CCI Conference: "The Arts and Crafts of Literacy: Manuscript Cultures in Sub-Saharan Africa" September 5th-6th, 2013

8 Apr 2013 - 14:45

Africa has suffered, and still suffers, from many academic stereotypes. For a long time, it has been deprived of its past by the assumption that there was no history in Africa before the arrival of the Europeans (Hugh R. Trevor-Roper 1963). With the struggle for independence in the 1950s-1960s, historians – both local and foreign – undertook to return to Africa its past. However, they did it by developing an approach that was almost exclusively based on orality (Vansina 1964). During the last two decades, the (re-)discovery of thousands of manuscripts in different regions of the continent has compelled scholars to abandon the equation Africa = orality and legitimately assigned to the continent the status of a civilization of written literacy. This new interest is confirmed by recent publications such as the multi-volume encyclopaedic work The Arabic Literature of Africa (John O. Hunwick et al., 1995-).

Most of the existing studies mainly aim at serving literary and historical purposes, and focus only on the textual dimension of the manuscripts. However, the manuscript is not only ‘intellectual content’. In a recent essay in the collection The Trans-Saharan Book Trade: Manuscript Culture, Arabic Literacy and Intellectual History in Muslim Africa (Krätli & Lydon 2011), Graziano Krätli refers to the “dual nature [of the manuscript]… container and content, medium and message, at one and the same time. This is represented by the difference between embodied and embedded knowledge, the former pertaining specifically to the content – the object of embodiment –, while the latter involves more intimately the container as a material, technological, economic and cultural object”.

This conference accepts the challenge launched by Krätli, and aims at gathering contributions on the different dimensions of the manuscript, i.e. the materials, the technologies, the practices and the communities involved in the production, commercialization, circulation, preservation and consumption. In doing this, the conference follows in the path of the Tombouctou project, which has already built an extended network of collaborations in the continent and beyond, leading to relevant publications likeThe meanings of Timbuktu (Shamil Jeppie & Bashir Diagne 2004). The focus of the conference will be the Islamic manuscripts produced in sub-Saharan Africa, either in Arabic or in local languages written in the Arabic alphabet (‘ajami). With the term “Islamic”, the conference refers to manuscripts “that [were] the product of an intellectual tradition of Islamic learning… Such documentation, to be sure, was not always linked to religious matters. But to the extent that it was usually framed in the language, perspective and calendar of Islam, this knowledge can be qualified as ‘Islamic’ in nature” (Lydon 2004).

While the geographic emphasis will be mainly West Africa, the organizers also want to devote a space for other manuscript cultures of the Continent, inspired by the criteria used in the Encyclopaedia of Manuscript Cultures in Asia and Africa (de Gruyter, forthcoming) to describe the phases of the ‘life-cycle’ of a manuscript.