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An Interview with the Timbuktu Heritage Institute's Issa Mohamed

Back to the expedition

NPR's Alex Chadwick: What were you doing in the United States before you came back to Mali?

IM: That time I created my own corporation.

AC: That was Amtech?

IM: That is Amtech Africa. American Technologies for Africa.

AC: How long had you been running that firm when you came back?

IM: I had been running Amtech Africa since 1998. It's an import-export and consulting corporation.

AC: Before that you had worked for Cellular One and for another company?

IM: Before that I worked for Cellular One in San Francisco back in 1987-88. I had the privilege to be part of a team that promoted cellular phones for the first time in the Bay area.

AC: When was it that you told your wife, "I'm not happy doing this, I want to go back to Mali and look around." Was that 2000?

IM: Yes, back in 2000. I am largely grateful to America. I have to be this way. I met with very beautiful, interesting people who have made things very easy for me. However, at a certain point I asked myself what's meaningful for me in life? And this is where my whole cultural heritage started surfacing. This is where I spoke to my wife and I said that I feel I need to do something. I need to do something that will connect my experience in America with the needs of the people back in Africa, back in Mali.

AC: Did you know about all the manuscripts in Timbuktu then?

IM: I had an idea about the legacy of Timbuktu. Before going to the United States for education, I was teaching history and geography so I had that knowledge of Timbuktu but I did not realize the complexity and the amount of volumes of manuscripts in Timbuktu. It was in 1999 when I went to Timbuktu on a pilgrimage that I stumbled upon this entire legacy.

AC: How did you find it?

IM: That's the most interesting and amazing part. I went to Timbuktu on a pilgrimage in 1999 so the minute I walked in to Jingarey Ber -- this is the biggest mosque, and it also used to be part of the University of Timbuktu ...

AC: So it's the mosque, the biggest Islamic mosque in Timbuktu?

IM: Yes. So, I was there and suddenly the Imam, the religious leader of the mosque, Abderahman Assuyiti, walked toward me and said, "We know that God is going to send us some help." Suddenly he started showing me the manuscripts, the sacred sites (Jingarey Ber is one of the World Heritage sites, which has been classified by UNISCO as a cultural heritage site). So this is how we went around the city and he started presenting the other private libraries. Then we went to Ahmed Baba Center, that you have seen.

AC: This is the learning center and library in Timbuktu, Ahmed Baba?

IM: That is correct.

AC: That must've been a powerful moment for you, when the Imam said, "We know that God is going to send us some help," and here you are. Did you feel that you were equal to what he was implying?

IM: First I was perplexed. I said why me? And especially when I was dressed like anyone else. I had my Tuareg outfit and things.

AC: You were wearing traditional clothing? Robes, turbans?

IM: Traditional clothing, robes and turbans and so forth. In that crowd, he just walked straight to me.

AC: Did he know whom you were?

IM: No. We did not know each other before then.

AC: What did you think?

IM: I said maybe this is my mission. This is what's going to connect my experience, the experience that I acquired in America, with Mali, with these cultures that are on the verge of disappearing. Something needs to be done about these cultures.

AC: It's a great honor to be asked to do something like that, but once you started going around the city, seeing all these private libraries, seeing the condition they are in, it's a huge task. Many of them are in pretty poor condition and they're getting worse. What do you do to take that on?

IM: This has created the opportunity for me to apply my knowledge, and by being educated in America I came to know men and women who have met challenges greater than 700,000 volumes and they have found a way to do their jobs, so this is really the credit I'm giving to America by allowing me to realize that 700,000 is a huge task, but one of the things I learned in management is that there is always a way out when we really have the will, the determination, the knowledge, there is always a way out.

AC: What is your plan? How are you going about saving these manuscripts and saving the cultural heritage of Timbuktu?

IM: I created the Timbuktu Heritage Institute, which is a non-profit organization based in California. And, second, I realized I needed a network of institutions, individuals, non-profit organizations, local structures and networks in Africa, in Timbuktu. This is what I have been working on since 1999. I also got the help of a good friend who is presently the vice president of the Timbuktu Heritage Institute, Larry Child. He's heading our office in Boston. Larry Child spent a lot of time in West Africa, particularly in Mali, and Burkina Faso, establishing NGOs, local organizations, to help grass-roots initiatives in Mali. That was a great help, to find a counterpart, to find a friend, to find a brother, to find an ally, who is an American and who has been tackling this problem of development in Africa. When I called him he said, "Yes, Issa, you know, I have been searching all this time that I have been in Africa for something that can trigger the grass-roots economic development in Mali and by talking to you I now realize that it is the cultural heritage of Mali."

AC: What are these manuscripts? What's in these manuscripts?

