog and read up on his final post about the trip. As always, great prose... enjoy!!!

Summary: We arrive in Gao, not 10km from our final campsite and experience PCV life in Eastern Mali.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Continuation of our gallivanting around Mali...

Here is the link to Dom's 3rd (out of 4 - one still to be written) post about his trip here:

Summary: 7 days, 6 nights on the Niger River from Mopti to Gao proved to be an experience that me and 13 PCVs earned. From swimming in one of Mali’s largest public toilets to surviving two sizable storms, our excursion to Timbuktu and beyond was paid for in full – in more ways than one.

As I won't get a chance to write something about this (and I think he did a mighty fine job that would be hard to challenge), I am not planning on writing something about this. So - please follow the link to hear about more of our adventures.

Some people couldn't find the link to his photos - click here for his picasa albums.

If you have any questions or what greater detail, shoot me an email or leave a comment and I'll get back to you as soon as I can.


Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Mali's dismal health care system

I'm much better after my bout with food poisoning (most likely salmonella) which brought me here to Bamako where I'm recovering. My confidence has been reassured as to the Peace Corps' ability to deal with health and security emergencies and horribly unnerved at the Malian systems ability to do the same.

I'll provide two examples: The first occurred a few months ago at my regional office of the Ministry of Tourism where I work. One of my fellow co-workers, Justin Dabou, (of which there are only five) fell ill and was taken to the hospital Friday morning. He has a history of high blood pressure and is frequently absent from work for being sick. His condition progressively worsened throughout the day. By the evening, the hospital in Segou was trying to transfer him to Bamako where he could obtain better suited care. This became a huge problem since in Mali you need to pay before you receive treatment (or at least need to demonstrate sufficiently that you'll be able to honor all debts). Being transported to Bamako (a three and a half hour drive west) by what I presume would have been an ambulance costs over 150,000 franc CFA which equates to over $300. $300 is an enormous sum of money for a wealthy Malian let alone an at best middle-class Malian - which is where Justin would fall. To complicate matters further his first wife and only wife (I clarify this as it is possible for him to have up to 4 being in a Muslim country) was in Bamako and unable to handle this matter personally.

Madani Niang, my homologue [counterpart], being the great guy that he is, was at the hospital all night trying to secure Justin's release and transportation to Bamako to receive the increasingly urgent care that he so desperately needed. Around 4am Saturday morning Madani had finally gathered together enough money and was filling out the final pages of forms to get Justin to Bamako when he was approached by the doctor with information that he so often conveys. Justin had passed away. He was minutes from getting in an ambulance to be rushed to Bamako where he could be treated but he didn't make it. He was 45 years old. 45 is just three years shy of 48 - the average life expectancy at birth in Mali.

Justin had gone to collage and even spoke a little English. He had just moved to a new house the week before and his life was looking up... he had so much potential. When I look at him and what he could have done in his life - I see so much that will never be, so much that could have been - should have been. Justin Dabou, may you rest in peace.

The second example happened just last week on Monday the 27th of August. As you may have noticed, I have now been here in Mali for over a year (in fact it was a year and one month on that day). Thus, the new crop of volunteers has arrived and are going through all the trials and tribulations of training - or as we call it: stage (pronounced with a soft g). During part of their two month stage, they visit their future sites for a week to see where they are going to spend the next two years of their life. That week had just come to an end and the stagaires were set to return to Bamako Monday morning. The trouble started when one of them was leaving his hotel to grab an egg sandwich from across the street.

Kyle slipped on some sand on the tile floor and broke his left ankle - a freak accident. He broke a chip off of the fibula (the one at the back near the Achilles not the tibia which is the big one in front). The fracture wasn't even the most shocking part of the problem... he had somehow also managed to completely dislocate his entire foot from the bottom of his leg, twist it about 65 degrees to the left and move it inside to the right about 2 inches. Picture that for a moment. Pretty fucking gruesome and not something you want to have happen to you even in America let alone Mali, West Africa.

The other stagaires called me and I biked over arriving about 10 minutes later. We immediately got on the phone to our Peace Corps medical staff in Bamako (as we are so well educated to do) to asses the situation and get him help. A little while later an ambulance from the fire brigade showed up ready to take him to the Segou hospital. They came rushing in with a stretcher straight out some bad 70's TV show and a walking boot for Kyle's foot. The stretcher wasn't a problem; it was the hard walking boot that concerned everyone. Kyle's eyes lit up and pleaded for us not to let them touch him! You see, his foot was very twisted and there was no way in hell of fitting in that boot – it just wasn't going to and should not happen.

