Damage To Timbuktu’s Antiquities Not As Bad As Originally Thought

Timbuktu, Mali
Earlier this week we reported on the possible destruction of Timbuktu’s collection of medieval manuscripts. Now it turns out those initial reports were exaggerated.

Timbuktu in Mali is a UNESCO World Heritage Site thanks to its many shrines to Muslim saints and its collection of some 300,000 manuscripts dating as far back as the beginning of the 13th century. They’re in several languages and cover everything from the history of the Songhai Empire to medical texts. They’re the biggest collection of texts from west Africa and are immeasurably important in our understanding of the continent’s past.

Sadly, the city got captured by the Islamist group Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith) last April as part of a war against the government. The Islamists enforced a harsh version of Sharia law and destroyed many of the shrines. It was also feared that they had destroyed all the manuscripts.

Now that Timbuktu has been liberated by French and Malian forces, it turns out the damage isn’t as bad as previously reported. Reuters reports that most of the manuscripts were hidden in private homes and secret caches. The people of Timbuktu have had to do this many times in the face of invaders, and so they got together to protect their heritage.

The two libraries that housed tens of thousands of the manuscripts were not significantly damaged. About 2,000 manuscripts are missing. Some were burned and others may have been stolen to be sold on the international antiquities market. Also, it appears that only “dozens” of the more than 300 shrines were destroyed or significantly damaged.

An Agence France-Presse report today states that some manuscripts were smuggled all the way to the capital Bamako in the south, where they were out of reach of the rebels. The furniture in one of the main libraries was looted and there’s a pile of ash on the floor from where the Islamists burnt some of the manuscripts, but the library and collection as a whole are fine.

So it looks like the ancient heritage of Timbuktu has survived another war. Hopefully soon the situation will stabilize and the famous city will once again become a destination for scholars and adventure travelers.

[Photo courtesy Gina Gleeson]

Video Of The Day: Drawing 100 Camels In Mali

Before I watched this video, I only remembered that Bamako was the capital of Mali from playing “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego” as a child. After watching, I know that the people are friendly, the music is lively, and at least 100 people know how to draw a camel. American Phil Paoletta has been on a mission to travel in West Africa and draw camels, in no particular order. For this project, he raised over $1,000 for Malian refugees in Niger displaced from the north of Mali, and taught 100 people in Bamako how to draw camels in 24 hours. Why camels? They are “seductive and elegant animals,” according to Phil, and learning to draw one can only make your life better. Enjoy a few minutes of Malian friendliness, music and a whole lot of humps.

Learn something new about a culture (or dromedary) from a video? Leave us a link in the comments or on our Facebook page for a future Video of the Day, or add photos to the Gadling Flickr pool.

It’s time travel writers stopped stereotyping Africa

Africa, africaPop quiz: where was this photo taken?

OK, the title of this post kind of gives it away, but if I hadn’t written Africa, would you have guessed? It was taken in Dar es Salaam, the capital of Tanzania. This isn’t the view of Africa you generally get from the news or travel publications–a modern city with high rises and new cars. A city that could be pretty much anywhere. That image doesn’t sell.

And that’s the problem.

An editorial by Munir Daya for the Tanzanian newspaper The Citizen recently criticized Western media coverage of Africa, saying it only concentrated on wars, AIDS, corruption, and poverty. Daya forgot to mention white people getting their land stolen. If black people get their land stolen, you won’t hear a peep from the New York Times or the Guardian. If rich white ranchers get their land stolen, well, that’s international news. And look how many more articles there are about the war in Somalia than the peace in Somaliland.

Daya was objecting to an in-flight magazine article about Dar es Salaam that gave only superficial coverage of what the city has to offer and was peppered with statements such as, “Dar es Salaam’s busy streets are bustling with goats, chickens, dust-shrouded safari cars, suit-clad office workers and traders in colourful traditional dress.”

Daya actually lives in the city and says you won’t find many goats and chickens on the streets. But that wouldn’t make good copy, would it?

Travel writing has an inherent bias in favor of the unfamiliar, the dangerous. Some travel writers emphasize the hazards of their journey in order to make themselves look cool, or focus on the traditional and leave out the modern. Lonely Planet Magazine last year did a feature on Mali and talked about the city of Bamako, saying, “Though it is the fastest-growing city in Africa, Bamako seems a sleepy sort of place, lost in a time warp.” On the opposite page was a photo of a street clogged with motorcycle traffic. If Bamako is in a sleepy time warp, where did the motorcycles come from?

