Timbuktu, Mali, 10 October 2003 - His Highness the Aga Khan, Imam (spiritual leader) of the Shia Ismaili Muslims today 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 Minster 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 Aga Khan has, over the past two days, held extensive discussions with President Amadou Toumani Toure and members of his Government in Bamako 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, as well as Mopti, a trading and administrative centre on the banks of the Niger in a region where more than three-quarters of the population lives below the poverty line and literacy and healthcare indices are amongst the worst in the world.
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. Careful and sensitive investment, in close collaboration with the people who were the custodians of this heritage, was required, he said, to increase its potential for social and economic benefits to the country.
"The ingenuity and imagination of peoples of the developing world continue, unfortunately, to remain untapped resources," said the Aga Khan in admiration of the remarkable 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.
Yesterday, 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, 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. It plays a primary role in supporting the agricultural sector. The Aga Khan's tour included a detailed review of the role that entrepreneurs can play in increasing access for underprivileged communities to primary care in rural and urban areas. The Embalmali health centre, like others established by AKFED on the premises of its industrial plants in Cote d'Ivoire, Burkina Faso and Senegal, is regarded as a model of extension services in the social sector.
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. In addition to pioneering investments in industrial enterprises in the packaging, agroprocessing, infrastructure and aviation sectors, the Network's agencies have been active in recognising architectural excellence and in providing exemplary support services to both urban and rural populations. The Network's West African presence includes operations in Burkina Faso, Cote d'Ivoire, Mali and Senegal.
The Aga Khan continues his visit to Mali.
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Notes: The Aga Khan Development Network is a group of private, non-denominational development agencies and institutions that seek to empower communities and individuals, often in disadvantaged circumstances, to improve living conditions and opportunities in specific regions of Africa and Asia. Active in over 20 countries, the Network's underlying impulse is the ethic of compassion for the vulnerable in society and its agencies and institutions work for the common good of all citizens, regardless of origin, gender or religion.