Over the last year I have watched helplessly as dozens of Mali’s most ancient monuments have been damaged or destroyed as Ansar Dine supporting militia have pushed further and further south from their strongholds on the edge of the Sahara Desert. So it was with more than a little relief that I watched the recent liberation of Timbuktu by French and West African forces. But that relief turned quickly to shock as news reports showed the liberating forces uncovering what appeared to be the deliberate destruction of some of the irreplaceable archives ancient and libraries of Timbuktu.
As I watched the news reports, I was taken back to my last visit to the great city…
The alleyway had been worn into a series of deep smooth sculpted ruts making it almost impossible to negotiate for the uninitiated without absolute concentration.
It is only in recent years that I have come to realise what has driven me to spend significant chunks of my adult life travelling, searching out archives and libraries across Africa, hunting down local historians and visiting small and remote museums. Whether I have been engaged in concrete research or not, I have always sought out manuscripts whether held in state archives or small family collections.
Over decades I have fed my fetish in the basements of multi-national corporations, in the stores of village churches and mosques, at battlefields, in goldmines and in the backrooms of small corner shops. And I have learned that history is important in Africa for all the reasons one might imagine – but perhaps more than anywhere else I have travelled, I have become aware of the past forming a vivid and palpable presence in people’s lives.