10 December 2004

A Lecture on Archival Heritage by Amadou Mahtar Mbow

Archival heritage in Africa, its significance, its different forms
A Lecture by Amadou Mahtar Mbow
Amadou-Mahtar M'Bow was born in 1921. After completing his higher education in Paris, he taught history and geography in Senegal, where he directed basic education from 1952 to 1957. Minister of Education and Culture during his country’s transitional period of internal autonomy (1957-1958), he resigned in order to engage in the struggle for independence. After this had been achieved, he became Minister of Education (1966-1968) and then of Cultural and Youth Affairs (1968-1970) and was a member of the National Assembly of Senegal. Elected to the Executive Board in 1966, he became Assistant Director-General for Education in 1970. Appointed Director-General in 1974, he was reappointed for a second term of office in 1980. (UNESCO archives)
In May 28, 2003, at the University of The Gambia’s amphitheatre in Banjul, Mr Mbow gave an extraordinary lecture on archival heritage in Africa. This was made possible through the dynamic Professor Edris Makward who was then Acting Vice Chancellor of the University. Some of those on the high table were Dr M. L. Sedat Jobe, who also worked for several years with UNESCO, Mr Akpan, JP and Registrar of the University, Professor Edris Makward, Mr Sulayman Faye, Co-ordinator Faculty of Economics and Management, The Deans of all the University Faculties and Mr Samba Jallow, the student representative. The lecture was chaired by Mr Lamin Jaiteh, Senior registrar. The lecture was attended by a cross-section of the student body, distinguish guests and the press.
Below is the full script of the lecture:


Archival information constitutes the foundation of all knowledge. It provides to the researcher, the teacher as well as the student all the elements needed to prepare their research work or courses or acquire the necessary knowledge for their training. It is indispensable to the political figure, the enterprise manager, the ordinary worker concerned with improvement, and even to anyone wishing to enrich his/her culture.
The archival heritage in Africa on which this presentation is based is so diverse and so complex that it would be difficult to touch on all its aspects here. Allow me therefore to elaborate on some reflections on its essential points and on some of the problems related to its identification, its conservation and its accessibility, relying on my personal experience rather than the compilation of the facts derived from systematically conducted research.
In a broader perspective, the archival heritage can be considered as all the inheritance of the past, enriched from generation to generation, and which is preserved and renewed by the men and women of today, for whose identity it constitutes an important part. In this way, the archival heritage gives its specificity to a people; it defines its cultural sphere, its type of civilisation. It is at the same time material and immaterial. It expresses through material and artistic creations, languages, different activities, modes of living, value systems, symbols and myths, which can vary from one society to the next.
If one considers that a document is the “thing that teaches or informs”, any inheritance of the past is a document because it carries a message, which is important to decode, in order to reach its real meaning and measure its significance. However, the notion of archival heritage, to be precise, applies generally to written texts. As written texts are not the only source of knowledge and mode of transmission of scholarship, it is necessary to rely on other types of documents, particularly when tracing back the past of Africa.
In the civilisation of sub-Saharan Africa where oral communication is predominant, information about the past necessitates reliance on non-written sources and in particular, on oral traditions. On these can be included the data provided by archaeology, linguistics, anthropology etc which constitutes unlimited sources of information.
To be reliable, however, oral traditions should be collected and used with rigor in line with the strict principles of all forms of scientific investigation. They should be studied comparatively and critically as all other documents of the same nature. Alex Hailey provided, in Roots, the beautiful link between oral tradition and other documented sources to trace back the saga of a family, originally from the Gambia.
Without minimising the importance of other forms through which archival heritage is expressed, the purpose of my presentation will focus on the written documentation.

Written Archival Heritage

The Written Archival Heritage is essentially represented in the form of manuscripts or books in libraries. In both cases, problems of identification arise as well as problems of collection, of conservation, of inventory and of accessibility for the different users, and for the public in general.

Documents in Arabic language.

