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Rats, cats, mildew eat at Senegal\'s French West Africa archives

17 kwietnia, 2010

In a dusty government basement in Dakar, the archived history of nearly two centuries of French presence in West Africa is in an advanced state of degradation, a disintegrating record of colonisation. 

Down a spiral staircase, dusty boxes lie on the ground for lack of place on the shelves in the dank, badly-lit store room containing documents declared part of world heritage by UNESCO.

"All the aspects of France\'s colonial policy in French West Africa can be found in the collection of documents in Senegal\'s archives, a rich and unique history going back to 1816," said Babacar Ndiaye, director of Senegal Archives.

These include history of former colonies such as Togo, Mauritania, French Sudan (now Mali), Ivory Coast, Niger, Upper Volta (Burkina Faso), Dahomey (Benin) and Guinea.

Daily reports on France\'s colonial conquests and correspondence between France and some of the great African opponents of colonialism are tucked away in the archives.

These include Behanzin, the 19th century king of Dahomey -- a highly organised and stable kingdom with the best army in West Africa -- who put up a fierce battle against France, eventually becoming the last traditional African kingdom to yield to European colonialism.

There are also details of clashes and correspondence with Samory Toure, head of the Islamic Wassoulou Empire which resisted French rule in the late 1800s -- at one point even seeking British protection, though without success.

"The archives of Senegal contain much information about the colonial and even post-colonial slave trade," said Sokhna Sane of the history department at the University Cheikh Anta Diop (UCAD) in Dakar.

But while awaiting modern digitisation and storage in a new building promised by Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade, the elements are taking their toll.

And, if Senegal does not step up and protect the documents, the archive faces losing its status as a UNESCO "Memory of the World" collection.

"The depot is not air-conditioned. That encourages the development of mould and the climatic variations are harmful to proper conservation of paper and ink stability," Ndiaye explained.

"Openings to the outside mean you sometimes find rats and even cats" in the room, he added.

The collection is complementary to one held in Aix-en-Provence in southern France, which has microfilm of the entire collection, with Dakar holding onto the original documents.

"This collection in Dakar does not belong to Senegal, but to France and the countries of French West Africa," Ndiaye said.

Because of their importance, the collection "was registered in the world history register (in 2000) and was classified as world heritage documents" by UNESCO, according to the organisation\'s office in Dakar.

Jeanne Seck, spokeswoman from UNESCO Dakar, said if the collection was still degrading in a year or two, its status would be reconsidered.

"It is up to the country to preserve it, not us. One of the reasons we acknowledge these archives as a memory of the world is for them to preserve it and if they don\'t within a certain time, we remove it from the list."

According to Ndiaye "frequent handling is also a factor of the deterioration of these documents, a part of which are seriously damaged by the combined effects of humidity due to infiltration of rainwater and heat."

Microfilmed versions have also been stored in Dakar, but an estimated three quarters of them have been destroyed by "vinegar syndrome" -- a chemical process which causes film to deteriorate.

"It is not always easy to read the documents. Some are old, dusty and have torn pages," said history student Dieynaba Barry, who also complains that there is no wireless Internet connection in the 25-place reading room.

"Sometimes there is not enough space," says an American researcher, with an average of 35 researchers a day visiting the files, according to Ndiaye.

In a recent interview with the weekly Afrique Magazine, President Wade said of the Senegal Archives: "You step over files just to walk."

"I decided to build (in Dakar) a building for the archives," he added.

According to Babacar Ndiaye, Wade also hopes to digitise the entire French West Africa collection of archives, a more modern process than microfilming, but a lot more costly.

He has not said when this will be done, or who will finance it.

France did the initial training of archivists and offers one scholarship a year for training in caring for the documents.