We argued for a good while before they huffed off being thoroughly insulted that we didn't think they knew how to do their job. Um... I don't proclaim to be an EMT or anything close to what would resemble a medical professional but what they wanted to do was not normal. Eventually, another ambulance came to take him to the hospital. This time we had a Peace Corps trusted doctor with us overseeing everything and tensions were calmed. Kyle had taken 800mg of ibuprophen and a hydrocodone for his pain and a car had been dispatched from Bamako with a Peace Corps doctor to bring him back. Things seemed to be improving or at least stable.

I rode with him to the hospital and we went directly into take x-rays. We had been in the room for no more than a minute and the radiologist approached me saying they needed to lift Kyle's leg so they could slide the x-ray film underneath. Sure - sounds reasonable right? Simple, standard sounding procedure... and remember the radiologist had seen the patient for no more than a minute and had but a fraction of the information he need about the situation and Kyle's condition. (Remember at this point all we had were the visual analysis of what it looked like - the fractured fibula and dislocation was what we found out later).

With me standing next to him, the radiologist began to lift Kyle's leg so that he could slide under the x-ray film. He grabbed the upper calf and, to my complete astonishment, Kyle's toes. He was partially lifting this poor man's foot by his toes!!! I didn't have to wait for Kyle's screams of pain to know that wasn't right and attempted to pull the doctors hand away. I couldn't pull too hard as he had a firm grab on the foot and I didn't want to jerk and cause any more pain than Kyle was already enduring. Then to even further incomprehension and with complete disregard for the extreme amount of pain Kyle was already going through - while still lifting his foot by the toes, he proceeded to firmly grab the bottom of his foot by the heel and twist it back into place!! It was so quick there was nothing I could do… but oh my god did it look and sound painful! A few of our friends who had accompanied us to the hospital and had been waiting outside came rushing in when they heard Kyle screaming bloody murder from the pain. Again, I am not a medical professional but that was just not normal - I don't care what you say, there is no way that falls within some standard operating procedure.

That is the main point I wanted to convey - after that everything was pretty calm and just a lot of waiting around for another two hours while we waited for the car (a typical NGO white Land Cruiser) to arrive and transport Kyle to Bamako. Holy crap though - can you believe what that "doctor" did??! Man. Wow. Intense.

There you have it - a few examples of the Malian health care system. As you might gather, when I fell ill just two days later with food poisoning - I had no intention of entering it. I'm not sure what I ate. It may have been a small pastry the previous morning or some salami I'd been sent in a care package but either way the result was far from pleasant. I woke up around 4am running to the bathroom to vomit and did so at least every 15 minutes for the next 6 hours.

By 7 am I gave in and called our PC doctors who called Kathy (the other volunteer in Segou) to send her over and take care of me. She was wonderful and made at least five or six trips to the pharmacy for the necessary medications. These included first some oral Vagolene to stop the nausea and later some in a syringe since I couldn't keep it down and needed to stop throwing up. 4 hours after the vomiting began, my bowels started acting up. Let’s just say I started running to the bathroom to intestinally evacuate with high frequency. Unsurprisingly, I was losing my fluids at an alarming rate and was in need of medical attention. At the last moment the injection kicked-in and I started to shut off one of the valves so I could retain a little liquid.

Again, the PC doctors sent a car from Bamako to pick me up when the severity of my situation was realized. I was promptly picked up and taken in a daze on the 3 hour journey back to Bamako. I've been recovering in Bamako now for an entire week and can just about say today - one week later - that I am 100% back to normal. Peace Corps has its own 'med office' in Bamako where sick volunteers can stay as long as they need when ill. I have done just that and will be leaving tomorrow to return to my life as usual in Mali.

Cool photo of Mali

Click on it to see the full image...

Tuesday, September 04, 2007


Ok - so I have been sick for the last week and on top of that am a bit lazy to write up a story about my recent adventures... specifically the ones with my friend Dom Cronshaw who just came to visit. So...

Check out his website for even more photos (in addition to the ones I posted below) and some great prose about our voyage. Click here and go to read the first addition.

His summary is this: Dom flys to Bamako, Mali and meets up with the Peace Corps gang who will be his companions for his time there. Booze did flow, dance moves were thrown and a hangover was earned.

If you're ambitious, you can keep going and read his second entry here.

This post's summary is: The boat trip begins. This post covers what life was like on the boat as well as what the much more unique nights yielded. Dom performs the first of a few surgeries on the trip and manages to nearly fumigate Yuri – serves him right for not making sure we had enough water for the trip.

He is a bit long winded but his posts are well written and I highly recommend the read. As we travelled together and I'm not doing too well and staying current - I suggest you read his posts since it might be a while if I get something up. Plus - how I don't know if I could communicate the situations as eloquently as he has. Although I implore you to read my comments in response to a few jabs at my honor.

If you want to read more about his trip, he has links to his archive (just like I do) except his or on the right. Stay tuned as there are still at least two more posts to finish up our gallivanting around Mali.

Where I've Been...