The legendary manuscripts of the city of Timbuktu really exist.

These priceless treasures of knowledge which date from the 16th to the 18th centuries , represent the work of the era’s leading thinkers, and are classified as “patrimony of mankind” by UNESCO. They are in danger of disappearing. No one knows how many of the famous manuscripts of Timbuktu remain, though there are rumored to be several tens of thousands.

There is a lot of money circulating around them, ostensibly for their restoration and preservation—money from UNESCO and other international bodies, NGOs and governments. A lot of money spent without any concrete outcome. As always, the poor people—the guardians of this cultural birthright—do not see any benefit, and the results are only in the form of official reports.


Despite all the money pouring in, officially with the aim of restauring the manuscripts, the effort so far has been a disaster, and the people directly concerned, the owners of these treasures, do not gain anything from this windfall. The politicians of the city grab everything. The results are comparable to the garden of the French people (see the previous blog post).

But the real pity is that the protection of these manuscripts has been an almost complete failure. They continue to deteriorate in old iron crates; and in some of the well-known local hotels, any tourist can walk away with an authentic manuscript for a paltry price.


Manuscript proposed to me in one of these hotels

The current owners of the manuscripts are the descendants of the wise and holy ones who were living in the time of the splendor of Timbuktu—when the city was the beacon of Islam and students came even from Mecca to study there. They have learned to be wary of Europeans who ask to remove the manuscripts to restore them or who offer them projects and funding. Their books have been taken away from them so many times, and there is no way to reclaim your property when you are poor. Justice is only for the rich.

I was compelled to try to save what remains of a treasure that loses its value with each passing year, as the manuscripts inexorably deteriorate or are sold away to tourists. So I came up with a completely new idea, democratic and innovative, and proposed it to the owners of the manuscripts—the “librarians,” as they are called. I also brought the means to achieve my plan.

“Free yourself from the mind set of Westerners who have trapped you with their brainwashing,” I told them, “These old pieces of paper have no value; their contents are their real value. Your manuscripts disintegrate in your trunks; soon you will have nothing but dust in your hands. Save their contents before it is too late! Scan all your documents.”

They replied that they did not have the expensive scanning machines that the NGOs use. Westerners say that digitalization can be done only with these costly machines; otherwise the documents will be damaged.
“It’s too expensive,” they told me. (Much of the population lives on half a euro per day.)
“It is not true,” I replied. “These are lies with which they trapped you. To scan the manuscripts all you need is a €100 camera. The photos that you take are enough to save the contents.”

Then they objected, “But storing the images would take many CDs, and these are expensive.” (A CD costs a local day’s wage.)
“It is not necessary to use CDs,” I answered. “An external hard drive of 500 gigabytes, which costs €100, can store a million photographs. That is a whole library.”
They argued again, “European specialists have told us that the flash of the cameras will damage the manuscripts.” “Just take the photos without using the flash,” I told them, laughing, “in the daylight. It will work perfectly.”

One of my Italian friends used to say, ”There are two king of people in the world: those who make problems and those who resolve them.” The librarians did not seem keen on finding solutions.


“I have brought you a photo camera and three hard drives of 300 gigabytes,” I told them. “You can start to computerize your libraries without the need of foreigners.”
I tried to convince them to save the contents of all of their books as soon as possible, because their destruction is continuous and unstoppable. Once saved in computers, the manuscripts can be sold thousands of times instead of just once. Tourists could buy a USB key to download a book. I also promised to help them build a website like my own online shop. Instead of selling perfumes, they would sell their books in PDF format. I already bought them two online shops: librairiedetombouctou.com and timbuktulibrary.com.
An online store is accessible to the entire world, without time zone or geographic limitations, anytime during day or night. Money will pour into their bank account instead of into the politicians’ pockets. They don’t even have to send anything—customers will download their purchased books from the Internet. Everything is electronic.
They have virtually nothing to do, except to photograph as many books as possible, as quickly as possible. I said I would help them to realize the online store, I would teach them how to make it work, and every penny will go to them.
I will leave everything here—camera, hard drives, and instructions. All the photos of the books will be under their control. I am not trying to cheat them as they have been cheated so many times before.

My librarian friends finally seemed interested. I convinced them. The idea is strikingly simple and direct. No one from the NGOs had ever proposed to them anything that was so clearly in their interest.

I taught them how to photograph the manuscripts quickly and professionally, and I gave them the means to do it. They have one month to photograph 300 books. If they complete this task, I’ll leave all the material with them and begin to build the site and put it in their name. Now it’s up to them.


Previouse episode: The court of Timbuktu                                           Next episode: The hospital of the poors


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