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In Timbuktu, a race to preserve Africa's written history

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Some of the manuscripts that were written or collected here were so precious and rare that scholars from as far away as Spain and Egypt would send written requests for copies to be made.

Today, Timbuktu’s historic legacy gives a much more complete picture of Africa, more sophisticated than the primitive continent that European colonials and missionaries portrayed to the world. This makes the race to conserve the manuscripts of Timbuktu all the more important and urgent.

“The manuscripts of Timbuktu completely change the way we think of Africa,” says Sidi Mohamed Ould Youba, the adjunct director for the Ahmed Baba Institute, Timbuktu’s largest library and conservator of manuscripts. “When I handle a manuscript, I think about the rich African past. We had a long history, with a big advantage compared with other countries, including those in Europe. The Westerners like to think they can come here and tell us about good governance, but we were already writing about good governance back in the 16th century.”

Nobody knows how many manuscripts might be tucked away in cardboard boxes or steel trunks in the mud-walled homes of Timbuktu. But tens of thousands of manuscripts have been identified, and thousands have been designated for conservation or repair, funded by Western, Middle Eastern, and African foundations, and carefully preserved by Malian artisans and experts.

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