Scenes from the race for influence over Africa’s ancient written culture.
The evening light throws pink feathers across the sky. A herd of goats sends dust spiralling into the air and as it settles, a sand-coloured twilight descends on the sand-coloured city. In front of the mud construction of the Sankore mosque, men lie chatting in the sand. It absorbs their voices. Timbuktu sinks murmuring into an early night.
Somewhat incongruously, we arrive by plane. Timbuktu, in the east of Mali, on the southernmost edge of the Sahara, the eternal European metaphor for the back of beyond, for the unreachable. Not far from here, the paths that head for another form of unreachable begin, the paths of migration to Europe, through the deadly reaches of the desert. It all depends on which part of the world you chose to construct your myths from: this is Timbuktu’s story.
One thing it certainly is not is the end of the world. For centuries, Timbuktu was a centre of the southern hemisphere, a stronghold of trade, an Islamic university city. Where the Niger Delta met the desert, the paths of ages crossed: from the North came the caravans, over the river came gold from West Africa. And after the merchants came scholars; Timbuktu was a cosmopolitan city. Our men murmuring into the evening are lying in the exact spot where West Africa’s Quartier Latin lay in the 15th century, or to be more precise, a Quartier Arabe with 25,000 students. Almost the population of Timbuktu today.
Deceptive, this sand-coloured silence, the sense of being lost to the world. With a stoic pride the inhabitants of Timbuktu register the recent flurry of interest in something that has always been theirs: the oldest library south of the Sahara. Its Arab manuscripts dating back to the 13th century have brought state presidents, scholars, representatives of major foundations traipsing awkwardly through Timbuktu’s sand to see them. Over 100,000 manuscripts on Islamic law, philosophy, medicine, astronomy, on termite-eaten parchment, on gazelle hide even.
There is no room for all this erudition in today’s image of Africa. Which is why, opposite the Sankore mosque, in the light of a single, precious floodlight, stands a fancy new research centre, beamed as if by magic into the sparse historical settings. Elegant, air-conditioned, mud hut meets modernism. A gift from South Africa, a gift from rich to poor Africa – so that the continent can look back on its history with pride.