Africa’s Written Tradition

The idea that Africa had no written literary tradition is so ingrained in everyone’s minds, it is rarely challenged. In an IHT piece, Philip Smucker describes a new project that seeks to restore thousands of manuscripts from Africa’s so-called oral tradition, which were shared with readers using the bookmobiles of the time.

From West Africa’s Atlantic coast across the sandy expanses to the White Nile in the east, camels laden with chests full of books and manuscripts trekked from one oasis to the next. In caravan cities like Timbuktu, tanners, leather workers and scribes worked to replenish the rich stock of political treatises, scientific manuals, law books and sacred texts.

Many of the manuscripts were lost during the colonial era, but those that remain are particularly relevant. In them, one can find testament of an African tradition in Islam that is distinct from the Arab tradition.

Scholars today argue that study of the ancient texts will help the region’s people reconnect with a lost identity. “Our work is both urgent and necessary as a means of recovering our collective memory,” said [library director] Abdelkader Haidara.

Readers outside Timbuktu may get a chance to see the manuscripts as well, as some of them are being digitized.