As for the Sub-Saharan Africa, the written word only started to take form after Islamization. According to present sources as basis of our knowledge, this form started in sub-Sahara West Africa in the 10th and the 11th centuries. The oldest written documents, which began the era of written documentation, were in Arabic. Though they were works of North African and Sub-Saharan authors, the originals are found in most cases outside Africa but several translations, done particularly in Europe make them accessible to users in different European languages and in several research centers and libraries.
The best known are: the Tarikh El-Fattah of Kati and the Tarikh es-Soudan by Es Sa’di of the 16th century. They are works of scholars who were born and spent their lives in Africa, in Timbuktu to be precise. Other publications, however, give precious information on Sub Saharan Africa such as that of Ibn Haoukal (10th C), of El-Bakri (11th C), of Al-Idrissi (12th C), of Yacout Al-hamaoui (12th C), of Ibn Batouta, of Ibn Khaldoun and of El-Omari (14th C), of Leo the African, Hassan Al-Ouazzan, (early 16th C).
It would be fitting to make special mention of the works of a great scholar of Timbuktu, Ahmed Baba, a prisoner of Sultan Ahmed Al-Mansour, in Marrakech, following the Moroccan expedition against the Gao Empire at the end of the 16th century.
Ahmed Baba noted that, when the expeditionary force sent by the Saadian Sultan took over Timbuktu and its libraries, the sultan’s library, though one of the most modest contained more than 1600 works. I was privileged to see a few examples from the Nacri de Zagora library south of Ouarzazate.
The importance of these libraries, is prove enough of the intense intellectual activity which was developed in west Africa, becoming, through the centuries, a far-reaching cultural space with ties, not only with North Africa, but equally with the Middle East.
A flourishing literature in Arabic, or in African languages using Arabic characters, was developed there. They comprised diverse works from chronicles to poetry, from critical interpretations to jurisprudence, from legal commentaries to philosophical, linguistic and scientific essays etc. The use of Arabic became so standard that during the colonial conquest in the 19th century, the signed “treaties” between the colonial powers and the African political powers as well as the official exchanges between them were written in this language, particularly in the Senegambia region.
Even today, many Arabic manuscripts form part of a family archival heritage jealously guarded, which have, however, caused difficulties in their conservation and their accessibility for researchers.
Some of these manuscripts acquired by IFAN, before independence, figure in its collections. IFAN, the French Institute of Black Africa, have deployed at this period, with its territorial branches, considerable effort in the whole of the AOF so as to assure the collection, the conservation and the translation, not without some success.
Since independence, different centers continued the task, particularly the Ahmed Baba center in Timbuktu, which plays a pioneering role in this field. Foundations, like the Hamma Haidara and Kati foundation of Timbuktu, as well as some universities and Islamic studies centers in Nigeria and in Ghana, carry out, on their part, the collection and the safeguard of numerous manuscripts, becoming invaluable research tools, be it for the African or the Foreign researcher.
In West Africa, numerous manuscripts of value are conserved in Mali, Senegal, Niger, Nigeria, Ghana, and in the Gambia and in other parts of sub Saharan Africa. Families for whom these manuscripts constitute a precious heritage hold some.
Allow me to draw your attention to the invaluable manuscripts found in Mauritania. This country possesses written evidence of incomparable wealth notably in Chingueti, for which enormous efforts have been deployed, for several years now, so as to insure its inventory and preservation.
It is worth noting that most of the important manuscripts and books, in Arabic or African language using Arabic characters, were seized during the colonial rule in the 19th century. These important research materials for references are found in the archives and libraries of the former colonial powers namely the United Kingdom and France.
Among these documents, I would like to put special emphasis on the “Gironcourt collection” at the Institut de France’s library in Paris; a catalogue which existed as far back as the 1950s.
Catalogues, as well as reference materials from Arab sources on the History of Africa have been published by various authors and institutions. These materials can be found in Histoire Générale de l’Afrique (General History of Africa) in six volumes, compiled and published by UNESCO. The first volume was out for public consumption in 1980.
This publication looks at the historical record of the whole continent, from the origins to the Independence era. The work was done under the supervision of an International Scientific Committee and it is no doubt the most exhaustive synthesis of its time, with the participation of renowned experts from Africa and the other continents.

