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February 18, 2013

Experts Call for Cultural Action Plan for Mali

by Lisa Bryant

Experts met Monday at the U.N. cultural organization UNESCO in Paris to find ways of preserving Mali's rich cultural heritage, which was threatened recently by Islamists who controlled the north, and destroyed ancient sites in the famous trading town of Timbuktu.

Residents of Timbuktu managed to hide or sneak out thousands of ancient manuscripts during the 10-month period that Islamist militants controlled the northern Malian town.  Some manuscripts were transported in 4x4 vehicles; others were hidden in sacks of rice.

But the Paris-based United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization [UNESCO] said Islamists destroyed hundreds of others, along with nearly a dozen mausoleums and tombs before being driven out of Timbuktu last month.

Monday's meeting aimed to cobble together an action plan to ensure Mali's rich heritage not only is preserved and repaired, but is showcased.  

That's the message of UNESCO officials like Africa unit head, Lazare Eloundou Assomo.

"I think it's UNESCO's responsibility to support the government of Mali in rehabilitating this heritage and reconstructing what will need to be reconstructed, in particular the mausoleums. But this will need a total reassessment as soon as possible," said Assomo.

The texts reflect an amazing trove of knowledge, spanning law, arithmetic, astronomy - even the damaging effects of tobacco. Jean-Michel Djian is a French reporter and author of a book on the manuscripts.

In an interview on France-Info radio, Djian said the manuscripts must not just be saved, but almost must be translated. Written in what is considered Mali's "golden age," the documents dispute Western assumptions that little knowledge of importance was produced in Africa between the 13th and 17th centuries. In fact, Dijan said, the knowledge in the manuscripts was, in his words, absolutely fabulous.

Experts are considering different ways to preserve Mali's heritage, including digitalizing the manuscripts. But in a brief interview with VOA, Mali's Culture Minister Bruno Maiga said the texts must remain in Timbuktu, where residents - and visitors - can cherish them.