30 March 2023
PhD Placement focussing on Manuscripts from West Africa
As a PhD placement student at the British Library, I had the privilege of being part of the Endangered Archives Programme. It allowed me to dive into the rich history and culture of West Africa through its manuscripts, and to play a role in making these unique works accessible to a wider audience. I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with such a talented and supportive team. Initially, I had planned to participate in the PhD placement scheme full-time, but due to unforeseen circumstances, I had to switch to part-time. The team was incredibly supportive and understanding throughout my journey, making the transition smooth and hassle-free.
My initial meetings were with Jody Butterworth (EAP) and Mariam de Haan (Lead Curator Africa), who introduced me to EAP's work in Mali. I was then connected with Sophie Sarin (project holder for the projects in Djenné and Timbuktu) and Saadou Traore (who catalogued the several thousands of manuscripts). I was also introduced to Lucy Hinnie, who trained me on Wikipedia. Through Lucy, I also had the opportunity to attend the University of Edinburgh's "Women in Red" Wikithon online. The aim of this is to highlight and update Wikipedia pages about notable women who were not yet featured on the platform. The idea was also to highlight the rich content of the manuscripts on various pages dedicated to Mali on Wikipedia as well. Whilst this was one of the main aims of the placement, we found out that the Wiki entries would be more suited in the local languages and it was difficult to highlight primary sources on Wikipedia as the encyclopaedic nature of the platform requires context and other reliable published sources talking about the manuscripts. Since this was not the case, we decided to publish a blogpost on the British Library’s website instead.
My PhD placement focused on highlighting digitised manuscripts from West Africa for a West African as well as worldwide audience. Robert Miles, from the EAP team, provided me with the list of “most viewed” manuscripts from Djenné, Senegal and Nigeria, which was helpful in choosing manuscripts to be included in my report. The chosen manuscripts relate to everyday West African Muslim practices such as prayers for getting along with a superior, interpreting dreams, sayings of the Prophet, astronomy, geomancy, prayers for carrying a baby to term and even prayers for cursing the wicked.
Exploring the manuscripts was an exciting adventure. I was fascinated by the different handwriting styles and unique topics exclusive to West Africa. At first, it was challenging as I had to get used to the anomalies in the authors and scribes' writing styles. For instance, most writers of the manuscripts put the dot of the Arabic letter "fa”/ ف ) under the alphabet instead of above it, and the letter "qaaf/ “ق that usually had two dots on top sometimes had one and at other not even one! I found this to be a consistent characteristic in all the manuscripts I studied. Another noticeable characteristic common among all the manuscript was the traditional Muslim opening phrase, Basmalah, which praises Allah and his prophet Muhammad, the equivalent of doxology in Christian practice.
The manuscripts were unique in their own way, and no two were exactly alike. Despite not having page numbers, order of the pages was maintained in some by copying the word of the next page at the bottom of the preceding one. Additionally, some of the text highlighted the name of Allah and Muhammad in red ink. There was also the use of Ajami script, tables and sometimes figures in some manuscripts. For example, "Fā’idat ḍarb al-tis‘at ‘alā al-Shaykh Muḥammad al-Ghazāliy: Esoterics", which I could not decipher due to time constraints and hope that someone else researching the collections will be able to do so in future. I hope that my efforts will help others who are interested in learning about the rich history and literary culture of West Africa.
My report on the manuscripts explored can be found on the EAP website, along with my notes of any anomalies and illegible and ambiguity within the texts. Both these documents will also be added to the Library's digital repository and will hopefully be of interest to future researchers.
Nahida Ahmed is currently undertaking a PhD titled "Sociolinguistic Study of Wakhi in Urban Areas" at SOAS. The EAP team would like to thank Nahida for all her work over the past few months - it has been an absolute joy having her with us.