Mali is an undiscovered museum. History lies thick under the terracotta sand, stacked in caves, bound in wooden boxes and wrapped in leather; barely recognised as treasure while locals struggle with the more pressing daily issues of subsistence. The trickle of global capitalism hardly flows into the remote, desertified regions of Northern Africa. Apart from the ubiquitous mobile phone branding. Timbuktu announces itself with a cellphone network billboard. An aura of mystery hangs around the name, but the place itself is pretty bald. Port Nolloth of the Sahara. Part anti-climax, part unpretentious Saharan trading post. There is an air of vagabond and banditry; trade and commerce in the desert. Dark blue turbans and boubas are the uniform. This is the land of Tuareg, desert nomads, strong, sweet tea poured from height and camels.
So why is South Africa spending more than R50 million of our tax money to develop a state-of-the-art research facility and museum in Timbuktu? The answer can be summed up in two beautiful words: African Renaissance.
The story goes like this. Thabo Mbeki arrives in Timbuktu on one of his African Union gigs. VIP Malian dignitaries bring him to the Ahmed Baba Institute where he sees some of the ancient, crumbling manuscripts that make up the remnants of the Timbuktu library. Back in the day Timbuktu, was an important seat of culture, philosophy and advanced learning dating back to the Songhay Empire around 1200AD and home to the ancient University of Sankore, amongst others, which at its height served 25,000 scholars, intellectuals and an army of scribes and bookbinders. Our President takes one look at these parchments and recognises that here in the Saharan desert is tangible proof of Africa’s intellectual heritage. He declares the manuscripts to be among the continent's "most important cultural treasures".
The Timbuktu libraries suggest a culture of intellectualism that rebuffs the old colonial misconception that the African continent had no centres of advanced learning or even written languages.
Dr Shamil Jeppie of the University of Cape Town puts it more directly in a BBC interview: "People ask me if these manuscripts are the work of Arab scholars, but no, they were Africans."
"This was not just a question of us making a small contribution to helping Mali preserve this fantastic history,” Said Minister Pahad in the same report. “But also to help raise the consciousness of our own people about our own continent, our own history, our own rich culture and traditions.”
“We want to build an Alexandria for black Africa,” Mohamed Dicko, director of Timbuktu’s Ahmed Baba Institute, told the New York Times. “This is our chance to regain our place in history.”
The South Africa – Mali project is by far the most exciting thing to happen in Timbuktu since the Moroccan invasion of 1591 kickstarted the city’s decline.
But it’s not only the South Africans who have an interest in what is represented in Timbuktu’s scholarly lineage. Libya’s Colonel Muammar Gadaffi is planning on upgrading a small Timbuktu hotel into a ‘mega resort’ with swimming pools and conference centers as well as digging a new canal to connect Timbuktu with the Niger River. Timbuktu’s resurgence is being fueled by a diplomatic tussle for influence in the African Union between South Africa and Libya – each promoting their vision for the African Renaissance. On the sideline charities, governments and NGOs from Europe, the United States and the Middle East have channeled millions of Rands into the preservation of Timbuktu family libraries.
After inspecting the progress at the construction site and the scrolls at the Ahmed Baba institute we adjourn to a local hotel to feast on slow roasted goat and cous-cous, washed down with ice cold Coca-Cola. After lunch, I take a stroll in the stifling afternoon heat, stick my head into a small tent along the roadside and find a blacksmith polishing a huge Tuareg blade. He flashes a smile of broken teeth, I snap a picture at which he demands “cadeau!” bony hand outstretched. I fish some loose change from my pocket and leave in peace.
As our plane lifts off and does a wide arc exposing the dishevelled sandy town, I am reminded of a comment made by Malian historian and archivist Abdel Kader Haidara to the New York Times. “I am a historian, I know from my research that great cities seldom get a second chance. Yet here we have a second chance because we held on to our past.”
Despite the Saharan reality, or perhaps because of it, Timbuktu remains enigmatic. It’s a sparkling word on a world traveller’s checklist; a mysterious, connotative gemstone that rolls off the tongue. Timbuktu, part fantasy, part inaccessibility. A place worth visiting, only just to say you’ve been there. And still there is something more. Something magnetic beneath the neglected sandy streets and crumbling buildings.
In the words of Abdel Kader Haidara, “Timbuktu is coming back. It will rise again.”