Timbuktu, on the south western edge of the Sahara desert, has an illustrious history as a centre of trade and learning dating back to 13th century. Tens of thousands of manuscripts covering everything from astrology to medicine have been kept in the city over the centuries and families have a tradition of passing down their private libraries through the generation, thus preserving this unique heritage. The Ahmad Baba Institute, named after the 17th century scholar Ahmad Baba al Massufi who lived in the city, has since 1973 been the main central repository of many of the most priceless manuscripts and has been supported by the Library of Congress since 2004 in digitising the body of knowledge for posterity. Its head librarian, Abdel Kader Haidara, knows more than most about what is kept at the Institute. But in April 2012, this patrimony of centuries suddenly faced annihilation with the takeover of the country's North by Islamist and secessionist rebels intent on eradicating anything deemed to be 'un-islamic'. In January 2013, following a concentrated effort by units of the French Army working with the Malian Army to retake the main cities of northern Mali, retreating rebels set fire to the main library of Timbuktu and to the Ahmad Baba Institute. It looked like all was lost. But Abdul Kader Haidara has made provisions for this eventuality.
When insurgents first entered the town, Haidara sourced and bought all the available tin boxes he could find and filled them with books and manuscripts from the library and the institute. Only a few were left in the two institutions to dupe the intruders into thinking that they had found the main body of artefacts. The boxes were quietly distributed among Timbuktu's families to hide in their humble homes, sometimes buried in the sand.
Ami Vitale visited Timbuktu and Gao in Mali in 2007 and met with Abdel Kader Haidara and some of his fellow citizens of this ancient desert city.