Abdel Kader Haidara carefully picks up one of a dozen small leather-bound books lying on his desk and leafs through the age- weathered pages covered in Arabic calligraphy.
This tiny book is centuries old and one of more than 100,000 manuscripts that can be found on shelves and in boxes in Timbuktu, the ancient Malian city of mud-brick walls nestled between the Niger River and the Sahara Desert.
"The manuscripts are our heritage," says the curator of the Mamma Haidara Manuscript Library, the largest of more than 20 private libraries in the city. "They have been passed from generation to generation. They are the history of Africa, the history of mankind."
But if not for an $8 million donation from South Africa, this history might have been lost forever.
The manuscripts in Arabic and African languages cover almost every conceivable subject from history and medicine to law and human rights, from astronomy and philosophy to conflict resolution and literature. It's a Who's Who of ancient kingdoms. Some are close to a thousand years old, written on paper, tanned gazelle skin, or tree bark, and they provide a rare glimpse into a precolonial African history of intellectual endeavor, historians say.
"It is often thought that there was no writing in Africa but the manuscripts prove otherwise," says Mohamed Gallah Dicko, director- general of the Ahmed Baba Institute, named after Timbuktu's leading 15th-century scholar. "Before and during our colonization there was writing."
The manuscripts are threatened by the desert's harsh environment, by family neglect, and a scarcity of funds for preservation in the world's fifth poorest country. South Africa has stepped in and later this year will complete construction of a new library and research center a few yards from the high, mud walls and minarets of the Sankore Mosque which was, 400 years ago, itself a center of learning with 25,000 students and teachers.
Riason Naidoo, the South African project manager for the new library, says it is important that this is an African initiative. "Normally funding comes in from aid organizations from the West. The difference with this project is that Africans are collaborating to preserve their own heritage for future prosperity. …