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The Documentary “The Lost Libraries of Timbuktu” Essay


Where is the narrator/reporter from?

The narrator is Aminatta Forna, a Scottish author, academic, and television commentator who grew up in Sierra-Leone.

Where is Timbuktu located?

Timbuktu is located in west-central modern-day Mali. The historic and exotic city is positioned strategically north of the large Niger River on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert.

Why do we associate the name Timbuktu with remoteness?

From the early days of European exploration, when people attempted to travel to the city of Timbuktu, which was described in legends, the journey to reach it had been difficult. The journey required the crossing of rivers and deserts, along with violent encounters with local tribes, which overall took years and earned Timbuktu the remoteness reputation. In modern-day, the journey still takes considerable time, and numerous methods of transport before reaching the destination.

When did the custodians of these manuscripts begin to bring them into the open to share them with the public? Why so recently? (this answer might come a bit later).

Mali was a French colony for a prolonged period. After the country’s independence did the custodians begin to feel safe to share the manuscripts with the public.

When did those families start collecting the manuscripts? Why are they so valuable to us today?

The families began collecting manuscripts more than eight centuries ago. The documents offer a completely revolutionary understanding of African culture and history.

What kind of knowledge do these manuscripts reveal? (fields of knowledge, etc).

Manuscripts cover a variety of subjects and sciences including medicine, astronomy, and theology.

Why is there so much writing in the margins of the books?

The text written in the margins was added after the original text of the manuscripts. It served as either commentary on the original text or added completely new information since the paper was such a rare commodity in the ancient times.

What other surprising info can be found in these texts?

Several random “lifehacks” can be found in the manuscripts. The documentary provides an example of a recipe for a primitive toothpaste using coal which cleaned teeth and got rid of bad breath.

In what language are they written and why?

The majority of the text is written in Arabic since many of the early writing were religious works. It was the spread of Islam from the Arabian peninsula which led to the founding of Timbuktu and the beginnings of its literary traditions, thus becoming a primary language for a time.

Which African kingdom was in power when these manuscripts were produced?

The Ghana Empire was in power when the first spread of Islamic scholars began. The manuscripts were then written during the reign of the Mali Empire with Timbuktu as one of its major urban centers.

How many manuscripts exist in the Ahmadu Bamba Institute and how may show up each week?

The Ahmadu Bamba Institute was set up in 1973 to store Mali’s national collection of manuscripts. It holds over 40,000 manuscripts, with more than 700 arriving each week.

Identify three challenges that lie ahead for manuscript conservationists

  1. Due to the sheer amount of manuscripts as well as the difficulty in handling and translation which requires expertise, thousands of them have not been read or even examined.
  2. Conservation of the documents to ensure that those which are readable are in good condition and can be preserved for future study.
  3. Cataloging and digitization of manuscripts to share with the global scholar and academic bodies.

Identify three blows Mali was dealt over the centuries from invaders

  1. Invasion by Morocco at the end of the 16th century
  2. Violent fighting between fundamentalist and radical Islamic sects creating social instability
  3. French colonization which used Mali purely for resource and labor, greatly suppressing the local culture as well as taking the manuscripts as spoils of victory.

Why do you think the Imam decided to keep the manuscripts and not share them with the public?

Being a keeper of the manuscripts is both a family tradition and a respected role in which the individuals promise to protect them at all costs. After the turbulent history of the region and still a relative lack of stability, there may be an inherent distrust of these keepers to hand over such treasured collections to the state.

As more and more manuscripts come out into the open, what do you think will be the impact on African history?

It will have profound impacts as the manuscripts provide the origins of African history as well as promote the foundations of cultural traditions, revealing key details about the ancient civilization.

What was this region of Africa like in 500 BC?

The region was densely urbanized and well-developed due to the nearby location of the Niger River.

What is the American scholar learning from archeological digs? (about the landscape, the community, the kind of labor done there).

The digs demonstrate a consistently urban landscape along the borders of the Niger River. The communities lived together peacefully for centuries. They were interdependent, with each one having a unique specialization of farming, fishing, or craftsmanship.

What do we learn about the origins of the name Timbuktu? (there may be 2 explanations).

  1. Named after a slave woman Tinbuktu who was left to supervise the Tourag provisions by a well.
  2. Has its origins in the ancient languages which translate as a built-in place of or a wall in a dune due to the dip in elevation of the landscape where the city stood.

Who are the Tourag?

Primary ethnic group inhabiting the Sahara region for centuries which controlled the trade routes through the desert.

What commodities/trade was important in the region in the 15th century?

The trade from North Africa brought fabrics, glass, jewelry, dates, tobacco, and salt. Meanwhile, the trade from the South brought drink cereals, honey, shea butter, gold, and slaves. Books eventually began to be traded as well.

Draw three comparisons between what you have learned in this documentary and what you learned from the epic Sunjiata. Review your notes. You might think about the role of oral tradition in preserving cultural memory

  1. Methods of passing culture and history may differ substantially between manuscripts and oral tales, but they strongly complement each other in establishing the truth about Africa’s history.
  2. The epic recalls the history of the Mali empire as well as the ethnic groups and their traditions, including family structures. Meanwhile, from the documentary, we know that family structures contributed significantly to the development and preservation of literacy in Mali, serving as protectors of the manuscripts.
  3. The Epic describes a story of familial and kingdoms being at war, while the documentary highlights the peacefulness of the region which prospered on trade and scholarship rather than war, even in the early days of the civilization.

Return to our discussion/reading of stereotypes — how does this video alter your perception of Africa as a place of “mud huts”? What other stereotypes do the manuscripts change in your mind?

The documentary demonstrates the significant cultural, scholarly, and literacy foundations of Africa. The manuscripts prove that Africa was a progressive continent, with cities such as Timbuktu leading the efforts in many fields and sciences. The stereotype that Africa has always been in poverty or war was also changed as manuscripts and archaeological evidence suggests that the region was prosperous and peaceful before the European colonization. Its people are aware of the rich culture and seek the thirst for knowledge found in these manuscripts. It is possible that given the proper resources, the region can easily become prosperous again (C. Â-Re, 2015).


C. Â-Re. (2015). . Web.

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"The Documentary "The Lost Libraries of Timbuktu"." IvyPanda, 5 Dec. 2020, ivypanda.com/essays/the-documentary-the-lost-libraries-of-timbuktu/.

1. IvyPanda. "The Documentary "The Lost Libraries of Timbuktu"." December 5, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/the-documentary-the-lost-libraries-of-timbuktu/.


IvyPanda. "The Documentary "The Lost Libraries of Timbuktu"." December 5, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/the-documentary-the-lost-libraries-of-timbuktu/.


IvyPanda. 2020. "The Documentary "The Lost Libraries of Timbuktu"." December 5, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/the-documentary-the-lost-libraries-of-timbuktu/.


IvyPanda. (2020) 'The Documentary "The Lost Libraries of Timbuktu"'. 5 December.

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