THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Endangered archives blog

14 November 2018

Mandinka Ajami and Arabic Manuscripts of Casamance, Senegal

This a wonderful blog written by Eleni Castro, OpenBU & ETD Program Librarian at Boston University as well as Project Technical Lead for EAP1042.

This October we presented a poster entitled, “Digital Preservation of Mandinka Ajami Materials of Senegal” at FORCE2018 (Montreal, Canada), which is an annual conference on making research and scholarship more broadly and openly available. This poster provided a project overview and update on the work we have been doing for EAP 1042 - an international research collaboration between Boston University, the West African Research Center, and local experts in Senegal, which involves visiting manuscript owners in the Casamance region of Senegal to work with them to digitally preserve and make more broadly available manuscripts written in Arabic and Mandinka Ajami (Mandinka using Arabic script) from their personal libraries.

In January 2018, we gave a three day digital preservation workshop at the West African Research Center (WARC) in Dakar, and shortly thereafter went to Ziguinchor to begin our digitisation field work. Overall, the team is spending 15 months 1) interviewing manuscript owners and digitising rare manuscripts from Ziguinchor, Kolda, and Sédhiou, 2) curating and post-processing over 14,000 digital images, and 3) depositing three independent copies at: WARC in Dakar, the British Library, and Boston University’s African Ajami Library on OpenBU. At the time of writing, we have digitised over 10,000 Arabic and Mandinka Ajami manuscript pages (some bilingual).

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Digitisation Workshop team at the West African Research Center in Dakar, Senegal (Jan. 2018)

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Project PI, Dr. Fallou Ngom, looking over manuscripts with manuscript owner, El-hadji Lamine Bayo

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Ibrahima Ngom (photographer) and Ablaye Diakité (local project manager) photographing manuscripts from the Abdou Khadre Cisse collection (Jan. 2018)

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Ibrahima Yaffa interviewing manuscript owner Abdou Khadre Cisse and his brother Cherif Cisse. Filmed by project photographer, Ibrahima Ngom

As we began our digitisation, we noticed that there was a large number of bilingual manuscripts written in both Arabic and Mandinka Ajami, which is very different from the mostly unilingual Wolof Ajami manuscripts digitised in EAP 334. The genres and subject matter found in these works varied widely, from religious to secular topics, such as: astrology, poetry, divination, Islamic education, jurisprudence, Sufism, code of ethics, translations & commentaries of the Quran and Islamic texts from Arabic into Mandinka, stories about Mandinka leaders and important historical figures (including women), records of important local events such as the founding of villages, ancestral traditions, and Mandinka social institutions.

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Manuscript of a long form poem praising the Prophet Muhammad, written in Arabic with marginalia in Arabic and some Mandinka Ajami (Abdou Khadre Cisse Collection)

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Mandinka healing document (Abdou Karim Thiam Collection)

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19th Century watermark found in Biniiboo manuscript (Abdou Khadre Cisse Collection)

Since we are working in remote areas, with non-studio conditions, we encountered some technical issues early on. Finding the right lighting has been an ongoing challenge, since our time in the homes of manuscript owners is precious and limited, and so we have had to work with available light and the help of a macro ring flash. Our camera overheats after +1h of continuous use, but we found that by replacing an extra hot battery with a cooler one, helps us resume digitisation much faster. Since we have a geographically dispersed team, we have setup a communication channel via WhatsApp, and upload files on Google Drive for backup and review as soon as a new collection is being worked on. Internet speeds can be quite slow when sending these large raw image files, but a mobile hotspot modem has helped with internet access while working in the field.

While we will be wrapping up digitisation and curation of these manuscripts by April 2019, there is still more work to be done to help researchers more effectively study and explore these materials. We will be looking into using a IIIF image viewer for scholars to better be able to compare various manuscripts and annotate them. Transcription is a longer term goal, since more unicode work is needed to extend Arabic script characters for African Ajami manuscripts to be full-text searchable in their actual languages.