From Timbuktu to Unisa

The Unisa Library has acquired yet two more gems to add to its growing collection of books. The two books, Curing disease & defects: Both apparent and hidden and Qissat Dhul Qurnain: Tale of the Two Horned One, were translated and edited from the original Timbuktu manuscripts from Mali, and were donated to the library by former president Thabo Mbeki.

Prof Zodwa Motsa (RD: Ethiopia) hands over the Timbuktu books donated by former President Thabo Mbeki to Dr Buhle Mbambo Thata (Executive Director: Unisa Library)

Prof Zodwa Motsa (RD: Ethiopia) hands over the Timbuktu books donated by former President Thabo Mbeki to Dr Buhle Mbambo Thata (Executive Director: Unisa Library)

Prof Zodwa Motsa, Regional Director of Unisa in Akaki, Ethiopia, handed over the books to Unisa Library Executive Director Dr Buhle Mbambo-Thata on behalf of the former statesman and champion of African development agendas. Mbeki had taken it upon himself to contribute to the preservation of the Timbuktu manuscripts which hold ancient African knowledge from the world’s first university.

Mbeki shared the books with Motsa in order for them to be added to the Unisa Library and help contribute to African memory and to world memory. Motsa, also passionate about African literature and the Timbuktu project, recently presented a paper on the University of Timbuktu at the Southampton University. In her paper she stated that

“….established in 982 CE, the University of Timbuktu predates the colonial Northern universities by centuries. It had three Masajids (schools) with a clearly outlined university curriculum that was taken over four years of study (Shamil, J 2008).


Walter Rodney explains that:

“In Egypt there was the Al-Azhar University, in Morocco, the University of Fez, and in Mali, the University of Timbuctu—all [giving] testimony to the standard of education achieved in Africa before colonial intrusion. Colonizers did not introduce education into Africa.” (Rodney, Walter, 1983: 60).

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This seminal history of Africa’s knowledge inspired President Thabo Mbeki to set up a project to restore the ancient Timbuktu manuscripts and revive the library which stored the manuscripts during his presidency. The aim was to restore Africa’s ancient knowledge legacies. The University of Timbuktu had an enrolment of 25 000 students from within the continent of Africa in the 12th century AD and was teaching subjects such as geography, mathematics, the sciences, and medicine amongst others, in addition to religious principles.

Shamil Jeppie and his team, who have worked on the Timbuktu project, reveal that:

“…Timbuktu is a repository of history, a living archive which anybody with a concern for African history should be acquainted with. Timbuktu … played an essential role as a centre of scholarship under the Songhay state until the invasion from the rulers of Marrakesh in 1591, and even thereafter it was revived.” (Shamil, Jeppie & Souleymane Bachir Diagne (eds.: 2008).

Mbambo-Thata welcomed the two books and said they would remind readers of the treasures held in this continent. She said that books should be safe spaces to preserve the treasure of knowledge.

*By Natalia Molebatsi