LIke me, I’m sure you were angered to hear of Islamists torching thousands of ancient manuscripts when they left Timbuktu (if you’re like me, this came after saying, “There’s a real place called Timbuktu?”). Well, there’s some good news:
Abba Alhadi has spent 40 of his 72 years on earth taking care of rare manuscripts. The illiterate old man, who walks with a cane and looks like a character from the Bible, was the perfect foil for the Islamists. They wrongly assumed that the city’s European-educated elite would be the ones trying to save the manuscripts, he said.
So last August, Alhadi began stuffing the thousands of books into empty rice and millet sacks.
At night, he loaded the millet sacks onto the type of trolley used to cart boxes of vegetables to the market. He pushed them across town and piled them into a lorry and onto the backs of motorcycles, which drove them to the banks of the Niger River.
From there, they floated down to the central Malian town of Mopti in a pinasse, a narrow, canoe-like boat. Then cars drove them from Mopti, the first government-controlled town, to Mali’s capital, Bamako, over 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) from here.
“I have spent my life protecting these manuscripts. This has been my life’s work. And I had to come to terms with the fact that I could no longer protect them here,” said Alhadi. “It hurt me deeply to see them go, but I took strength knowing that they were being sent to a safe place.”
It took two weeks in all to spirit out the bulk of the collection, around 28,000 texts housed in the old building covering the subjects of theology, astronomy, geography and more.
There was nothing they could do, however, for the 2,000 documents that had already been transferred to the new library, to its exhibition and restoration rooms, and to a basement vault. Cisse took solace knowing that most of the texts in the new library had been digitized.
Some texts were still lost. But tens of thousands were saved thanks to this man and others. I don’t know what award this make him eligible for but, whatever it is, he should get it. I’d say a Nobel, but I’d prefer an award that still has some meaning.