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She Travels Sahara to Record History of Caravan Trade

She Travels Sahara to Record History of Caravan Trade

Ghislaine Lydon, the new chair of the African Studies interdepartmental program, will travel to Mauritania in December to collaborate on an article and a documentary film about the last women caravanners in the western Sahara Desert.

By Kevin Matthews
Senior Writer

The city of Fez had more than 100 paper mills by the time the stuff arrived in Europe.

UCLA Today

WHILE TRUCKS CARRY most goods across the Sahara Desert these days, a shrinking number of caravanners on camels, "the ships of the desert," still march their heavy loads between such Saharan cities as Tishit and Taoudenni, as their ancestors did for more than a millennium.

To learn the rich, unwritten histories of these desert traders, historian Ghislaine Lydon has traveled often to remote outposts in the desert to befriend them over cups of green tea and collect historical sources on the history of the caravan trade.

In Arabic, French and local African languages or with the help of translators, she interviewed more than 200 legal scholars, traders and descendants of traders. Some of these West Africans provided her with historical information from past generations, relying on oral traditions and well-tested mnemonic devices.

Ghislaine Lydon

The result of her considerable research in the desert is a 2009 book, "On Trans-Saharan Trails: Islamic Law, Trade Networks, and Cross-Cultural Exchange in Nineteenth-Century Western Africa" (Cambridge University Press). Currently, Lydon is the new chair of UCLA's interdepartmental degree programs in African studies.

One of the things Lydon learned, confirmed on trips to about 35 private desert libraries in Mauritania and Mali, was that Muslim women bankrolled a significant share of the trade.

"I found lots of contracts of women hiring men to do trading on their behalf, whether it was hiring a trade representative who was not related, or whether it was hiring their son or their brother, or … even their husbands," she said. When women hired kin, they retained control of the business by using a standard, commission-free contract.

In December, Lydon and Arita Baaijens, a Dutch author and photographer who explores Egypt and Sudan by camel caravan, will travel to Mauritania to meet up with the only group of West African women, the Masna of Tishit, who participate directly in the desert caravan trade. Both will collaborate on an article and a documentary film about these last women caravanners in the region where Lydon has lived and regularly visits.

The Western Sahara has been a source of fascination for Lydon for a long time, although she spent much of her childhood in Chile, where her father was assigned as a conference organizer for the United Nations.

While attending high school in France, Lydon became best friends with a girl who dreamed of competing in the annual Paris-Dakar cross-continental rally, a cross-desert endurance race for drivers of off-road vehicles. The two saved up money and went to Senegal before college.

Eight years later, they reunited in Mauritania, but in different roles. Lydon was doing dissertation research; her friend was riding in the first of two consecutive motorcycle rallies across the width of the desert.

Lydon's interests were focused in a more scholarly direction.  Her interdisciplinary bachelor's degree from Canada's McGill University was in African studies. "I was reluctant to get into any particular discipline," she said, "because I saw the shortfalls and short-sightedness of many disciplines, from anthropology to economics." She earned a Ph.D. from Michigan State University.

As the new chair of UCLA's interdepartmental degree programs in African studies, Lydon wants to maintain funding for master's students'  language study and travel, and to increase enrollment in the African studies minor.

"It's the most diverse continent in the world. A country like Nigeria has 250 different languages spoken," she said.

Lydon's own contributions to her field are many. She reviews Islamic law and finance over centuries to reassess how some societies developed certain institutions along many dimensions, including women's rights, while others did not. By focusing on women and on a region mistakenly overlooked by some as marginal, she has been able to correct some misconceptions in historical literature.

For example, though little acknowledged among historians, Europeans learned to make writing paper from 10th-century North African Arabs, she said.

"Muslim societies contributed great things, and then suddenly something happened," she said. Their economies began to decline from the 1400s onwards.

These interests have led Lydon to novel explanations — not only for decline, but for some of the Muslim world's achievements. Lydon's ambitious book project currently focuses on the rapid spread of literacy among Muslims. It includes a world history of writing paper made from torn-up, treated rags. Contracts, including those written by caravanners, encouraged the spread of rag paper around and out of Africa. First developed in China, the paper-making process spread to Persia, then on to Cairo, Algeria, Morocco and Spain. The city of Fez, a focus of the forthcoming book, had more than 100 paper mills by the time the stuff arrived in Europe, which until then had relied on scarcer vellum for its literary production.

"Literacy and acquiring literacy was something that was not necessarily motivated by intellectual pursuit, but commercial interest," Lydon said.

African Studies Center