Current Institutional Affiliation
Doctoral Candidate, History, University of Pennsylvania

Award Information

International Dissertation Research Fellowship 2013
Institutional Affiliation (at time of award):
History, University of Pennsylvania
Preserving Tradition: Archival Experience in the Western Sahel

This project explores the history of reading and writing in the Western Sahel through an historical ethnography of public archives and private libraries in Senegal, Mali and Guinea-Conakry. Beginning with late-19th century manuscript collecting efforts by French colonial administrators, it examines how archivists and Islamic scholars throughout the 20th century have discursively constructed a West African intellectual tradition by physically constructing archives of handwritten Arabic manuscripts. How have these various actors reconciled the seemingly disparate goals of establishing West Africa's regional specificity while acknowledging its membership in the putatively global community of Islam? More concretely, how have they actually gone about assembling a manuscript corpus? By following the passage of manuscripts from private homes to public archives, this project traces the shifting status of textually authorized forms of knowledge in the Western Sahel. Through its attention to archive formation, it examines how a host of readers—scholars and laypeople, Qur'anic school teachers and students, manuscript prospectors and library owners—have engaged with the substantive contents of texts as well as their ritual, aural and material aspects. In seeking to explain how the idea of a locally constructed Islamic textual tradition came to hold special importance in the Western Sahel, it also attempts to reconstruct debates over political and religious authority and appreciate the range of religious practices and political futures that have been envisioned in the region. More broadly, it challenges the tendency to equate African intellectual history with the history of African writing in European languages in order to highlight a ubiquitous but often overlooked dimension of intellectual life on the African continent.