Daily Nation, Kenya
Monday, October 13, 2003

Aga Khan urges rediscovery of ancient Mali town



The Aga Khan at the weekend retraced the footsteps of scholars and merchants whose journeys across the Sahara once helped establish a major cultural and commercial crossroads in this medieval city.

Walking through the sand-swept alleys of this ancient seat of learning to the 14th century Djingereiber Mosque, the Aga Khan, accompanied by Mali’s Prime Minister Ahmed Mohamed Ag Hamani, spoke of the need for cultural revitalisation to be linked to focused investment in the social sector and carefully planned economic development.

In Mali on an official visit at the invitation of its Government, the spiritual leader of the Shia Ismaili Muslims has, over the past two days, held extensive discussions with President Amadou Toumani Toure and members of his Government on the scope for expanding the Aga Khan Development Network’s presence in the country.

During his visit, the Aga Khan is also expected to visit the fabled city of Djenne, a Unesco-designated World Heritage Site.

The Aga Khan noted that Mali’s considerable cultural and intellectual heritage presented opportunities for long-term development that could also begin to address the country’s more pressing needs.

"The ingenuity and imagination of peoples of the developing world continue, unfortunately, to remain untapped resources," said the Aga Khan in admiration of the mud-brick architecture of the mosques whose changing forms he characterised as "a testimony to the strength of faith and a resolve to adapt to changing realities whilst remaining true to tradition."

There was, he said, an urgent need for the world to acknowledge and "rediscover" these resources.

"Our experience from Aleppo to Zanzibar has taught us that private initiative, properly applied and encouraged, can help revitalise historic cities of the Islamic world, even in resource-poor environments," said the Aga Khan.

"Through interventions ranging from microfinance, skills development, healthcare and sanitation, to investment in high-end tourism and urban development, we have been able to catalyse a process of change which an empowered local population itself will have the capacity to sustain."

Examining manuscripts dating back to the 13th century at the Ahmed Baba Centre, the Aga Khan recalled that visiting scholars from Timbuktu are reported to have lectured at Al Azhar in Egypt, the university founded by the Aga Khan’s ancestor, the Caliph-Imam al-Muizz and one of the most eminent institutions of learning of the day.

Treasures at risk of neglect and worse included, he said, both the physical environment and traditions of tolerance, exchange and hospitality that once made Timbuktu a place where civilisations met and enriched each other.

The Aga Khan, accompanied by Mali’s Minister for Economy and Finance, Mr Bassari Toure and the Minister for Industry and Commerce, Mr Choguel Kokala Maiga, also visited the Embalmali packaging plant and its new health centre.

The enterprise, one of several initiated by the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development, is one of the country’s leading producers of polypropylene woven bags and other synthetic packaging.

The agencies of the Aga Khan Development Network have, for four decades contributed towards an improvement in the quality of life in specific sectors of activity across the West African sub-region.