I’m not just picking on Lonely Planet; this is a persistant and widespread problem in travel writing and journalism. Writers, and readers, are more interested in guns than concerts, slums rather than classrooms, and huts rather than skyscrapers. In most travel writing, the coverage is simply incomplete. In its worst extremes, it’s a form of racism. Africa’s problems need to be covered, but not to the exclusion of its successes.

As Daya says, “there is more to Africa than famine and genocide.” There are universities, scientific institutes, music, fine cuisine, economic development, and, yes, skyscrapers.

And if you think Dar es Salaam is the exception rather than the rule, check out Skyscrapercity.com’s gallery of African skyscrapers.

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Uncovering the history of African pop music

We love music here at Gadling, and we’re always on the lookout for great new sounds to accompany our travels. Earlier this summer, Aaron posted an interesting feature on Asian music, a frequently overlooked source for some hidden pop gems. But for anyone who’s hungry for some fresh sounds, there’s no greater treasure trove of amazing pop music than the continent of Africa.

When one thinks of Africa, it’s unfortunate that the first associations that come to mind are often famine, civil strife and abject poverty. However, the many regions of Africa are home to rich musical traditions. In addition to their homegrown musical styles, 20th Century African musicians played a pivotal role in the development of Western pop, creating a rich cross-pollination with musical styles ranging from the Blues to Psychedelic Rock to Funk. From the Proto-Blues Gnawa music of Northern Africa, to Funk and Disco-laden rock of 1970’s Nigeria, to the jazzy Mbalax of Senegal, African pop offers us an unmatched depth and breadth of choices for even the most casual listener.

Over the last few years, I’ve stumbled upon some hidden gems that have ignited an obsessive search into the annals of African pop. I’ve unearthed a few of my favorites here – it’s by no means a comprehensive listing, but any music fan will surely want to give these albums a listen. Click below for Gadling’s top African pop music picks and make sure to leave us some of your own favorites in the comments.
Nigeria 70: The Definitive Story of Funky Lagos
The 1970’s were a heady time in Nigeria. Having officially gained its independence from the United Kingdom just 10 years earlier, the citizens of Nigeria were in an optimistic mood, stoked by the country’s booming new oil economy. Naturally, this outpouring of optimism found its way into the country’s music scene, particularly in the capital of Lagos. Building off the wild success of Nigerian music superstars such as Fela Kuti, a range of Nigerian bands began to experiment, combining European and American musical sounds with their own homegrown musical influences.

Nigeria 70 is a three-disc compilation of this definitive period in Nigerian musical history. The funky tracks on this outstanding compilation run the gamut from Jazz to Afrobeat to Proto-Disco. The set also comes packaged with a five hour documentary chronicling the period’s many personalities and groups. If you like music, this is about as essential as it gets.

Chrissy Zebby Tembo – My Ancestors
The 1974 album “My Ancestors” by Zambian guitarist Chrissy Zebby Tembo and his band Ngozi Family is full of catchy hooks and fuzzed out psychedelic guitar solos. What Tembo lacks in proper singing style he more than makes up in personality and the deft musicianship of his guitar and backing band, Ngozi Family. It’s a funky, warm and delightfully carefree record for an artist caught in the midst of considerable violence and political unrest in his 1970’s homeland.


Ali Farka Toure – Self Titled
Perhaps there is no more iconic symbol of the rich history of blues than West African guitarist Ali Farka Toure. Toure, who passed away in 2006, is known as the father of the blues. This unpretentious rice farmer from the West African nation of Mali, frequently cited as the African John Lee Hooker, was strongly influenced by the rich Arabic musical traditions of North Africa. His virtuoso guitar playing is starkly beautiful, mournful and infectiously catchy. Though Ali Farka Toure released a number of albums, including a collaboration with guitar impresario Ry Cooder, his best work is probably his self titled debut. The track “Amandrai,” is from this first album:

Amadou & Mariam – Dimanche a Bamako
This 2005 album, produced by Malian husband and wife Amadou & Mariam, and produced by world music star Manu Chao, catapulted the pair to international superstardom. Despite their recent fame, Amadou & Mariam represent a collaboration that dates back more than 30 years. Perhaps most remarkable is that both musicians are blind – they met at the Bamako Institute for the Young Blind in Mali’s capital, kicking off what would become a lifelong partnership. Encapsulating many of the same Malian blues influences as Ali Farka Toure, Amadou & Mariam’s album Dimance a Bamako manages to be delightfully catchy, exuberant and full of life.