Humanities

Preserving Pulaar Poetry

A Carolina team documented and cataloged 6,000 pages of fragile Senegalese Islamic manuscripts

Camara sits in front of digitized Pulaar manuscripts

A Carolina team documented and cataloged 6,000 pages of fragile Senegalese Islamic manuscripts

In the summer of 2019, Samba Camara, teaching assistant professor in the Department of African, African American and Diaspora Studies, traveled to his native Senegal with his colleague, teaching associate professor Mohamed Mwamzandi, and University Libraries’ digitization support specialist Kerry Bannen on a project to preserve the Pulaar poetry he grew up with.

The team received a grant in 2019 from the British Library’s Endangered Archives Program to digitize manuscripts by some of the most influential Haalpulaar Islamic scholars of the late 19th and 20th centuries. The team members focused their preservation efforts on Islamic authors affiliated with the West African branch of the Tijaniyya Muslim Brotherhood pioneered by Al Hajj Umar Taal (1796-1864).

Camara said the body of work produced by the Haalpulaar is a bit of an untold story: “It became important to prove that this poetry existed and that it actually predated many of the manuscripts that we boast about in Senegal.”

Many of the manuscripts are fragile. “They were written using either a locally made ink called Daha or in pen, and were more vulnerable to being damaged by water, fire, termites, mold or just wear and tear,” said Mwamzandi.

There was a need to physically preserve the manuscripts, Camara said, but also to catalog these important materials to trace the origins of where they are found and to share information about them more widely.

Collectively, the team digitized 6,000 pages of text, about 3,500 pages from Senegal and 2,500 from Mali. The materials will be archived in three digital repositories — the British Library’s Endangered Archives Program, Carolina’s University Libraries and the West African Research Center in Senegal. The project also received support from the African, African American and Diaspora studies department and the African Studies Center at UNC-Chapel Hill.

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