IM: That's a very beautiful question. The manuscripts of Timbuktu are a legacy of writings of African scholars from the 9th to the 19th century. The manuscripts and the books of Timbuktu cover subjects such as mathematics, physics, chemistry, astronomy, Islamic sciences, and most importantly, the manuscripts cover treaties.

AC: Treaties?

IM: Yes treaties. On peace, good governance, conflict resolutions, cultural diversity, how to live together, although we are different, how to take that difference and make it something great that we can all benefit from. By preserving the manuscripts of Timbuktu we are also preserving a message of peace, a message of love, and a message of how to live together. And this is also one of the aspects of the project that we would really like to share. Not only with the Malian authorities, the Malian people, but also with our friends in the U.S., in Europe, and around the world.

AC: Do you think people are aware that Africa has a heritage of great libraries and science reaching back to the 9th century?

IM: The academic intelligentsia, and people who have traveled to Mali do. Right now we have a lot of American friends and allies who travel extensively to Mali. As these people come in contact with these cultures, they take back with them the notion that there are great cultures in Africa, in Mali, that are as equally important as any culture we have in the West, in Asia, or anywhere in the world. Yes, definitely there is knowledge out there about this legacy of Mali, of Timbuktu, about the University of Timbuktu. We have also some professors from the U.S., from Norway, from Europe, who have been involved with this legacy. According to them, the historians of today are in a position to rewrite the history of Africa based on these manuscripts. This is in opposition to the notion that Africa has no history, Africa has no written records. The discovery of the manuscripts of Timbuktu is sending a message contrary to the prevailing and existing image about Africa. Today in Timbuktu we are in possession of manuscripts and books that testify that Africa does have a history and Africa does have written records, which are the hallmark of civilization.

AC: What is your goal, what is your hope for this project?

IM: We have three goals. One is to preserve these manuscripts, as well as the related sacred sites. The manuscripts are decaying. We have the termites, the climate, poor conditions, and the most alarming threat to these manuscripts is their illegal trafficking. The manuscripts are being sold to tourists and professors for subsistence money. These are manuscripts that contain very valuable information. We have seen cases where the manuscripts of Timbuktu were used to raise thousands, if not millions of dollars in the U.S. to benefit Western universities as opposed to the descendants and the people of Timbuktu. One of our goals is to preserve these manuscripts, to promote the message of peace, tolerance, good governance, conflict resolution, and cultural diversity, which is contained in these manuscripts. And second, to apply the knowledge that is contained in these manuscripts to the modern-day development schemes in Africa. And we have seen that great efforts have been made in Africa and in developing Africa. There have been successes. However the process of developing Africa could go faster if we reconnect Africans with their cultures, with their past. We should draw from these cultures vital energies to be combined with IT information so that Africa can be compelled on its own path of development.

AC: When you talk about taking these manuscripts and actually using them for benefiting Westerners, are you talking about the guy from the University of Illinois?

IM: There is the professor of the University of Illinois.

AC: Professor Stewart?

IM: No, not Professor Stewart. That is Professor John Hunwick.

AC: From the University of Illinois?

IM: Exactly.

AC: What did he do?

IM: He used the manuscripts of Timbuktu to attract funding for his project. He has written a proposal about the manuscripts of Timbuktu and raised some money from those manuscripts, and opened an Institute of African Islamic Thought in Northwestern Illinois. He did help a little bit with the Ahmed Baba Center and Mamma Haidara Library, but the benefits he accrued from these manuscripts are really far greater than what he has given back to the community.

I would say the benefits that he and his institute have gained from the manuscripts of Timbuktu, or his association with the manuscripts of Timbuktu is far great than what the people of Timbuktu have received. I give you an example. Professor John Hunwick has written two proposals. One proposal for the Ford Foundation in Lagos, Nigeria, which resulted in a grant of I believe (U.S.) $150,000 or (U.S.) $100,000. That grant was given back to Ahmed Baba Center. He also used the same Timbuktu manuscript to get a grant from Ford Foundation in the U.S. If it's not $1 million, then it's very close to $1 million. This information was obtained from proposals written by Professor Hunwick and this is what he has said himself. We are happy these professors are actually interested. He did say some very good things about this legacy. I would like to give him credit for coming up on these good rare manuscripts and for him to promote their legacy. These manuscripts have a scholarly value, they have a diplomatic value and economic value.

AC: Your long-range goal for the project, if you could just sum that up.

IM: My long-range goal for this project is to rehabilitate the legacy of Timbuktu, re-open the University of Timbuktu, so that it becomes a research center for all the students and professors around the world. Not only resurrect the University of Timbuktu, but also resurrect its original methods of teachings, which are really very important in today's schemes of development in Africa, and particularly in Mali. One aspect that I really appreciate about the traditional methods of Timbuktu, or the University of Timbuktu, is that before the student graduates, the university makes sure the student has mastered some sort of trade so that right from the get-go the student becomes independent and knows how to provide for himself or for herself. And back in the 12th century they had these trade workshops where you go if you are making shoes or you want to learn navigation on the river or in the desert or business, then you were taken in by one of the businessmen, and then you become an intern. As you are going through the university, you have the chance to apply what you are learning. This is something we have lost in our nowadays education system. Today, in Mali, a student will be go through school until graduation from university without practicing what he has learned. With a diploma, the same student suddenly becomes an expert without practice. This is the tragedy that Africa is facing.

