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.
There are thousands of small African archives, textile and drum stores that have become more than repositories of manuscripts and material culture; they have become fonts of communal narrative, symbols of continuity. I can remember standing in one of the side-rooms of one of the smaller libraries of Timbuktu – a semi-lit space, heavy with the accumulated book dust of a millennium of use and the tang of old tanned leather. You could actually taste the past on lips, feel tiny specks of desiccated parchment beneath your eyelids and see suspended in the amber light from the doorway the very air that had become a thick soup of ragged flecks of almost motionless manuscript-dust.
I suddenly became conscious of the fact that I have rarely really sought out particular facts in archives, nor have I been slavishly obsessed with historical narrative – I have been primarily driven to archives by a less concrete, but more experiential longing, to simply get close to history and those who made it.
I have always thought that there is little more magical than breathing in the atmosphere around important documents, of handling inventories and the legal papers, of reanimating dormant documentation through reading, to gain a little vicarious intimacy. There are fewer more potent ways to get a palpable sense of history, to transcend the gap between present and the past, to chart and sense the atmosphere around significant events and the impact and effect that they had on the main protagonists, than by being in close proximity to records.
The excavation of facts hard fought from archives can be very satisfying, but the feeling of being able to even momentarily transcend the to gap between ourselves and the subject of our studies, to feel the presence of the past, can be exhilarating.
As the dust settles over Timbuktu and the librarians begin to return to try to reconstitute their archives, reports are emerging that many of the archivists had fled the cities in advance of Ansar Dine taking their precious collections with them. Some had even resorted to the truly ancient tradition of burying their precious collections in the desert. One can only hope that the most important body of that this unique collection of ancient knowledge has been saved.
Listen to Dr Gus Casely-Hayford talk about his recent book, ‘The Lost Kingdoms of Africa’, as part of The National Archives’ Writer of the Month series of talks.