Written documents in European languages from the 15th Century to date

It is proved beyond any shadow of doubt that written documents in European languages, compiled from the middle of the 15th century to date, are the most important written archival heritage on Sub-Saharan Africa.
It is with the circumnavigation of the 15th century then the slave trade starting at the beginning of the 16th century and finally with the European colonisation in the 19th century that several written archival collections on Africa and Africans of an invaluable importance for the history of the continent was constituted.
The oldest of these documents describe the perceptions that the first Europeans who landed on the continent by sea had of the people and the countries. They describe in detail the way often brutal, in which the first relationships were established.
Specific examples can be found in L’Histoire des Indes (History of the Indies), in three volumes written by Bartolone de las Casas in 16th century. A recent translation in French appeared in September 2002 by Editions du Seuil in Paris. The original version was published by “Bibliotheca, Ayacucho, Caracao, Venezuela” in 1986 under the title Historia de las Indias.
In Volume III, one discovers an interesting narration of the preparation in 1444 of Lanzarote’s expedition and the arrival of the first Portuguese on the island of NAR, read Ndar, St-Louis (Sénégal).
Many of the navigators or their companions travelling along the coasts of Sub-Saharan African have given account of their journeys. Some of these accounts are translated and published, especially by IFAN (Dakar, Sénégal) well before the accession to independence.
The Portuguese Archives in Lisbon and the Spanish ones of the Casa de Contratacion in Seville are very rich in terms of research materials not only on Africa from the 15th century, but also on the Slave trade.
Portugal and Spain followed by The Netherlands, England, France and Denmark, whose public archives and sometimes private ones (archives owned by families, notary publics, companies) and libraries are well equipped with diverse research materials of invaluable importance. Liverpool in the UK, Nantes in France and Copenhagen in Denmark, to name but a few, have invaluable collection on African historiography. Very important research materials on the slave trade and the fate of African men and women in the lands of exile are also available on the American Continent in the USA, Mexico, Brazil, Venezuela and the Caribbean.
These European archives are unfortunately classified in such a way that a researcher, who is not initially warned, will find very difficult to consult. Documents are found in different sections without any special mention of their importance in relation to the slave trade. They are not classified in their thematic indexes.
At a meeting held in Copenhagen four to five years ago with European archivists within the framework of the UNESCO project entitled “The Slave route”, several of the archivists present made the pledge - for lack of putting together their archives - to facilitate at least their consultation, and above all, to prepare catalogues enabling an easy access to information. The Danish Archives are to be commended for being the only one with a catalogue where the researcher can find research material related to the slave trade in one particular section. As far as private archives are concerned, most of them are not open to public consumption due to the unwillingness of the same families to unveil the activities of their distant ancestors who were involved in the slave trade. Those kept in the colonies by the colonial administrators constitute the basis of the National archives of Sub-Saharan Africa.
But they are generally incomplete; having often been mutilated during the period of independence of the portion called “archives dites de souveraineté” which were transferred to the metropolitan countries. Therefore, one has to go to Europe in order to find the answers to numerous questions concerning the colonial period.
National archives of different countries have greatly benefited since independence from collection coming from public administrations and sometimes from benevolent donors. It is compulsory for Government agencies to feed the archives with information on a periodical basis, but this obligation seems not to be respected with the required rigour. In fact, at times archives are knowingly destroyed, when they are not simply put in dustbins they become wrapping paper in the markets.
Collecting information is not the only problem affecting national archives. They are greatly suffering from conservation and access related problems. Few of them have adequate premises for their needs and functions. Several of these are still housed as before, in administrative offices where they use to constitute the essential source of information for colonial civil servants in their daily work.
Besides, these collections have many shortcomings. For example, studies concerning development projects requiring huge financial costs and expertise conducted by consultancy forms and external experts are nowhere to be found. In the event where a project is not immediately implemented, and a new study is required in the following years, it is generally the same documents, updated with little cost, that is provided by consultancy firms demanding considerable amount of money as if the study is being done for the first time.
It is also very rare to come across the results of researches conducted in our countries by foreign team of experts or individual researchers, even though in both cases they have benefited largely from the logistical support and facilities from local research centres or the authorities.
Negligence is another source of loss of administrative documents such as the Registry of births and deaths, not to mention important files that are forever lost in the labyrinthine world of administrative buildings.
One must say that the usefulness of documents as a means of ensuring continuity in the management of public affairs, as well as the notion of conservation, are not rooted in the minds of many public servants. It is therefore frequent that governments, in signing contracts with foreign partners suffered from serious loss due mainly to lack of knowledge on the existing documents in the archives.
The constant reference to basic documentary sources is an absolute necessity for any decision-maker concerned with diligence and efficiency. Therefore particular efforts must be made within training institutions of different types and levels and in the public services in order to instil in everyone the necessity to preserve, classify, and put to good use administrative documents. The same efforts are to be deployed in the constant update of acquired knowledge by means of regular consultation of larger scope dealing with the essential questions pertaining to the development of our countries.
The University of The Gambia, I have no doubt, can play a decisive role in this process.

