UNESCO holds international consultation on ancient manuscripts in the Sahel

The protection, accessibility and promotion of ancient manuscripts can serve as a basis for building just, inclusive and peaceful societies in the Sahel.

This was a key message during an international consultation on the safeguarding, accessibility and promotion of ancient manuscripts in the Sahel held from 22 to 24 January in the Malian capital, Bamako.

The consultation, organized through the Memory of the World Programme, in partnership with Mali’s ministries of National Education, Higher Education and Scientific Research as well as of Culture, brought together about sixty experts from Africa, America, Asia, the Middle East and Europe.

A key outcome of the consultation was a set of recommendations focused on better utilization of the Sahelian ancient manuscripts and promoting public access to the information and knowledge contained within such manuscripts through scientific research.

These recommendations will be further elaborated into an action plan by a task force set up for the purpose.

Key officials in attendance included:

  • Mr Moez Chakchouk, UNESCO’s Assistant Director-General for Communication and Information.
  • Prof. Mahamoudou Famanta, Minister of National Education, Higher Education and Scientific Research.
  • Ms Mbaranga Gasarabwe, Deputy Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali and Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator.
  • Mr Dimitri Sanga, Director of the Multi-sectorial Regional Office of UNESCO for West Africa in Dakar.
  • Dr Oumar Keita, Ambassador and Permanent Delegate of Mali to UNESCO.

Other officials included Ms. Diallo Kadia Maiga, General Secretary of the National Commission and President of the scientific committee of the international consultation; Mr. Edmond Moukala, Representative of UNESCO in Mali; Mr. Fackson Banda, Chief of the Documentary Heritage Unit in charge of UNESCO’s MoW Programme; Mr. Adama Samassékou, Cultural Advisor, Presidency of the Republic of Mali; and Ichaka Sangaré, President of the Commission for Education, Culture, New technologies for Information and Communication of the National Assembly of Mali.

Also in attendance were technical and financial partners, representatives of families who hold and manage manuscript collections as well as national, regional and international experts.

In his opening address, Mr. Chakchouk stressed that UNESCO is initiating a specific global project dedicated to the identification, digitization and accessibility of documentary heritage which is particularly in danger.

He said: “This is an ambitious objective which could be achieved through an international partnership within the framework of the UNESCO 2015 Recommendation concerning the preservation of, and access to, documentary heritage including digital heritage.

He added that UNESCO has an important unifying role to play in this regard, noting that “we must place our efforts in the Sahel within the broader framework of Agenda 2063, in particular with regard to Africa’s aspiration for a strong cultural identity, a heritage, common values and ethics.”

Prof. Mahamoudou Famanta recalled that the manuscripts remained unknown for a long time to the public, adding that “despite everything they represent for us and despite their scientific potential, the manuscripts remain insufficiently exploited because of several factors such as accessibility in particular. This scattering poses serious problems for researchers as well as for management bodies, hence the importance of finding ways and means for their digitization and putting them online according to standards shared by all.”

Ms. Gasarabwe, for her part, said: “From mathematics to science, including philosophy, grammar and theology, the ancient manuscripts of Mali cover a wide range of subjects which make them works of inestimable value, transmitted from one generation to the next, within families that hold them. The biggest challenge concerns the coherence of the actors’ vision and cultural goods in general. However, the United Nations system intends to support Mali in the scientific research and popularization of these manuscripts for the strengthening of national cohesion, tolerance and dialogue in a peaceful, united and prosperous Mali.”

Other highlights of the consultation included the sharing of experiences by stakeholders from different countries in terms of conservation, valuation and dissemination of ancient manuscripts. Added to this sharing were nuanced group discussions.

Key recommendations formulated included the following:

  • Updating legislative, regulatory and policy texts to address the emerging needs of the various stakeholders in the field of documentary heritage in the Sahel;
  • Promoting national and international norms and standards within the frameworks of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Africa Union’s Agenda 2063;
  • Fostering capacity building for holders and managers of ancient manuscripts, including digitizing such manuscripts for greater accessibility and promotion, where needed;
  • Taking measures to introduce documentary heritage, particularly the Sahelian ancient manuscripts, into educational curricula in schools and universities. An example in this regard is the unfolding cooperation between the UNESCO Bamako Office, MINUSMA and the Mali’s Ahmed Baba Institute for Advanced Studies and Islamic Research (IHERI-ABT), which will together pilot a training programme in codicology/cataloging, conservation and digitization.
  • Supporting the mobilization of financial resources within the Sahel itself for the protection and utilization of the ancient manuscripts, as a way of raising greater awareness of the importance of such manuscripts among the local populations;
  • Defining and implementing an economic model for the ancient manuscript that will maximize the benefit for the local holders and managers;
  • Putting in place a plan to reduce disparities in the conservation and management of ancient manuscripts between the different countries of the Sahel and within the same country;
  • Promoting the creation of a research unit on ancient manuscripts in higher education and scientific research institutions;
  • Soliciting UNESCO, through the Memory of the World Programme, and in consultation with governments and the various stakeholders, to take steps to set up a multi-stakeholder coordination mechanism on ancient manuscripts in the Sahel.

Mr Sanga, in his closing remarks, encouraged the Government of Mali to support UNESCO, through the Memory of the World Programme, in the finalization of the action plan.

He assured the participants that UNESCO would spare no effort to follow up on the recommendations elaborated at the consultation.

UNESCO’s Memory of the World (MoW), managed by the Documentary Heritage Unity (DHU), was set up in 1992 to identify documentary heritage of cultural significance, provide for its preservation, and enhance public access to it.