New insight into Africa's history

New insight into Africa's history In 1999 an American historian, John Hunwick, came upon a cache of old documents in a family library in Timbuktu, Mali. The discovery was seminal. It revealed that Africa had a sophisticated literary culture. This went against the grain of historical writing then: Africa's history was thought of as all oral tradition.

Of course, historians had always acknowledged the cosmopolitan character of Egypt. But interior Africa was different matter. Comments like those made by the British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper held sway till even some years back. "Perhaps in the future, there will be some African history to teach. But at present there is none. There is only the history of Europeans in Africa. The rest is darkness,' Roper noted in 1963.

Hunwick's discovery has begun to change such perceptions. "Africa has for too long been stereotyped as the continent of song and dance, where knowledge is only transmitted orally,' Hunwick said at the time of his discovery.After Hunwick's discoveries, the hunt for written testimonies of Africa's past has intensified. Private and public libraries in Mali have already collected 150,000 brittle manuscripts, some of them from the 13th century, and local historians believe these are just a fraction of what lies buried beneath sand.

Most of these documents are in Arabic, but some are in indigenous languages such as Songhai and Hausa, written using Arabic script. These include legal reflections, innovative scientific and medical treatises, and even poetry by women. There is a volume on math, a guide to Andalusian music, even love stories and correspondence between traders plying the trans-Saharan caravan routes.
In Buktu's well Timbuktu was founded in early 12th century by ethnic Tuareg nomads near the northern-most bend of the Niger River. Their caravans took salt from Saharan mines to trade for gold and slaves and transported them along the river from the south. By mid 14th century Timbuktu was part of the Malian empire. According to one belief, the place name is said to come from a Tuareg woman named Buktu who dug a well in the area where the city stands today

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