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From Timbuktu To Washington, D.C.

From Timbuktu To Washington, D.C.
Smithsonian exhibit highlights Mali’s intellectual roots, cultural traditions
By Phaedra Brotherton


An important center of learning where Islamic and West African scholars met and attracted thousands of students around West Africa to come and study, Timbuktu has recently become a major area of academic study. And Washington’s Smithsonian Institution hopes to introduce and educate people about Timbuktu’s rich history and culture during the institution’s 37th annual Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C., which will be held on the National Mall later this month. The Folklife Festival, produced by the Smithsonian’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and co-sponsored by the National Park Service, has become a national and international model of a research-based presentation of contemporary living cultural traditions.

According to the Center, it has brought more than 16,000 musicians, artists, performers, craftspeople, workers, cooks, storytellers and others to the National Mall to demonstrate the skills, knowledge and aesthetics that embody the creative vitality of community-based traditions. In addition to Mali, this year’s festival will explore the living traditional cultures of Scotland and Appalachia.

“Mali is best known for the city of Timbuktu, founded in 1100 as the heart of the trans-Saharan gold and salt trade,” says John W. Franklin, program manager of the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and co-curator of the Mali program, along with Dr. Mary Jo Arnoldi of the National Museum of National History and Samuel Sidibe, director of the National Museum of Mali. “(Timbuktu’s)
famous mosques and universities were destinations for aspiring scholars to study religion, literature, mathematics, law, physics and history.”

Franklin, son of historian Dr. John Hope Franklin, says the Mali exhibit has been in the works since 1998. He says the U.S. ambassador to Mali, David Rawson, and Malian tour operator, Djibril Taboure were looking for a way to increase Mali’s profile in the United States on “a number of levels.”

“First and foremost is the lack of awareness Americans have of specific African countries and on Mali’s existence,” Franklin says. While everyone has heard of Timbuktu, “most don’t know that it is a real place in Mali,” he says. They also don’t realize Mali’s significance in West African history of being a commercial center, particularly in the salt and gold trade between Africa and Europe and Africa and Asia, he says.

“We want to encourage people to consider going to Mali … Particularly because it’s being taught as a subject in our schools in Virginia, Maryland and California as part of the curriculum,” he says. The Smithsonian also is organizing a seminar for teachers to help them learn about Mali.

A major part of the exhibit, “Mali: From Timbuktu to Washington, D.C.,” will include Malian oral traditions. Griots, who sing about the glories of the empires of Mali, Ghana and Songhai, as well as storytellers, who pass their tales from one generation to the next, will be featured. In addition to the country’s history, the festival will highlight the community-based, contemporary culture of Mali through crafts, architecture, music and food.

“Mali has a community-based culture that is learned in the family and neighborhood,” Franklin says. To coincide with the festival, the Library of Congress is organizing an exhibition of some of Mali’s ancient Arabic manuscripts.

A major cotton exporter, Mali is famous for its textiles. Craftspeople will demonstrate how these textiles, including “bogolan” or mudcloth, a cotton mud-dyed with black, brown and blue designs, are created. Craftspeople also will demonstrate textile processes including hand and machine embroidery, and Malian attire will be presented during daily fashion shows. In addition, visitors will be able to have their hair braided and to be decorated with henna. Other crafts on display will include pottery, jewelry, basket making and mat weaving.

The exhibit also highlights Malian architecture. Malian architects and masons will construct Tuareg nomadic tents, Sonrai houses covered with colorful hand-woven mats and a Dogon meeting house or “toguna” on the National Mall. Malian musicians performing a variety of musical styles, as well as famous world music singers, including Ali Farka Toure, Salif Keita and Oumou Sangare also will be featured.

As food is an important part of every culture, visitors will be able to sample Malian grain-based dishes and learn about the role of food in Malian culture. Malians came to the United States during the “slave trade primarily to the region that we purchased as the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 — 200 years ago,” Franklin says. Much of Malian influence can be seen in the ironwork associated with the area, he says. “Malians brought with them knowledge of writing in Arabic, skills of rice cultivation and its preparation, which can be seen in dishes such as gumbo,” Franklin says.

By featuring the history, crafts and music of Mali, the goal is to educate Americans about “the dynamism and richness of a contemporary African society,” Franklin says.

In 1999, Dr. John Hunwick, a professor of religion and history at Northwestern University, found several Arabic manuscripts during a research trip to Timbuktu. His discovery prompted a $1 million grant from the Ford Foundation to establish the Institute for the Study of Islamic Thought in Africa (ISITA), which Northwestern says is the first research center devoted to the study of thought in sub-Saharan Africa. The collection includes treatises, poems, sermons, letters, legal documents, histories and prayers (see Black Issues, May 9, 2002).

“Africa has too long been stereotyped as the continent of song and dance, where knowledge is only transmitted orally,” Hunwick said during ISITA’s opening in 2001. We want to demonstrate that Africans think and write and have done so for centuries.”

The exhibit is funded by several organizations including the Government of Mali, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Africa Society, Friends of Mali and the High Council of Malians in the United States. Nearly 200 Malians will give performances and demonstrations on the National Mall, June 25-29 and July 2-6.

Since 1967, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival has celebrated traditional cultures from across the United States and around the world. Other African countries that have been featured during the annual Folklife Festival have included Ghana, Senegal, Cape Verde and South Africa.

For more information on the Mali exhibit and the Folklife Festival, visit .

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