In secret vaults, caves, and undisclosed locations in the Sahara Desert, the people of Timbuktu have hidden some of the world’s most priceless treasures for generations to come. These people don’t risk their lives to hide gold, gems, or other precious metals, though. No, they’re protecting something much, much more important to the world: books! But why have generations of people in Timbuktu risked their lives to save books?

On this edition of Saturdays Around the World, we’re heading to Timbuktu. Most of us are only barely familiar with this ancient city in Mali. For centuries, though, it was a crossroads of trade, an epicenter for intellectual life, and a place where, for generations, ordinary people have stepped up to become heroes. Let’s find out why.

Image: Men walking with donkeys in front of a building in Kimbuktu

Source: Wikimedia

Why risk your life for a book?

To those of us used to turning to Google to answer a history question, or getting any book we want with a single click, risking your life for a book may seem like a strange idea. The luxury of being able to turn to a textbook or Wikipedia page to learn about the history of your culture or your family isn’t something many people have, particularly those whose cultures and histories have been destroyed or suppressed by war and conquering forces.

For the families that have kept the ancient manuscripts of Timbuktu hidden and saved for centuries, risking their lives to preserve their cultural heritage is, in many ways, a part of who they are.

Century after century, Timbuktu rose as a center of trade, power, and intellectual life, and became the target of conquest as a result. With every takeover, the books and manuscripts holding people’s rich knowledge and history were under threat of destruction. As a result, this knowledge became as treasured to the people as the gold that made its way through Timbuktu.

But surely now, in modern times, we can just collect all of these books and digitize them, right? We can finally add the history of Timbuktu and its surrounding region as it was written by the people that lived there long ago to the world history books? Well, there’s more to that story, too. First, we have to find them.

To help us understand the priceless nature of Timbuktu’s libraries and the countless people that have risked their lives through history for them, we have an incredible video from TED-Ed to get us started!

Via: TED-Ed 1

‌If you want to see more from TED-Ed, go check out their YouTube channel! It’s a really awesome place to learn about history, science, art, and any number of subjects in fun, straightforward, and entertaining ways!

The story goes on

As we know from the video, the struggle to save Timbuktu’s beloved manuscripts is ongoing. The modern “chapter” of this story is really quite remarkable. In 2012, when the city of Timbuktu was taken over by Islamic extremists, the painstakingly preserved libraries of the city were under threat yet again. In the midst of this threat, the librarian Abdel Kader Haidara pulled off a rescue mission to save 350,000 manuscripts from being destroyed forever.

It was an elaborate plan. There were smuggled trunks, safe houses, and river boats loaded in the dead of night that put Abdel and those helping him at great risk.

It’s a truly incredible story that this piece from National Geographic does a beautiful job detailing:

‌To see more from National Geographic go check out their YouTube channel. For decades, National Geographic has been the gold standard for bringing stories across the globe into our homes and their YouTube channel is a treasure trove of knowledge to dive into.

A Conspiracy of Goodness across the Globe!

It is truly amazing what people are capable of in the face of unimaginable circumstances. Suddenly, normal people—like the librarian—become the heroes saving lives and preserving priceless heritage. How often has this happened throughout history? How often are these stories overlooked? 

We call this kind of quiet, but world-changing heroism, The Conspiracy of Goodness. It’s a phrase that was originally used to describe the quiet heroism of entire communities to protect and save Jewish people during WWII.

Abdel Kader Haidara and his co-conspirators in 2012 were certainly a part of this same Conspiracy of Goodness: a quiet, steady wave of progress and goodness that is going on all over the world. In fact, they were part of a legacy of others before them who were a part of their own Conspiracies of Goodness to save Timbuktu’s manuscripts time and time again!

Most of us are already a part of this Conspiracy in our own ways. Are you working toward a future that is brighter for everyone by donating your time, efforts, energy, or even in random acts of kindness? That’s the beauty of the Conspiracy of Goodness: in doing what we can, we support those that are on the frontlines ensuring a better future for us all.

Perhaps it’s time we took a moment to reflect on how we have contributed lately. Maybe even take a moment of gratitude if we have been the beneficiary of those that have.

If you want a few other inspiring examples of the Conspiracy of Goodness, check out this circle!

Stories from the Conspiracy of Goodness

Watch Dr. Lynda's TEDx Talk and explore all of the wonder-full stories she points to in this article playlist!

Read More

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  1. TED-Ed. “The Hidden Treasures of Timbuktu – Elizabeth Cox.” YouTube, 22 Oct. 2020, Accessed 23 Nov. 2020.
  2. National Geographic. “The Timbuktu Job | Explorer.” YouTube, 16 Nov. 2016, Accessed 23 Nov. 2020.

Liesl Ulrich-Verderber

CEO of Ever Widening Circles, Founder of EWCed

Since 2015, Liesl has been a writer, editor, and is now the CEO at Ever Widening Circles. She is a life-long camera-toting traveler, a global story seeker, and an aspiring—but more often root-tripping—outdoor enthusiast. She can be found on Instagram @Liesl.UV