Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa
Conseil pour le développement de la recherche en sciences sociales en Afrique
Conselho para o Desenvolvimento da Pesquisa em Ciências Sociais em África
مجلس تنمية البحوث الإجتماعية في أفريقيا

Informative review: The Meanings of Timbuktu

Number of visits: 1585

Authors : Shamil Jeppie et Souleymane Bachir Diagne, (dir.)
Reviewer : Pape Chérif Bertrand Bassène, Ph.D.

Descriptive dictionary on Timbuktu and the history of sudani erudition

“The Meanings of Timbuktu", is a collective work published in 2008 and translated from English by Ousmane Kane. This contribution to the African intellectual history was conducted under the direction of Dr. Shamil Jeppie, co-chairman of the South-South Exchange Program for Research on the History of Development (SEPHIS) and has been advisor to the South Africa Project Mali focusing on the Timbuktu Manuscripts since 2002. And Professor Souleymane Bachir Diagne Chair of the scientific Committee of CODESRIA who teaches philosophy at the University of Columbia.
After the preface, the acknowledgements and a timeline with the "Important dates in the history of Western Sudan," the directors of "Tombouctou : pour une histoire de l’érudition en Afrique de l’Ouest" were keen to include two introductions in an initial section entitled "Prolegomena" (pp.1-29), which provides the necessary representations to the overall understanding of the work.
Shamil Jeppie invites the readers to the "Re-discovering of Timbuktu" (pp.1-19), and goes back to the process that led to the production of this book. For Dr. Jeppie, this work is not about feeding " new nationalist ordthodoxies or ‘nativist’ intellectual entreprises built on the edifice of the Timbuktu manuscripts or other similar initiatives of reclaiming African pasts inside Africa" (p.17). But above all, to demonstrate the existence of a nuance in the historiographical interpretation of the continent.
Moreover, the text of Professor Souleymane Bachir Diagne "Towards an intellectual history of West Africa: the meaning of Timbuktu" (pp.20-29), clearly demonstrates the need to revise for example, "the preconceived idea that African cultures are essentially oral. "; " to have a sense of history that opposes this identification of Africa with orality, a generalization which is just not accurate. "(p.21)
Both texts by Jeppie and Diagne demonstrate that "meditation on African sciences and knowledge requires that the manuscripts, in Timbuktu and elsewhere, be published and made accessible to researchers" (p.29).
The rest of the essays have been originally presented as scientific papers at the conference of the Timbuktu Manuscript Project in South Africa in 2005. The aforesaid project was envisaged in November 2001 in Mali, during the official visit of South African President Thabo Mbeki.
In a country like South Africa - where "apartheid had isolated the population from the rest of the continent, giving the image that the north of the country’s border was a no-interest zone where it was suggested or implied that nothing of value, no aesthetic nor literary had come from "(p.5) - sites like Timbuktu could afford to materialize what Thabo Mbeki called the" African Renaissance ". The South African President was convinced that "the regeneration of the continent is really necessary and it will only happen if Africans are coordinating their efforts and exchange at the regional and continental level to improve their living conditions. For the intellectual and cultural exchanges are as important as the economic and political collaboration to strengthen African capacities "(p.9).
This is the collection of 20,000 manuscripts from the Ahmed Baba Centre in Timbuktu (with others from private libraries) which are the primary sources for the twenty articles of this book divided into five parts. The contributors, who are specialists of the question, deal sequentially with the "Overview to the Timbuktu region" [pp.33-101], which is a formal historico-geographical contextualization of the universalization of its erudition and in relation to the development of places for the transmission of knowledge.
It refers to "Afro-arabic literature as a source of history" [pp.105-211]. It is an analysis on what the Timbuktu manuscripts written with the Arabic alphabet can bring in terms of writing African history. Other issues addressed, "Intellectuals of Timbuktu" [pp.215-289]; a set of texts on the few scholars whose teachings have reached acclaim at least in the sub-Saharan region. The different studies are completed by a section on "The Timbuktu Libraries" [pp.293-367] and another one that offers an opening "Beyond Timbuktu" [pp.371-401], other regions of Africa where the written legacy is present as a historical source.
"Tombouctou : pour une histoire de l’érudition en Afrique de l’Ouest", must be understood as a quest for the historical meaning of the city of Timbuktu whose sites (mosques, ancient places of learning, private libraries) offer the sources of its understanding; but also the urgency to participate in the conservation of its vestiges for a possible and necessary exploitation. It is after a question of participating in the fight of Education which has more value than all other fights which are often the result of the ignorance that is expressed by the loud voice of bombs and assassins who pretend to be martyrs (p.29).
The defense of the African literary heritage as it appears in this work helps to better understand the context which explains why the post-apartheid South Africa needed to meet Africa in the north of its borders through what Timbuktoo can symbolize with its manuscripts, scholars. It is a city that offers the image of an Africa where science and erudition have a long history. The work of Shamil Jeppie through the Timbuktu Manuscript Project in the historical studies department at the University of Cape Town, took part in improving the history education programs in South Africa, where the place of Africa in the world was taught in a "dictating Eurocentric perspective" that presents the continent as "an essentially inert, and analyzed under the context of European colonial impact" (p.16).
Both directors of the work, as well as all the different contributors participated in association with structures like the CODESRIA in the development of the production of the knowledge and the enrichment of the reflection related to the place of Africa in the intellectual history of the world. Thus, we can confirm what is said in the back cover, that this manuscript which objective is to contextualize and clarify the importance for Mali, Africa and the rest of the world the work led to protect the manuscripts of Timbuktu, offers a fascinating reading to anyone wishing to unravel the mystery and legend surrounding the ancient city.

Shamil Jeppie et Souleymane Bachir Diagne, dir. Tombouctou. Pour une histoire de l’érudition en Afrique de l’Ouest. Ousmane Kane (trad.). Dakar & Cape Town : Codesria & HSRC, 2011, 416p.

January 5 2015