The book and the National Libraries

If the archival documents constitute an important part of the archival heritage of Sub Saharan Africa, the book is one of the essential sources. Whether this is due to African authors or to non-African authors, books constitute an inexhaustible source of knowledge on Africa and Africans in all domains.
Regarding the early sources of written archival heritage on Sub Saharan Africa, I mentioned the works published in the Arabic language particularly from the tenth to the sixteenth centuries, as well as relationships built through journeys done by Portuguese navigators who visited the Coast of sub-Saharan Africa starting in the year 1444.
During the whole period of the slave trade, and the nineteenth century in particular, with the explorations, preceding the colonial conquest, the publications grew in number, in several European languages, giving precision of paramount importance about the countries, their inhabitants, their cultures, their resources their ways of life, their patterns of government etc. These remained one of the essential bases of the written archival heritage.
The conquest, then the needs of colonisation, led to the emergence of a whole literature, certainly unequal, where geographical studies, historical studies, ethnographical studies, linguistics, anthropological studies, economics, social and political studies etc are included everywhere in Europe. The works of Africanists, of which some of were served to awaken the cultural and political conscience of the first African students who came to Europe in the twentieth century, appeared in all the important libraries of European and U. S. One must mention the interesting publications of the historical and scientific studies committee of AOF (French West Africa) which appeared until the years preceding the Second World War.
To this will be added, after the Second World War, new contributions from researchers from Europe and America, concerned primarily with their own scientific interests and also from African specialists themselves.
The later will become greater in number, bringing precious contribution to enrich the African archival heritage as they developed universities and research institutions.
But the works of many African researchers are still remaining in boxes at universities, mainly due to lack of means of publication.
Publishing is indeed very costly in Sub Saharan Africa and the printing is generally too limited to allow for affordable cost of the final product.
The distribution of books is not well developed. One reads relatively little in Africa for various reasons, which would be too long to analyse here. Many school children had never had in their hands works other than their school textbooks, when they have them, and sometimes a few classical works included in their syllabuses.
This situation is quite alarming because the habit of reading that should be acquired very early is never there. Even though the social environment is not always conducive to reading and sometimes not conducive to intellectual work and if at all illiteracy and poverty are part of the factors that aggravate the situation, there are other causes that are important to be mentioned.
Among these reasons are, in the first place, the total absences in many countries, of a real book and reading policy, whereas everybody is aware that the future of our countries depends on their capacity to acquire the knowledge and the know-how indispensable for their adaptation to the current state of the world. If the level of knowledge of our populations remain as it is, it is to be predicted that poverty, which has caused so much devastation, will not be eradicated sooner, and it will even increase dangerously in the decades to come.
A book policy supposes first of all that publication is favoured as well as distribution of everything that is published in the counties, be it on national, regional and international levels. Without this policy, many African intellectuals are actually being published and will continue to do it unwillingly, in Europe or elsewhere, even for works done in their countries and about their countries.
A book policy supposes also the creation of a cultural environment conducive to the development of reading through joint action by school, family and libraries. It would mean inculcating the love of books, the enjoyment of reading, and the habit of classifying and consulting works and written documents and facilitating book access to a large number of school children. That supposes the multiplication of public reading places and places where books and most essentials documents are well kept. This is far from being achieved.
There are few libraries in our countries, and when they exist, they are not well equipped, or are only open to limited categories of users. But the worst shortcoming in many countries is without doubt the total absence of a real national library.
The National library, one has to insist, remains the vital instrument of any national book and reading policy which wants to be efficient in any one of our countries in Sub Saharan Africa. Thanks to the legal depot policy the National Library can collect the entire archival heritage produced locally, so as to insure a safe and easy access. But it should also enrich constantly this heritage with all the woks published abroad dealing with or of interest to the country, as well as all the works of reference bringing together information in all the domains of knowledge, through a systematic policy of acquisition. Besides, one of its essential roles consist of elaborating and publishing periodically a list of all the works published nationally including publications in the national languages as well as all the works acquired abroad that can contribute to enriching the national documentation.
This requirement is all the more essential, as already mentioned earlier, as an essential part of the publications produced in the countries and about the countries are published and distributed abroad, which enriches, through the legal depot, the archival heritage of the publishing countries, whereas the countries concerned keep hardly any trace of it.
Presently, another major task is incumbent on the National libraries of our countries. That is to serve as centres of co-ordination and of special activities for national networks of libraries, and as a place of inspiration and direction for the national book and reading policies. The National libraries are also privileged instruments to boost regional and international co-operation. They shall favour book, document and information exchanges as well as sharing experiences and establishing inter-connection of national, regional, international documentation networks.


