Abba al-Hadi could not read any of the priceless manuscripts he gingerly placed into empty rice sacks each evening last August before spiriting them through Timbuktu’s darkening streets. The wiry septuagenarian had never learned to read or write but, having spent four decades working as a guard at the Ahmed Baba Institute, a state-run body responsible for the restoration and preservation of much of this storied town’s written heritage, he was all too aware of the value of the brittle pages bound in leather cases.
For Abdoulaye Cissé and other guardians of Timbuktu’s heritage, the fact the crumbling manuscripts were almost lost forever has served to further reinforce their importance. Cissé points out that the books, which document so much about life as it was lived during Timbuktu’s rise and fall over centuries, challenge the notion that Africa’s history was exclusively oral until the arrival of European colonialists.
“These manuscripts are important not just for Timbuktu to remember its history but also to remind the world that Africa has a rich, written history contrary to what some once believed,” says Cissé. “Losing even a fraction is a tragedy.”