An African proverb denoting how important history and information is to the Africans says; “when an elder dies, it’s like a library set ablaze”. It is believed that documenting Africa’s history was quite impossible as most commentators say African societies had no writing tradition. However, since the rediscovery of ancient books and manuscripts with some dating back to at least 8 century AD, this assertion has lost its value.
Over 250,000 old manuscripts from the libraries of Timbuktu were found. Interestingly, these manuscripts managed to survive this present-day Ethiopia.
More so, thousands of books, journals from the medieval Sudanese empire of Makuria, written in a minimum of eight different languages were dug out at the southern Egyptian site of Qasr Ibrim. Thousands of more old manuscripts have equally survived in the West African cities of Chinguetti, Walata, Oudane, Kano, and Agadez.
According to National Geographic, it states that an estimated 700,000 manuscripts have survived in the city of Timbuktu alone. Over 60 libraries in Timbuktu are still owned and managed by local families and institutions, some of which are collections that survived the turbulence through the environment , as well as the ravages from nature. A vivid example is the Ahmed Baba Institute , which was established in 1979, and named after the famous 16th/17th-century scholar, considered the greatest in Africa.
Today, the institute has just 30,000 manuscripts left, which are constantly being used as a study material, cataloged, and preserved, however, at the time of the French colonial administration of Timbuktu (1894-1959), many of the manuscripts were taking into custody and set alight by the invading colonialists. To this end, many families there have refused to grant access to researchers, fearing a repeat of the French treatment. Other manuscripts were lost due to climatic effects, such as drought, which led to many people burying them and fleeing.
Among the manuscripts that have survived are the following:
Key texts of Islam, including Korans, collections of hadiths (actions or sayings of the prophet), Sufi texts and devotional texts
Works of the Maliki school of Islamic law
Texts representative of the ‘Islamic sciences’, including grammar, mathematics, and astronomy
Original works from the region, including contracts, commentaries, historical chronicles, poetry, and marginal notes and jottings, which have proved to be a surprisingly fertile source of historical data.
Most of the manuscripts are kept for special reasons by the owners. For instance, many who hitherto claimed royalty have been discovered to be from the servile class based on the evidence from the manuscripts.
Other manuscripts have revealed the treachery of one family against another that might have happened, but still bearing significance to the present day. Such as disputed land and property ownership.
Although, most emerging generations still don’t know the importance of the manuscript . During colonial era, many of those in possession of the manuscripts kept them as secret or even had them buried.
Furthermore, French language was superimposed as the language of the region and instruction, meaning many owners lost their reading, interpreting ability and the manuscripts languages in which they were originally written in.