Two events – eight years apart – highlight the fragility of human knowledge. The sacking of the great library at Timbuktu in 2012 and the devastating fire at the University of Cape Town last month. Neither event received widespread media coverage in the West, yet both events are pivotal moments in the history of the African diaspora.
It is still not known exactly how many manuscripts were ransacked and destroyed at the ancient library at Timbuktu in 2012. But by the time the siege in Mali was over, Islamic militants that occupied the medieval learning center had destroyed thousands of irreplaceable calligraphed African manuscripts dating back to 1204. There is an actual word for this crime against knowledge, “libricide.” Those manuscripts were not just a part of Mali or even Africa’s historical legacy, for the knowledge contained therein belonged to the family of humanity. While many documents thought lost have since been found, rescued by local residents that smuggled them out, we are less as a people, less as a civilization, because so many other works of African genius went up in flames, forever lost..
On April 18 of this year, another heartbreaking tragedy regarding the great works of Africa occurred. This time the calamity was the unintended result of an act of arson in the mountains. Last month, for 24 hours, a wildfire that started on the slopes of the scenic Table Mountains, backdropping the University of Cape Town campus, damaged and destroyed historic buildings, priceless artifacts, maps, manuscripts, government records and 19th-Century watercolors painted by notable African artists. Swaths of the African Studies monographed collection of published books were ravaged, as well as rare 19th century dictionaries from around the continent and, arguably, the best African archival films collection in the world. It was a dark moment for the Diaspora. University of Cape Town students were evacuated and no lives were lost, but key items of South African history were consigned to the flame. The University has been reduced to asking academics to let them know if they have any photocopies of some of the works in the Special Collection that were probably destroyed. It seems evident that to stop such events from occurring again that it is incumbent upon us, members of the African Diaspora in the west, to protect and digitize the great works of Africa.