One hazy morning in 2012 in Bamako, the capital of the west African state of Mali, an ageing Toyota Land Cruiser picked its way to the end of a concrete driveway and pulled out into the busy morning traffic. In its front passenger seat sat a large man in billowing robes and a pillbox prayer cap. He was 47 years old, stood over 6ft tall, and weighed around 14st, and, although a small, French-style moustache balanced jauntily on his upper lip, there was something commanding about his appearance. In his brown eyes lurked a sharp, almost impish intelligence. He was Abdel Kader Haidara, librarian of Timbuktu, and his name would soon become famous around the world.
Haidara was not an indecisive man, but that morning, as his driver piloted the heavy vehicle through the clouds of buzzing Chinese-made motorbikes and beat-up green minibuses that plied the city’s streets, he was caught in an agony of indecision. The car stereo, tuned to Radio France Internationale, spewed alarming updates on the situation in the north, while the cheap mobile phones that were never far from his grasp jangled continually with reports from his contacts in Timbuktu, 600 miles away. The rebels were advancing across the desert, driving government troops and refugees before them. Haidara had known when he left his apartment that driving into this chaos would be dangerous, but now it was beginning to look like a suicide mission.
Responsable is a French noun whose meaning is easy to guess at in English. There were few better words to describe the librarian then than as a responsable for a giant slice of neglected history, the manuscripts of Timbuktu, a collection of handwritten documents so large no one knew quite how many there were, though he himself would put them in the hundreds of thousands. The manuscripts contained some of the most valuable written sources for the so-called golden age of Timbuktu, in the 15th and 16th centuries, and the great Songhay empire of which it was a part. They had been held up as proof of the continent’s vibrant written history. Few had done more to unearth the manuscripts than Haidara. In the months to come, no one would be given more credit for their salvation.
In person, the librarian was an imposing man with a handshake of astonishing softness, a drive-by of a greeting that left a hint of remembered contact, no more. He was well versed in the history and content of the documents, but appeared not so much a scholar as a businessman who controlled his affairs in a variety of languages via his mobile phones, or in person from behind a desk the size of a small boat. He was not the only proprietor of manuscripts in the city, but as the owner of the largest private collection and founder of Savama, an organisation devoted to safeguarding the city’s written heritage, he claimed to represent the bulk of Timbuktu’s manuscript-owning…