AC: Is Mali calling so powerfully that you will now come back here, relocate in Timbuktu, and leave your home in California? Or will you try to live in both worlds?

IM: I belong to both worlds. Part of me is Malian, part of me is Tuareg, part of me is African, and part of me is also American. I do not believe that my wanting to help Mali will necessarily mean giving up my citizenship, or I have to choose either Mali or the U.S., especially at a time when the world is becoming a global village where you can have your Starbucks coffee in San Francisco and have your dinner in Bamako, Mali. I hope that my position reflects my own thoughts that Africa does have great cultures, but America also does have great cultures, and great initiatives. If these two are combined, then the whole humanity will benefit from this meeting of cultures, from this marriage of cultures. I hope this is what my initiatives reflect.

AC: Almost all of these manuscripts are written in Arabic, correct?

IM: Yes.

AC: There's an Islamic base to most of the manuscripts, yes?

IM: Correct.

AC: At a time when Islam is really being questioned in the West, do you feel a special significance to what you're doing, and to the importance of these manuscripts?

IM: Yes, Alex, especially nowadays the way Islam has been viewed. I am sure for yourself, you have seen how tolerant the Islam we have in Africa is. As Muslims in Africa we do believe the best way to convey Islam is by your own perfect and good character. And in Africa we have an Islam that is very tolerant, an Islam that makes room for cultural diversity, that honors every citizen, and we also know that even in the Koran there is no compulsion in Islam. So it is something that a human being or a person will willingly come to because they have seen some positive characteristics in it. So this is why we are trying to share with the world the message of peace, of tolerance, conflict resolution, good governance, and cultural diversity that is really contained in these manuscripts of Timbuktu. We do believe in peace, we do believe in sharing, we do believe in love, and we do believe in creating partners. You see we don't have to be the same or look like the same or think the same to live together. As long as we can see our comparative advantages and from there we can work and create a society where we can freely be in Washington, D.C., enjoying the beauties of Washington, D.C. or in Timbuktu also enjoying the cultures of Timbuktu.

AC: When these manuscripts were finding their way to Timbuktu, or being created in Timbuktu, what was Timbuktu like 1,000 years ago?

IM: A thousand years ago Timbuktu was a very alive and jubilant city. Timbuktu was a city of knowledge and Timbuktu was a city of trade, of commerce. But the most important thing in Timbuktu was its multicultural composition because people of different walks came to Timbuktu. The Arabs, the Tuaregs, the Amazigh, the Berbers, the Fulani, the Songhai, the Mandinkas, all converged to Timbuktu to create a civilization of tolerance, to create a civilization of understanding.

AC: What were they all doing there? Why Timbuktu?

IM: Timbuktu was also a place of peace, and Timbuktu was a place of knowledge, a center of learning, and also a center of trade. We all went to Taoudenni and saw the most important traded commodity in this part of the world, which is the salt from Taoudenni. Not only do we have knowledge traded in Timbuktu, but we also have commodities such as salt and gold, and other products coming from both North Africa, the Mediterranean, as well Sub-Sahara Africa, or West Africa. Timbuktu at that time was a very prosperous city. The rulers of Timbuktu (both the Mandinka emperor Kan-Kan Musa, also known as the emperor Mansa Musa, and the emperor of Songhay Askia Mohamed) created a condition where scholars were honored and appreciated for their contribution, for contributing to peace in the region.

AC: But what's the flow of goods coming from the North and the South? What are the things happening there that create the conditions for a center of learning to come about?

IM: There is a Timbuktu proverb that says that camels loaded with goods came from the North, and canoes loaded with goods came from the South, meaning Sudanic Africa, and knowledge resides in Timbuktu. From there we can see how the caravan will be carrying goods from Northern Africa. This is clothing and all the other beautiful things the Mediterranean business people were manufacturing, plus the salt that was coming from Taoudenni. They were all traded in Timbuktu. Timbuktu was a hub before entering the Sahara, and then from the Sudanic Africa we also have gold, which the salt was traded for. Then with the caravan we have books coming from Northern Africa that created a civilization where learning and trade went hand in hand. That was the beauty of Timbuktu in the 12th century and this is how in the 12th century Timbuktu, with a population of 120,000 people, had a population of 25,000 students and 180 Koranic schools in Timbuktu and around Timbuktu.

Timbuktu Heritage Institute president, Issa Mohamed.
Photo: Alex Chadwick

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