This pilot project will survey manuscripts held in some of the libraries of Abéché, the main Saharan centre of Eastern Chad. In 1890 Abéché became the capital of the Sultanate of Waday, which had been the main political entity of the region since its foundation in 1635. After being the epicentre of resistance to French colonialism in the region for a few years, the Sultanate of Waday was defeated in 1917 and Abéché became an important administrative centre of the new administrative entity of Chad, a division of French Equatorial Africa.
The pre-colonial and colonial history of Waday is closely intertwined with that of the neighbouring Sultanates of Darfur and Masalit. Maba agriculturists and Arab nomads were the founders of the Sultanate of Waday. Other peoples who today live across the border of Chad and Sudan were ruled in pre-colonial times by tribal Sultans who periodically shifted their political allegiance. From the early 19th century through the colonial period, Abéché’s fame as an Islamic intellectual centre grew in the region, with the town scholars behind all the most significant stages in the regional development of Islam.
The majority of the manuscripts in Abéché date from the late 19th and 20th centuries and document the religious life of the Muslim scholars of the city as well as the activities of the colonial administrators. It is also very likely that manuscripts dating back to a time prior to the foundation of the city are still located in some of the private libraries of the town.
Notwithstanding its regional importance, the history of the city and of its scholars remains largely under-researched. The manuscripts include poetry, legal treatises, fatwas (answers to specific legal questions), Sufi books, biographical notes, and correspondence.
Several factors contribute to make the manuscripts of Abéché extremely endangered: Climatic conditions of severe dryness for most of the year followed by extreme wet during the short rainy season, are coupled with poor storage conditions. Manuscripts are often simply placed on open shelves with other books, sometimes stored in cardboard boxes, wooden boxes or in traditional leather bags. The general decline of the role of Abéché in contemporary Chadian politico economic networks is also a factor: many of the intellectuals educated in the scholarly families move to the more dynamic capital N’Djamena, displacing or neglecting the family’s library collections. The region is also subject to political instability and vulnerability, with several Chadian rebel groups operating in Eastern Chad.
The project will survey several private libraries and undertake some sample digitisation of approximately 50 manuscripts.