Challenges and Potentials: Working with Mandinka Ajami Manuscripts of the Senegambia

By Bala Saho

It is rare to come across such an important research initiative as the NEH Ajami project, in the quest to unearth, preserve, and disseminate African histories and traditions. As a person who has worked for many decades in the area of collecting and preserving oral histories, this could not have come at a better time than now, when African museums, curators, and archivists are struggling to enhance and develop knowledge and strategies of not only what to collect but how to preserve, develop, and disseminate information about the continent’s past, especially regarding its intellectual history.

The NEH Ajami project approaches these problems with a team of academicians and professionals of culture with the aim of showcasing and increasing access to Africa’s intellectual history. The four main languages that are explored within the ambits of this project seek to open opportunities to increase access to Ajami primary sources for further research, collection, and preservation. It is also important how the project gives insight into the technical and practical methods of manuscript digitization, transcription, translation, interpretation, and the ways to tease out scholarly articles, monographs, and documentaries from these manuscripts.

When reflecting on the processes of collecting and translating these Ajami texts, I can say that one of the challenges involved navigating the local etiquettes of “give and take” or “sharing” during the fieldwork. For instance, instead of the manuscript owners viewing us as those who usually come their way to take away their resources without benefits, we made sure that the manuscripts owners were genuinely compensated, while allowing them to retain their original copies and own the rights to the documents we digitized. In fact, what made our work easy was the ability to establish family relations with the communities, giving rise to relationships of mutual respect and responsibility that remain even after the research ended.

One of the greatest challenges that this project revealed, in my view, relates to the preservation and maintenance of these Ajami manuscripts by their owners. In their local settings, we frequently came across documents that were in dire need of maintenance and preservation. It was common to find torn, frail, and faded documents. Also challenging is the way in which some of these materials are preserved, opening them to moisture, dampness, and corrosion. All these elements make the reading of these Ajami manuscripts more difficult, especially if the reader is not familiar with the local language and culture of the manuscript author.

Despite these challenges, the Ajami manuscripts that we worked with revealed a wealth of resources and a heritage of writing that has existed in Africa for ages, if not for centuries. They also allow researchers to develop new perspectives on the histories of these communities, showing, for example, how local knowledge systems are deeply tied up with religious knowledge and cosmologies, and how the knowledge of the local trees and plants impacts traditional healing. In short, the project provides a unique bridge between archival knowledge and lived experience as it brings back the digitized texts of the past to their communities of origin to be read, chanted, and interpreted.

As the Mandinka say, karaŋbaloo niŋ ñaamaato be kiliŋ (“an uneducated person and a mad person are the same”). Hence the urgent need to unearth and preserve our intellectual traditions. 

Professor Bala Saho is a historian of nineteenth and twentieth century West Africa. His book, Contours of Change: Muslim Courts, Women, and Islamic Society in Colonial Bathurst, the Gambia, 1905–1965 (Michigan State University 2018), explores the role of women in the formation of colonial Bathurst, and the evolution of women’s rights in the context of the new qadi court system and the domestic sphere. He is currently working on a second book titled Ritualizing the Womb: The Peril of Childless (Kañeleng) Women in The Gambia.