Archive: June, 2013

A Race Against Time for Timbuktu’s Famed Collections

With Salafist mobs succeeding in toppling and defacing Sufi shrines in Libya last year, it should have come as no surprise Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), imitated these acts while spreading guns and anarchy south. Having failed to hold Timbuktu, AQIM set out to destroy centuries-old manuscripts stored in (mostly) private libraries. While the corpus contains extensive local commentary on Islamic jurisprudence (fikh), it includes other material retrograde elements deem “un-Islamic”.

Through a set of extraordinary events, local custodians of more than 300,000 rare manuscripts (foremost among them Abdelkader Haidara,  who spent decades acquiring and caring for what is perhaps the most significant of the local collections, previously housed in the Mamma-Haidara library),  managed to secret most of the volumes to  Bamako, 700 kilometers away. About half of the manuscripts went by road, and the other half by water, down the Niger River from Timbuktu and across the inland sea to Djenne, where 300 taxis took them the rest of the distance.

Now, the West African intellectual trove faces another threat: the elements. If they are not protected, the manuscripts, many of which are friable, will not withstand the rainy season, which begins in a few weeks. Each volume must be isolated, and individually boxed – at a cost about 30 dollars per book. To cover this, supporting organizations have started a fundraising campaign, seeking relatively modest amounts to stave off the most immediate threat, through boxing/ isolation, application of desiccants, etc.

The Timbuktu trove contains histories and travelers accounts, commentaries on Islamic jurisprudence (fikh), as well as commercial transactions and treatises on medicine, slavery and astrology. The chronicles constitute the main primary sources on the history of Islamic West Africa from the 12th to the 18th century, and debunk the widespread notion that pre-Colonial Africa produced no written sources worthy of mention. The Timbuktu collections yielded significant works by black-African intellectuals– like “Tarikh es-Soudan” (a history of the Songhai empire, written by Abdel Rahman Ibn Abdallah al Saadi in the late 1500s), and Tarikh al-Fattash (“A Seeker’s History”), believed to have been written by Al Hajj Mahmoud Kati in the 1600s, and the Tadhkirat al Nisyan (“Notes to the Obivious”), by an anonymous author. These three works provide a rare and unique perspective on the social and political history of West Africa during this time, including commentary on not only the local pre-colonial dynasties, but also Arab, Tuareg, Jewish and other peoples prior to the Moroccan invasion of the 16th century (backed by the British, who sought to eliminate any potential threat to its interests in the Transatlantic slave trade).

This situation is one among many within the context of the “Arab Spring”, or “Arab Revolutions” that collectively underscore the need for new multilateral/ binational mechanisms to safeguard cultural and human heritage in times of immediate crisis, working with local authorities where possible (before, during and after a crisis) to draw up contingency plans, deploy expert conservationists, and lobby for defensive action; to fill the gaps as the international organizations ramp up to provide longer term solutions. Of course, the direct human cost of hot conflict must be of paramount concern, but addressing these two issues is not mutually exclusive:  collateral cultural losses are often the result of basic neglect, not mis-prioritization of resources. Are we about to lose another major piece of human history, for lack of a few million dollars?

Anti-Killer Apps & The Arab Revolutions

It is not surprising that the power of technology available to support post-conflict humanitarian action vastly surpasses the ability of governments, multilateral organizations and commercial enterprises to deploy it optimally. It is usually the smaller, nimbler, locally-rooted organizations that are usually best able to respond to local crises. Yet by their very nature, these organizations must be discovered and empowered if they are to act on a larger scale. It is here that politics comes into play.

Take ‘medicine and the Arab Spring’: There are a number of regionally-focused medical organizations, projects and technologies that could have a substantial impact in reducing human suffering in the field, and yet are healing at levels far below capacity, mainly because the smaller and the larger organizations are not speaking to one another as optimally as they might. A few examples from personal exposure as Co-Founder of the Avicenna Group, which has been working to boost medical capacity in post conflict regions (Libya, particularly), since 2011.

Mobile Ultrasound in Syria:  Pushed to its Limits

Within the Syria crisis, which has claimed by some estimates more than 100,000 lives, a U.S.-based organization called SAMS, the Syrian-American Medical Society, has spearheaded a series of truly inspiring humanitarian efforts. SAMS’ staff, most of which are senior American physicians, undertake regular, extended tours in country as trauma surgeons and advisors, in the most extreme of conditions.

One new technology in particular has proven hugely useful in the field. The VSCAN, a portable ultrasound scanner manufactured by General Electric, has been a diagnostic boon to the various field medics and hospitals — in ways that the manufacturer probably never envisioned. Indeed, General Electric corporate was unaware until recently that their products were playing such a prominent role in treating Syrian war wounded.

Severe conditions breed innovation, not only in technology, but also process: SAMS purchased 40 both rehabilitated and pared-down VSCANS, transported them to the Turkish-Syrian border and from there, into Syria, where they have saved many lives. The small size, versatile nature and ease of use of the VSCAN often makes it the only diagnostic tool within reach, both literally and in terms of cost (the units start at about 8000 dollars). In the cities of Homs and Aleppo (high-casualty centers for the Syrian opposition), for example, single-digit units are serving populations of 1-2 million.

SAMS is not just putting this technology to use, it took the lead to successfully lobby for an amendment to Anti-Assad sanctions that would allow legal delivery of VSCANs into the battle theatre. SAMS estimates that it needs another 40 of these units to reach the limits of its own capacity to assist.

The current push is to get more VSCANS into Syria, Turkey and Libya, to extend their use with power-enhancing accessories (the field life of device’s batteries is a large constraint). There is an effort underway to bundle VSCANs with expert-made diagnostic videos featuring the VSCAN, and to create detailed logs as to how the VSCANS are being used. The resulting ‘how to’ videos and logs would be made available free of charge to train medics and crisis planners outside of the region in use of the VSCAN and associated tools– all of which would benefit the suffering Syrians, of course, but also future trauma victims worldwide. From the manufacturers’ perspective, it could also be expected to create a much larger commercial market for these tools inside and outside of Syria.

‘1-1-1’ in Benghazi, Libya

Benghazi is a city largely without addresses, and without ambulances. When citizens in this city of 800,000 need urgent assistance, they count on friends and relatives to take them to one of the city’s six hospitals. The capacity of these hospitals varies greatly from week to week, and day to day. God help those heart attack, bombing victims or pregnant mothers with complications if they’re taken to one of those clinics that’s closed.

Benghazi officials tried to address this problem the low-tech way, by erecting a large billboard downtown, on which that day’s ‘open clinics’ are listed. Yet a relatively simple, technology-driven override exists:

A group of graduate students at U.C. Berkeley, assisted by a Bay Area technology firm, spent last semester building a prototype cell-phone-based app that allows the driver or the victim to use his/her GSM phone text a 3-digit number (say 1-1-1), to receive a return text message listing the closest open hospitals — obviating a trip to the “oracle-billboard.” A mapping enhancement developed by StampStreet, may in the near future enable victims to create their own ‘pickup’ addresses and maps, in a city with few valid addresses and little reliable mapping data (try looking up Benghazi on Googlemaps). The main local requirement for all of this is reliable human updating of facility status via independent, secure web connections, and a robust public awareness campaign. Estimates are that hundreds of lives have been lost because of this information breakdown. Undoubtedly many more will be if the situation continues for long.

The above are just two cases in which a small infusion of capital, and a bit more coordination within the local and international communities could have a large impact. There are many more. Every day counts.