At the end of this brief analysis, one observation emerges: The archival and bibliographical documentary resources about sub-Saharan Africa are numerous and varied. They concern all the domains of knowledge and all the periods from the tenth century to date even if they are larger in number for some periods than the others.
But for the most ancient periods, these resources are written, for the great part, by non-African authors, and they are found in large part, outside the continent.
For this reason, access to Africans has always been difficult. However, these difficulties are no longer insurmountable with the new technologies of reproduction and communication. In future, everything becomes a problem of political will, then the question of equipment of regional and international organisation and co-operation.
The political will is that of the states. If they want to regain an important part of their historical memory, and at the same time to equip themselves with reliable systems of research material, they must acquire the appropriate means. Among those means, figures the organisation of co-operation between them in order to avoid any unnecessary and onerous efforts. Many countries share the same history, so they are interested, in many cases, in the same documentary resources. To that effect, they could associate if not to undertake the acquisition of the resources, but at least to facilitate the access to them.
Another task is incumbent on these states that of promoting a national book and reading policy. We have mentioned some of the more serious shortcomings in this regard in many countries as well as their long-term consequences on development.
We should be sure that today as well as tomorrow, no nation could solve the serious problems of its unavoidable progress without increasing the general level of knowledge of its members. The only way to achieve that is the strengthening of education at all levels and a persevering effort to combat illiteracy, and the ignorance that comes with it.
But to combat illiteracy would serve no purpose if at the same time the training potential at higher level and research and development research were sacrificed.
In this domain, all the countries, large or small in terms of area or population are concerned with the same problems. What matters for each country is above all, the will to be and the ability to face the challenges of a world where without mastery of modern knowledge there is no future for any nation.
To conclude, I would like to wish the Young University of The Gambia, its professors, lecturers and its students all the success they deserve.

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